Above: Cruise ship docks along Front Street in Hamilton, Bermuda. (Larry Luxner)
Bermuda, a popular island destination only a few hours by air from the Southeast United States, wants Americans to relax on its white sand beaches, play golf on its carefully manicured golf courses and enjoy its elegant nightlife. Yet the island’s tourism industry remains stagnant, with little or no growth expected this year.
In 2012, total arrivals to this British colony of 60,000 fell to 615,171, nearly 6 percent lower than the year before. Some 73 percent of all visitors come from the United States, 13 percent from Canada, 9 percent from the United Kingdom and the remaining 5 percent from all other countries. The average length of stay has remained relatively consistent at 6.09 nights, according to government statistics.
Air arrivals dropped by 2 percent to 232,063, while cruise arrivals tumbled by 9 percent to 378,262 — mainly due to a reduction of 20 cruise calls compared to 2011, a record year.
Cruise arrivals were expected to fall even further in 2013 due to the withdrawal of service of the Veendam, which docked in Hamilton in 2012.
In mid-January, Bermuda’s historic Fairmont Hamilton Princess — the island’s second-largest hotel — announced it had laid off at least 10 workers. The 400-room hotel, which opened its doors in 1885, was used as an intelligence center by Allied troops during World War II. Among its regular visitors were Mark Twain and Ian Fleming. The hotel is now owned by Bermuda’s Green family, which is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the property, including construction of a new marina facility.
It’s not as if Bermuda needs tourism to keep its economy afloat. According to the CIA Factbook, the Caribbean island — which makes most of its money from offshore international financial services — ranks as the world’s third-wealthiest jurisdiction. Its per-capita GDP of $86,000 places it right behind Qatar ($100,900) and Liechtenstein ($89,400), and ahead of Macau, Luxembourg, Monaco and Singapore.
Nevertheless, seeking to remain competitive in the Caribbean cruise market, Bermuda recently passed a law allowing visiting cruise ships to keep their casinos open while overnighting.
The Cruise Ship Casino Act of 2013, approved Oct. 3, allows on-board casinos to operate between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. — allowing cruise companies to boost their revenues and the Bermuda government, which would collect higher license fees as a result.
But ships must be in port for at least one night to qualify for permission.
“The use of the casino is to be limited to passengers on board the ship only. No local residents or visitors to the ship will be allowed to participate in casino activities,” said Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell in presenting the legislation, adding that the impact on local retailers would be minimal.
“Our research has indicated that the majority of visiting cruise passengers return to their ship by 9 p.m. and, by this time, most of our retail shops are closed,” Crockwell told Bermuda’s Royal Gazette. “However, if the destination provides good products that include good entertainment and amenities that goes beyond the traditional offerings, the passenger will stay ashore to take in the local experience and spend money.”
Smaller ships carrying less than 2,000 passengers and capable of berthing in either Hamilton or St. George’s are exempt from the license fee.
Asked why the government, which was in the opposition four years ago, had opposed a similar measure to allow casinos on cruise ships at that time but supported it now, Crockwell told the newspaper that “in 2009, our competitors were not allowing this in their jurisdictions. That has changed; they now are. We understand our competitors are doing it, so we cannot fall behind.”
Meanwhile, Bermuda has appointed an eight-member board to oversee efforts to rebuild its tourism industry. Crockwell hailed the board — which comprises six locals and two overseas directors — as a “watershed” and “the beginning of a new era.”
One of the new overseas directors, Earl G. Graves Jr., said the island has huge potential to attract African-American tourists — a market that hasn’t been exploited.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I know the African-American market well. I also happen to love Bermuda and have visited several times,” said the president and CEO of Black Enterprise. “To me this is a great opportunity to get on the ground and do more to market and advertise towards this section of the population who have not really viewed Bermuda as a destination before.”
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat and former editor of CubaNews. Born and raised in Miami and based in Bethesda, Md., since 1995, Larry has reported from every country in the Western Hemisphere. His specialty is Latin America and the Middle East, and he’s written more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from National Journal to Saudi Aramco World. Larry also runs an Internet-based stock photo agency at www.luxner.com.