Brian Major | March 19, 2016 4:00 AM ET
Crockwell Departure A Blow To Bermuda Tourism
Bermuda tourism suffered a significant blow this week as Shawn Crockwell, the country’s minister of tourism and transport, resigned following days of public demonstrations against proposed changes to a key Bermuda immigration law.
Crockwell was first elected to Bermuda’s parliament in 2007. A leader of the One Bermuda Alliance political party formed in 2011, he was named tourism minister in 2013.
Crokwell moved immediately to reverse sagging tourist arrivals in Bermuda. The territory’s overnight visitors had suffered a steep decline in the years prior to Crockwell’s appointment. I can recall interviewing him for the first of several times, shortly after his appointment.
As a relatively young, black man he immediately presented a clear contrast to the traditional image of a high-ranking Bermuda tourism official. In some ways his appointment couldn’t have occurred at a better time. After reaching more than 500,000 annual air arrivals in the 1980s, Bermuda’s visitor numbers fell steadily in the subsequent years.
While several factors were behind the arrivals slide, from a lack of new resort development to changing traveler tastes, Bermuda also suffered from a perception that the destination was an old-fashioned, expensive representative of a bygone era of warm-weather vacations, particularly in comparison with emerging warm-weather destinations in the Caribbean. Crockwell personified an era of change in the government’s approach to tourism promotion.
When I spoke with him three years ago, the newly minted minister himself attributed Bermuda’s lagging arrivals to a “lack of continuity” in tourism marketing.
“We had three tourism ministers within the last administration. That is not continuity,” he said. “We want to set up a system that takes politics out of the process and, despite changes in the government, can remain consistent. We also want to create consistent branding for our destination like the Bahamas or Jamaica.”
In the subsequent years I found Crockwell to be a warm, graceful personality and a strong communicator. Despite his background as an attorney and politician, his ideas for returning tourism growth to Bermuda mirrored the approach of a seasoned travel industry executive. “Tourism must be driven by the professionals in the industry,” he told me. “We have to take politics out of the tourism administration and put it in the hands of tourism professionals.”
He backed those words up with decisive action, launching initiatives from the formation of the Bermuda Tourism Authority to a law to permit casino gaming in the territory as a means of attracting new hotel investment.
Most recently Crockwell was the lead minister in an RFP process that identified Venezuelan-based Desarrollos Hotelco as developer of a new St. Regis hotel on the site of a long-shuttered Club Med in St George’s. Groundbreaking is expected this year on the property, which will be the first new major resort in the territory in decades.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Crockwell’s influence came one day after his resignation, when Dunkley’s government withdrew the legislation that led to the civil demonstrations. The protests occurred as Bermuda faces societal issues including an increasing polarization between wealthy and working-class residents.
While the territory is a key player in international financial services and enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, Bermuda is a high-cost nation that has suffered several years of recession. Unemployment among young people is in the double digits.
In rescinding the immigration bill following Crockwell’s resignation, Dunkley seemed to recognize those realities.
“I think it would be important for me to let the people know that we face tremendous challenges and the impact of the economic troubles have gone very deep in our community and specifically the black community,” he said in a Bermuda Royal Gazette interview.
“We have tried to do everything we can to right the ship and create opportunity for everyone across Bermuda,” he said. Dunkley added that OBA in the future will “always listen” and “get the consultation that is required.”
The civic protests have ceased, but the week’s events cost Bermuda its most effective tourism leader in decades. Perhaps Crockwell’s words will prove prophetic when industry observers examine the country’s tourist arrivals in years to come.
“The true test of [the government’s] success in facilitating the industry’s rejuvenation,” he said in 2013, “will be through fulfillment of its platform promises, which were designed so that tourism can achieve the revival the country can be proud of.”
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