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More cruise ship cancellations as businesses slam TA form requirements

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The Norwegian Escape berthed at Dockyard (Image from online)

Norwegian Cruise Line has cut two more cruise calls to Bermuda scheduled for this year over the island’s Covid-19 testing protocols.

The two one-day stops understood to have been struck off are the Norwegian Escape, scheduled to call on Dockyard on November 15, and the Gem, also booked for King’s Wharf on December 20.

The Escape marked the biggest-capacity loss yet in the string of cancelled visits over the protocols — the ship comes with a maximum passenger capacity of 5,218, while the Gem holds up to 2,900.

The news came as the island’s controversial Covid-19 testing policy for visitors came under renewed fire after two cruise lines cancelled trips to the island.

The Royal Gazette revealed yesterday that Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line had pulled the plug on five visits scheduled for October and November because of “Bermuda’s current testing requirements”.

The Government introduced the Travel Authorisation form in July 2020 during the height of the Covid pandemic. Visitors have to take a Covid-19 test just before arrival and submit a form along with a $40 fee.

The Government initially claimed that the procedure was essential to protect the island’s border from the virus.

But a government senator later revealed that the process could not be dropped because it was an essential revenue stream. The Government is expected to earn $22 million in TA form fees this year.

Philip Barnett, president of the Island Restaurant Group, said yesterday that the Government had scored “an own goal” and should scrap testing requirements immediately.

He added that if the purpose of the form was to bring in extra revenue, that could be achieved in other ways.

He said: “The Bermudian businesses that rely on cruise ship business for their rent, mortgage and grocery payments were decimated during Covid.

“The reality is cruise passengers, although spending less than air arrivals, still by their numbers spend a lot in Bermudian businesses.

“One-day callers — the majority of the ships that are understood to have cancelled — are some of the best spenders per day as they get off the boat for the one day they are here.

“We are fighting hard with every other jurisdiction to bring ships here, and the vast majority, if not all, competing jurisdictions have cancelled their testing regimes. If nothing else, all the border testing showed that despite best efforts, new variants got in every time.

“The economic impact of restricted border policies are greater than the potential benefit now that vaccinations are here and widely available.

“If it is a question of income needed to balance budgets and offset the cost of Covid, simply charge a Covid recovery fee and get the dollars in. We can all agree with that.

“But forcing ships to visit other jurisdictions is a terrible own goal. Border testing needs to stop immediately.”

Dunkley keeps up the pressure

Michael Dunkley, a long-time critic of the Travel Authorisation Form, renewed his efforts yesterday to get the policy jettisoned.

Mr Dunkley, the opposition One Bermuda Alliance spokesman on health, accused the Government of “missing the boat”.

He said that the Government had ignored earlier warnings by cruise lines and the travel industry that the process would have a negative impact on tourism for the island.

He said: “In spite of being warned, the PLP barrelled ahead as the rest of the world was loosening up restrictions and opening up to kick-start economies — all of them hit hard by Covid.

“Even Minister of Transport Scott admitted grave concerns publicly.

“Now the reality of the poor decision to retain the TA is being seen and sadly felt by Bermuda as cruise visits are bypassing the island and going other places.

“Due to these cancellations, not only is the Government losing significant dollars in cruise taxes but also local small businesses and Bermudians are losing the opportunity to make revenue.

“How can a responsible government support the TA tax when it is creating a loss of significant tax revenue and hurting opportunity for Bermudians?

“There is no doubt in our view that the TA is also contributing to our current poor airlift and to the weak lift projected over the fall and winter months.

“This will have many ramifications and one could be in the contract with Skyport. Let's hear what the Transport Minister has to say if revenue requirements fall short and the Government makes another payout. Even the best spin doctor would have a hard time blaming the OBA.

“Enough is enough. The TA must end and those elected PLP MPs who do not support the TA, instead of being silent, should stand up, show some fortitude, support the people of Bermuda and call for it to end.

“They are elected to serve and speak for those they represent. Silence is complicit in bad decisions.”

That view was echoed by caterer and restaurateur Peter Jovetic, who said that more businesses were likely to close.

Mr Jovetic, who owns an ice cream parlour at Dockyard, said: “We’ve had two-and-a-half years of no revenue, just bills. Your reserves and savings are gone. And then, just as we start to claw ourselves out of this mire, we’re hit by this impediment.

“If the Government needs revenue, it can just be put into a departure tax and everybody would be happy.

“There are solutions, but I just don’t understand why the Government isn’t looking into those solutions.

Not happy: Peter Jovetic at Alex and Pete's Bermuda Ice Cream Shop in Dockyard (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

“The golden age of travel is over. That started with 9/11 and Covid is ending it. Therefore, to encourage people to come here, we have to make things as simple as possible for them — and the TA Form is not simple.

“I believe that, when winter comes, you are going to see a lot more businesses closing.”

Jaron Cardoz, the manager of Cafe Amici in Dockyard, said: “Tourists are coming here and they’re upset because Bermuda is the only destination in the world where you still have to go through this process.

“It’s obviously harming the cruise companies because they’ve now cancelled some cruises here.

“But cancelling the TA Form now would be too little too late. I’ve looked at the schedule and there aren’t many more cruise ships coming here before winter. It should have been scrapped at the beginning of the year.

“I just hope that they take it out before the start of the next season.”

Yesterday The Royal Gazette e-mailed questions for the attention of Tracy Berkeley, the interim chief executive officer of the Bermuda Tourism Authority. We asked Ms Berkeley if she believed that the TA Form was harming the tourism industry and if she thought it should be abolished.

Similar questions were sent to Lawrence Scott, the Minister for Transport.

Neither Ms Berkeley nor Mr Scott had replied to our questions by press time.

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Published September 15, 2022 at 4:02 pm (Updated September 15, 2022 at 4:19 pm)

More cruise ship cancellations as businesses slam TA form requirements

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