‘A singular voice that restores Bermuda tourism’
House of Assembly passes Tourism Authority Act
By Owain Johnston-Barnes, Ceola Wilson and Jonathan Bell
After a marathon debate, Bermuda's legislators last night passed legislation that forms the framework of a new Tourism Authority.
Presenting the bill for debate, Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell stressed the importance of revitalising the Island's tourism industry in order to boost the local economy.
He said that the previous administration had made positive steps, noting the National Tourism Plan, and said that while the Tourism Board was flawed by a lack of autonomy, it was a step in the right direction.
However he said efforts have been hampered by political interference and the steady change of minister, noting that he is the fourth Tourism Minister in as many years.
Mr Crockwell explained that the Tourism Authority Act would dissolve both the Department of Tourism and the Tourism Board and replace it with a single entity with significantly reduced need to seek the approval of the Government or Minister of the day.
“The authority will be managed independently. It will be a modern, leading tourism enterprise,” he said. “It will be dynamic, entrepreneurial and vibrant. The authority will be the singular voice that restores Bermuda as a world class tourist destination.”
Mr Crockwell also addressed public concern about the transition from the Department of Tourism and the Tourism Authority, promising that there would be no mass layoffs.
“Should employees not transfer to the Tourism Authority, employment opportunities will be made available within government ministries and departments,” he said.
“My Ministry is currently and will continue to work closely with the Department of Human Resources and the Bermuda Public Service Union to ensure that the transitional process is inclusive and transparent.
“Our Ministry fully understands and is cognisant of the staff's concerns, apprehensions and anxiety, and we will do our upmost to provide a smooth transition.”
Earlier, Shadow Minister of Tourism Wayne Furbert raised what he termed the age old issue of political interference.
His main bone of contention was that under the new framework, “the Minister has the right to pick the Chairman” and asked the House to consider the implications, most importantly the issue of influence on the part of the Minister of the head of the new board.
Said Mr Furbert: “I don't care if Mickey Mouse picks the other five or six (members), if the Minister picks the Chairman, he plays the tune of the Minister.
“And you're picking them for at least two or three and four years. So for at least two years you (the Minister) control the board because you put them in place. Any Minister knows this.
“That's how it works, not only in the political world, but in the real world out there. If I have control of 51 percent of a board and I call up my Chairman and say we have to have lunch; you understand that.”
He questioned the board's independence.
“Certain functions the Board may want to carry out, cannot be carried out unless the Minister approves it,” Mr Furbert said. “So this independence that we're talking about is now starting to crumble.”
And based under the proposed framework he said there was nothing to stop the board from buying shares in the Reefs with the taxpayers' money.
“The board can buy shares from anyone at anytime. But if the Government is giving the board $29 million or more, we thought it would be appropriate for the Minister to have some say on whether the board have the right to purchase those shares.
“It is checks and balances on accountability, and that's what I'm talking about right now, accountability on whether the board can go ahead and do what they want to do.
“But giving them that responsibility does not bring in tourists,” said Mr Furbert.
“By giving the board the right to invest in and outside of Bermuda does not bring in tourists.
“So these little independent things that we are talking about does not bring in the numbers and increase the product as we thing they should have.”
He also questioned the Minister's assertion that the board will be totally funded in three years.
“The country wants to hear how does that board expect to fund the authority in three years time. They'll be coming to Parliament for the next ten years asking for money, and probably more too,” he said.
But his biggest concern centred around the list of requirements in the advertisement posted this week for potential candidates to become chief executive officer of the new authority.
Mr Furbert asserted on the floor of the House that he “guarantees the successful candidate will not be a Bermudian”.
“Most countries have their own people as CEOs. And what message are we sending our people? We're not smart enough, you'll never reach that standard because we will always find somebody better than you.
“The message that is being sent by the One Bermuda Alliance Government, I'm telling you; it's wrong,” he said.
Undaunted, Mr Crockwell responded: “We will be seeking the best person for this position — and I don't have any problem with that statement.”
He added: “If that person is a Bermudian, then that's even more fantastic.”
The CEO will be put in place by January 1. Mr Crockwell also told MPs the authority's board, which would comprise eight members, didn't have space for statutory members such as the head of the Bermuda Industrial Union to be put in place.
Opposition MPs took strong exception to the authority's power to lease land or make investments under its own power, but Mr Crockwell maintained that the authority was bound by the stipulation that its actions remain within its mission objectives of promoting Bermudian tourism.
Opposition Leader Marc Bean said such powers left the authority with “no accountability whatsoever for the taxpayer funds”.
“This is going to be the noose around the neck of the One Bermuda Alliance,” he told the House.
Under fierce criticism across the aisle of a $5 fee for members of the public to check a register of board members' interests, the fee was dropped.
Mr Crockwell also rebutted criticism from the Progressive Labour Party that the antonymy granted to the board's spending would lead to cronyism.
“It needs to operate like a corporation,” he said. “It will be receiving public funds, and this is the risk involved. But in order to engage in commercial activity, to be swift and agile and get the job done, it has to do that without having to seek approval for everything.”
He added: “I don't anticipate any malfeasance in the Tourism Authority at all.”