In February, Bermuda's government banned same-sex marriage one year after making such partnerships legal. The reversal drew the ire of LGBTQ advocacy groups, threatened two years of surging tourism numbers on the island and prompted Carnival Corp. this month to file an affidavit in support of a lawsuit that challenges the repeal. Kevin Dallas, CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, talked to news editor Johanna Jainchill about the tourism advances and why it is still better to be gay in Bermuda than in much of the Caribbean. Q: The gay marriage repeal comes amid tourism advances and as new hotels (the St. Regis and the Ritz-Carlton) are coming to the island. Now Carnival has joined the fight. How concerned is the Bermuda Tourism Authority?
A: We spoke against the Domestic Partnership Act (DPA) out of concern about how it would be seen. But the situation here is more complicated and nuanced. The last couple of years have seen enormous advancement for our LGBTQ community in its pursuit of equality. Bermuda has anti-discrimination on sexual orientation included in our human rights act. That means that in Bermuda you can't be fired for being gay, which I think puts us ahead of 28 U.S. states. We have same-sex immigration rights, so my partner is able to live and work in Bermuda as my partner. We have same-sex couple adoption. LGBTQ people are free to serve in our military. [Last year's] ruling gave us the label of marriage but didn't automatically extend the benefits of marriage. Many got tangled up in laws describing marriage between a man and a woman. What the government did was really a one step forward, one step back maneuver. The DPA extends all the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, but it takes away the label of marriage. That's a really unhelpful headline in a world of 140-character social media. But the reality is a little more complicated than the headline. Certainly, as a gay Bermudian, I feel really lucky to have been born here versus just about anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Q: What's the experience on the ground for LGBTQ travelers?
A: I would not have moved back here if I wasn't sure that my partner and I were welcome here. Bermuda is effectively a small town, but Bermuda today is not the place I grew up in 30 years ago. If you talk to just about any gay person about the small town they grew up in, they probably remember some things that weren't so great and positively reflect on the way it is now. Are we already there? No. Have we come an enormously long way? Yes.
Q: In 2015, Bermuda began a campaign to revive tourism after years of stagnation. Has it worked?
A: It's an extraordinary comeback story. We've had two years of double-digit growth. Visitor arrivals are up 30%, and visitor spending is up 50%. We went back to the roots of what Bermuda is really about, and that has clearly resonated after 30 years of what I'd call tourism gimmicks. Bermuda is a place that is not very far away, where you can feel immediately at home and where there is a really interesting and mysterious swirl of people and cultures and an attractive way of life. Being authentically ourselves has helped us reconnect with a generation of visitors seeking genuine, experiential travel. It's not our old visitors coming back; it's a new generation. More than 83% of our new visitors are under 45. Younger visitors tell us they want something that is not their parents' vacation stop, and Bermuda skipped a generation: We weren't their parents' destination of choice; we were their grandparents'.
Q: Vacation rentals doubled here last year. How have the hotels reacted?
A: While many jurisdictions restrict or prohibit Airbnb, we actually went the other way and welcomed them. They came to the island and talked about why someone should list on Airbnb and what a good host looks like. Hoteliers would like to see fairness in the tax burden between vacation rentals and hotels. But they recognize what we did: The same visitors on different occasions will want different kinds of experiences. They are not in competition. It can be complementary.