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Fears for tourism over taxi strike

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Business as usual: Taxis lining up outside the airport on Saturday (Photograph by Tia Smith)

The president of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce has hit out at taxi drivers who may have created a bad impression for tourists by withdrawing their labour over the weekend.

John Wight pitched in to help residents minimise disruptions caused by the industrial action, with potential chaos further reduced when minibus drivers dropped their threat to stop working.

However, drivers sent a message of discontent by taking part in a procession around the island, with several taxis displaying signs saying “no rental cars”, in reference to the Motor Car Amendment (No 2) Act, which would allow tourists to rent minicars.

The Bill was put on hold on Thursday by Senator Michael Fahy, the Minister of Tourism, after a storm of complaints from taxi and minibus drivers.

But Leo Simmons, the president of the Bermuda Taxi Owners and Operators Association, insisted the action went ahead anyway because of safety issues.

Reacting, Mr Wight told The Royal Gazette: “At a time when we all need to work collaboratively to strengthen our reputation and encourage more visitors and foreign investment to Bermuda to create jobs for Bermudians, these types of disruptions set us back greatly.

“I was upset to learn on Friday evening that there was disruption to the taxi services, affecting the experience of our guests on the island.

“I contacted several hotels and transported many tourists myself to and from their hotels and the airport Friday evening and Saturday.

“Every guest who I had the pleasure of meeting and assisting had nothing but good things to say about this lovely island and the friendliness of the Bermuda people.

“I was distraught, however, to think that their first or last memories of Bermudians wonderful hospitality might have been that no one cared enough to assist them to make their flights.”

Mr Wight added that in the age of social media, “we have to be especially careful about how we treat the very people who we invite to our island, as good news, and especially bad, travels so quickly and extensively”.

“We need to find a way to deal with these types of issues more effectively. We need to do better, Bermuda.”

Members of the public encouraged motorists via social media to assist when they could.

The Anthem of the Seas arrived in Dockyard on Saturday, carrying 4,853 passengers and the Norwegian Dawn arrived yesterday, with another 2,500 passengers.

However, there were no long queues in the West End on Saturday, with many visitors redirected to the bus and ferry services, and there was no shortage of taxis at L.F. International Airport.

About 30 drivers demonstrated against the plans for minicars outside the House of Assembly on Friday, with talks taking place with Mr Fahy late in the evening. On Saturday, Bermuda Minibus Association president David Burgess and Somers Isles Minibus Association president Kevin Bean said they had decided at an emergency meeting that “no further action was warranted at this time” because the issue had been put off until the House sits again in September.

“Consequently, the minibuses were in service the entire day providing cruise ship visitors and visitors at the L.F. Wade International airport with transportation to various destinations on the island,” their statement said on Saturday evening.

“We look forward to working with the Minister to address our concerns about the proposal to have rental cars in Bermuda.”

One tourist seeking transport from Dockyard on Saturday, Sarah Kramer, from New Jersey, said West End Development Corporation staff had been very helpful and that she did not have to wait long to catch a ride to Horseshoe Bay.

“We were a little bit panicked because we didn’t want to be left behind although there are worse places to be stranded than Bermuda.”

Holly Kanfer and her daughter Billie were also waiting in the taxi and minibus area.

“We’ve been here now for 26 minutes,” Ms Kanfer said. While they were slightly frustrated by the wait, she added that they were used to public transport.

There were no more than 30 people waiting in the taxi and minibus area between 10am and 11am, and there were no long queues at the bus or ferry stop.

Olivia Gracie, who works in Dockyard, said: “Normally the whole area is full of taxis and there are taxis parked out back.

“They may have got lucky with the rain this morning. I was expecting it to be a lot worse.”

Ms Gracie witnessed the procession of about 30 taxis and minibuses that left Dockyard at 9.30am, as about 100 people looked on. She said the vehicles circled around the pier before being moved on by the police.

The procession, which was moving at about 20km/h, continued into the afternoon across the island, passing by the Fairmont Southampton and the Hamilton Princess.

Ms Gracie said minibuses and trains quickly arrived to take people where they wanted to go.

According to minibus driver Darrenn Millett, about three quarters of the usual minibus drivers were on the roads.

“I understand the situation they’re all crying about but economically I can’t afford to take the day off,” he said. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.”

Another driver said that while he supported the action taken by the BTOA, he could not support penalising visitors who had come to Bermuda on a one-day cruise.

But he added that he would have been “downing tools” if the action had been on any other day, stressing that he believed rental cars for tourists would jeopardise the livelihood of taxi drivers.

A minibus driver, who also asked not to be named, said that while he supported the action, the timing was not right. He added: “I’ve got to make money and I don’t think it makes sense striking if it [the Bill] does not go to the House until November.”

He would be out on the roads until the ship left and departed with a bus full of tourists going to Horseshoe Bay. Meanwhile, Mr Simmons defended the action taken by the taxi drivers, saying he wanted to make it “perfectly clear” that they were protesting because they were concerned about the safety implications and environmental effects, and that the Bill could open the door to allowing larger rental cars on the island.

“A lot of people think we are protesting just to protest. It’s not about money, it’s about safety for everyone,” he said. “This Bill will affect the everyday life of locals. We are looking at this not just from a taxi point of view.

“It may affect 10 per cent of our business but we’re looking at the safety generally of our people on the road on a daily basis.

“This is not political. Do we really want people in rental cars? Do we, as a country, really want to open this door?”

Mr Simmons said about 25 drivers took part in the motorcade procession, with another 30 calling him to say they had also withdrawn labour. While no further protests took place on Sunday, the same amount of cars remained off the roads.

“It’s having the desired effect,” Mr Simmons said, adding that they wanted to bring the issue “to the forefront so that people can see what we are doing, that we are making a concerted stand, not just for us but the public as a whole”.

He said the intent was also to make tourists aware of what the Bermuda Government was trying to do and while some locals passing the motorcade had made “obscene gestures”, he said tourists had been supportive, with many saying they would not want to drive here. Others, he said, suggested the drivers start a petition that they would sign.

Mr Fahy yesterday thanked all the drivers who remained on the road, as well as Wedco and Transport Control Department officers for their commitment. “I am looking forward to further discussions and believe we can find a way forward,” he said. “I will be reaching out to industry partners to form a stakeholder group as agreed to iron out a number of issues that I have heard about over the last few weeks in addition to review the Motor Car Amendment (No 2) Act 2016.”

In protest: the taxi motorcade procession around Dockyard on Saturday morning (Photograph by Olivia Gracie)
On the road: the motorcade procession in the East End (Photograph by Tim Smith)
Reacting to crisis: minibuses collecting tourists in Dockyard on Saturday (Photograph by Lisa Simpson)
Driving change: the motorcade procession heading east towards Watford Bridge shortly after 10am on Saturday (Photograph by Lisa Simpson)