Tourism minister: Bermuda is reversing a 'negative spiral'

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NEW YORK -- Ewart Brown, Bermuda's minister of transport and tourism, told a meeting of the Association of Travel Marketing Executives here last week that the island has "turned a corner" in its marketing and tourism policies and was now ready to regain its place in the sun "by reversing declines of the last two decades."

In a speech that was occasionally acerbic and took repeated swipes at previous policies,  Brown, a physician, said that, after a tourism boom in the 1970s and 1980s, "we rested on our laurels and failed to respond to key indicators."

"Our repeat visitors got old," said Brown, "and their children came only once -- on their honeymoons. There was a sense that you had to 'belong' to travel to Bermuda because we appealed to a single demographic: those with old money.

"Our drive toward exclusivity made travelers feel excluded. Our hotels did not stay sufficiently fresh. We continually failed in attempts to rebrand and fell into a negative spiral."

As an example, the tourism minister said, "When the first cruise ship sailed directly from New York to the Bahamas without stopping in Bermuda, we should have taken notice but didn't."

But changes to the destination, including the entry of a low-fare carrier, a change in message and investment in the island's hotel stock has contributed to what Brown called "our most successful second quarter ever for tourism."

Visitor arrivals up 32%

The latest figures, according to Bermuda tourism sources, show visitor arrivals up 32% through August compared with the same period the previous year. From the critical New York market, air arrivals were up 29% year over year from January through August.

As the number of air arrivals goes up, Brown said that the country will "selectively reduce" the number of cruise ships that call on the island. "We've made no secret of that," he said.

Cruise ships will be steered away from Hamilton in order to "maintain that city's picturesque qualities."

The new cruise hub, which can accommodate megaships, will be at the Royal Naval Dockyard on the tip of the island.

Brown, who is the first official to head a combined transport and tourism ministry, was highly critical of "legacy airlines" for failing to lower "extortionate fares" despite repeated importuning by the Bermuda government.

"Enter JetBlue," said Brown.

After four years of courting the low-fare carrier, the entry of JetBlue into the New York-Bermuda market, he said, has resulted in fares as low as $129 one way, "fares that have been matched by the other carriers."

"Rich people didn't get rich by throwing away good money on a bad deal," Brown said.

As for exclusivity, he said, "That has been a hard image to change, even among locals. Our message now is that if you can afford to come you are welcome, no matter how old your money is."

On the hotel front, the minister said there would be a $1.6 billion investment in the hospitality industry over the next two years, which he called "a validation of our efforts."

He noted that Ritz-Carlton would be opening a hotel in Hamilton and that a Hilton vacation ownership property is taking over the Ariel Sands. He added that serious discussions are under way for St. Regis, Four Seasons and Regent properties.

Also, said Brown, a trend toward smaller properties becoming private residences "has seen a swing back, and now we are getting more applications to open small hotels and resorts."

A younger demographic

Taking a swipe at the Caribbean's all-inclusive resorts, Brown said, "We are not an island of gated resorts. One of the things visitors like is the openness of a visit to Bermuda, the ability to travel around the island freely."

Brown said that Bermuda is aiming "to re-establish ourselves as the place to go for a honeymoon. We will be having our second annual International Love Festival in February."

Details have not been announced, but the first festival last February featured such special events as couples massage classes, champagne receptions and private concerts.

In general, said the minister, the island would aim at a younger demographic, following a long period, said Brown, when "the complaint from younger people was always, 'Borrinnngggg.' "

This past summer, a Movies on the Beach event drew nearly 40,000 people over four nights. Half of the attendees were visitors and half were locals, a proportion "that is our ideal for all of our activities," Brown said.

Other summer festivals included Sandtastic Bermuda, featuring professional sand sculpturing, the Under 19 World Beach Volleyball Championships, the Bermuda Music Festival and the Bermuda Gourmet Getaway.

To contact reporter Harvey Chipkin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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