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Final days of the BTA

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“We regret to announce the death of the Bermuda Tourism Authority in its seventh year of existence”

The funeral director has been engaged, pallbearers chosen, and the obituary has been carefully crafted. The BTA family has requested privacy at this time, so there will be no wake.

You get the idea. The Government has announced that former national security minister and sitting Devonshire MP Wayne Caines will also become the Bermuda Tourism Authority’s new chairman.

And so ends the independent BTA.

Marcus Jones is a One Bermuda Alliance senator and the Opposition Senate spokesman for tourism

There should be no doubt in the minds of the public that this once independent authority, established as an institution empowered with autonomy, will cease to be independent. And Bermuda is worse off for this loss.

We have witnessed over the past few years a steady increase in the number of visitors to our island, an increase in cruise ship visits, a National Tourism Plan that is not subject to the changing visions of revolving tourism ministers. The BTA developed a marketing strategy that has proven flexible and responsive to an ever-changing tourism landscape.

The BTA’s successes, and there have been many, are owing to its autonomous nature. Tourism professionals have been empowered to make independent, executive decisions without being tethered to the cumbersome, bureaucratic trappings of government.

In December 2018, the opposition Senate team fought hard to persuade the Government to reconsider the Bermuda Tourism Authority Amendment Act 2018.

It did not.

The Progressive Labour Party’s amendment stifled the independence of the BTA, giving more powers to the minister to select board members. Before the amendment, the appointment process was independent, with the minister merely being consulted. The PLP wanted the minister to have full powers to choose a chairman and deputy chairman after consulting the board. This was the first sign of illness at the BTA.

In that 2018 Senate debate, I emphasised how the purpose of the BTA was to separate the Minister of Tourism from day-to-day operations to minimise meddling by well-intentioned but ill-informed ministers. Just because a politician may have cruised to every port in the world, or holidayed at international five-star hotels, does not make the minister an expert in the industry.

During the debate, PLP senators insisted the minister would not meddle in the BTA. Yet less than two years later, we see the truth. The Premier, emboldened by his increase in parliamentary seats, runs roughshod over the BTA’s independence, selecting a sitting MP as its new chairman.

BTA board members are paid handsomely for their services; not the mere $50 attendance fee you get for most government boards. A BTA board member gets an annual $20,000 for their expertise and attendance. The chairman makes $20,000 as well.

This is not surprising. The goal was to attract talented, independent professionals who had real experience in tourism. The One Bermuda Alliance created the BTA to take the politics out of tourism, just as the OBA has consistently pressed for an education authority to take the politics out of education.

And it worked. The BTA was a standout success story. So the board fees were money well spent. But this money was not supposed to supplement salaries for those in Parliament — politicians are already paid to serve!

Pay attention, Bermuda. Remember, you read it here first when the Government increases the pay for the BTA board. My prediction is that not only will the chairman get an annual six-figure salary, but expect pay for all board members’ to go up as well so the chairman’s increase does not look so bad.

I have a great deal of respect for the former Cabinet minister, despite his momentary lapses in judgment that cost him his job. Everyone should be given a chance to redeem themselves, as the Bible says. But his personality is not the issue here. Neither is the credibility of MP Kim Swan, who was made a board member, topping up his modest parliamentary salary by another $20,000.

The real issue is that the independence of the BTA is being stripped away. By putting an MP as chairman, an MP answerable to the Premier for advancement, this reveals a disturbing trend by this government. It takes care of its own, regardless of ethics. Look no farther than the Rolfe Commissiong debacle. Do you see what’s going on here? Be afraid, Bermuda. Be very afraid!

If this modus operandi continues to be the normal practice of your PLP government, then Bermuda is in for big trouble.

Political interference will kill the BTA. And the death of the BTA will harm the many Bermudians who depend on a successful tourism industry to survive. Yet the silence of the Government’s back bench is deafening. And their silence makes them complicit in these decisions.

Meanwhile, in lieu of flowers to the family of the late Bermuda Tourism Authority, please send donations to the yet-to-be-created fund for our 750 redundant workers at the Fairmont Southampton resort.

Marcus Jones is a One Bermuda Alliance senator and the Opposition Senate spokesman for tourism

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Published November 12, 2020 at 1:00 pm (Updated November 11, 2020 at 7:36 pm)

Final days of the BTA

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