February 2021: Budget predicts hard road back for tourism
February meant the Budget for 2021-22 and all eyes trained on Curtis Dickinson, the Minister of Finance, as he unveiled the first pandemic Budget.
The document was short on good news, but there was a promise to get the country back to a Budget surplus by 2023-24.
Tied to that benchmark was the expectation that tourism in Bermuda would return to its pre-pandemic footing, bring much needed revenue to the cash-strapped Government and help revive a devastated hospitality sector.
Mr Dickinson warned that “total visitor air and cruise arrivals fell by historic proportions” in 2020 and that the fightback would be an uphill struggle, an all too accurate prediction.
One tourism-linked millstone around the Government’s neck was the stalled Caroline Bay resort development at Morgan’s Point, where a substantial guarantee had been called in by investors.
The Budget for the new fiscal year showed expenses from Caroline Bay added $5.4 million to debt service costs.
But February opened with welcome news for Mr Dickinson on the tourism front.
The owners of the Fairmont Southampton, Bermuda’s biggest hotel, repaid $11 million to the Government, which had stepped in to cover redundancy payments to hundreds of staff when the resort closed in 2020.
The closure was Bermuda’s biggest ever redundancy, but the bailout of workers – including about 500 Bermudians – came at political cost.
Mr Dickinson came under fire from the Opposition and had to admit in the House of Assembly there was no agreement with Gencom, the hotel’s owners, on how the money would be returned.
But the cash was repaid on February 1, with settlement of a bill for the Government’s legal expenses to follow.
A tourism coup was also hinted to be on the horizon.
Lawrence Scott, the transport minister, said he would bring “groundbreaking news” of a new cruise ship service for the island.
The cruise industry had been an early casualty of the pandemic.
Mr Scott announced the homeporting of ships in Bermuda in March and said it was “exciting news”.
Mr Scott’s hint was followed by an announcement online by hotel chain Marriott that the St Regis Hotel in St George’s had started taking bookings.
A May opening date was announced for the hotel and its Five Forts Golf Course ten days later.
As Bermudians started looking forward to the summer, the first longtails of spring were spotted, and health officials announced an easing of the latest curfew as case numbers fell to their lowest since October – news welcomed by bar and restaurant owners.
Hopes were also raised after the Government unveiled its economic investment certificate policy to kick in on March 1, which allowed non-Bermudians residence if they invested a minimum of $2.5 million in the economy.
The Bermuda Tourism Authority added the digital nomad programme which gave workers from overseas the right to work from the island had been “silver linings in a dark and difficult year”.
Some worried that Bermuda’s strict Covid-19 test regime would be a roadblock on the route to recovery of tourism, concerns that were echoed throughout the year.
But the BTA reported that 98 per cent of travellers said they felt “safe” or “very safe” from Covid-19 while in Bermuda between July and December 2020.
Skyport, the airport operators, announced that British Airways would move flights to the island from London Heathrow instead of its traditional base at Gatwick.