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Rebuild of tourism is gradually gaining steam

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On the up for the Cup: parts of the new Morgan’s Point resort development will be built in time for next year’s America’s Cup

I know the Bermuda Tourism Authority is expressing cautious optimism about its excellent 2016 first quarter tourist arrival figures. I understand why they are cautious — it is just the first quarter, after all, and one doesn’t want to get ahead of oneself.

But I’m an optimist who does not need to be so guarded and, with the freedom to look farther afield, I would urge you to see the BTA figures as part of a much bigger story — one that bodes well for the future of Mr and Mrs Bermuda.

That story is the Government’s remarkable effort to rebuild Bermuda’s tourism industry — a rebuild that is going to make a huge difference in many people’s lives.

That difference is already happening for the construction worker at Pink Beach, the landlord renting to an America’s Cup family or the small business getting a piece of the action at Morgan’s Point.

It’s not fully happening yet — these things take time — but a quick look around reveals big things happening that were nowhere in sight just a few short years ago.

Think about it: Bermuda tourism by the end of 2012 was an industry in terminal decline. As a vacation destination, our profile in traditional American markets — think New York City and Boston — had virtually disappeared.

The number of air visitors, our most important customer, had been declining for years. And tourist properties had been closing at an industry-disappearing rate — our total bed inventory was less than half what it was in 1980.

The only area doing fine was the cruise business, and its numbers masked that we were failing with air visitors, our most import customer.

The first order of business for the new One Bermuda Alliance government was to change the way we ran the tourism business.

With the formation of the BTA, we took tourism out of the hands of government, put it into the hands of people who are good at what they do, and now hold them to account for their performance.

Accountability is the key here. Without it, complacency had thrived and year-to-year declines had become the norm. With it, a new rigour was introduced to the business.

Now let’s consider those first-quarter results: a 13.7 per cent increase in air visitors, with Boston and New York providing most of the boost behind the numbers.

Visitors under the age of 45 represented 83 per cent of this increase. What this says to me is that the BTA is hitting its targets in the big markets — fishing where the fish are; something we forgot to do in past years.

Beyond these promising developments was this little gem: the jump in air arrivals was helped by an astounding 22 per cent increase in the number of airline seats flying to the island. What that says to me — and this may be the most important thing — is that there is a government-supported network of activity working in sync to get the industry firing on all cylinders.

Beyond its push to get more from the airlines, the Government has been working every possible angle to get tourism moving in the right direction.

Gaming will help. It is on the books and will become an important addition to the Bermuda product. I’ve got to give former minister Shawn Crockwell credit here. The OBA had a plan for tourism and he worked very hard under tough circumstances to get the BTA set up and to make gaming legislation a reality.

The Government’s work to promote hotel development and to restore investor confidence in Bermuda has resulted in a cascade of developments that was nowhere to be seen a few short years ago.

Look around.

The Morgan’s Point development, projected to cost $400 million, is under way with the building of a Ritz-Carlton Reserve resort.

A new hotel called The Loren is to open in January 2017 on the site of the former Pink Beach Club.

The Hamilton Princess is in the final phase of its $100 million redevelopment.

The Desarrollos Group is nearing the construction start for a St Regis-managed in St George’s, a development that will help to revive the economy of the Old Towne.

The Ariel Sands redevelopment is in the works, Surf Side Beach Club and Coral Beach and Tennis Club are being renovated and Elbow Beach is planning to renovate its main building.

And then there’s the America’s Cup — a masterstroke really — putting Bermuda back in the global spotlight. It has stirred things up, helping us to move away from the dull, nothing-happening doldrums into which we were sinking. There is a buzz and expectation in the air. We are going to be the talk of the tourism world for a while and once that comes to an end, it will be up to us to keep the buzz going. Given all that is happening, I have every confidence that all Bermudians will be more than up to the task. We are on the cusp of a tourism renaissance and it’s going to mean a great deal to many, many people over time — in jobs and business opportunities and in the pride that comes in showing the world what a beautiful and welcoming place we are lucky enough to call home.

Vic Ball is a government senator and the Junior Minister of Tourism Development and Transportation

Optimistic outlook: Vic Ball (File photograph by Akil Simmons)