Opinion: Welcome to Bermuda: the island nation sees a return of tourism


Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

Riding the blustery winds and mountainous seas of a strong weather front, a flotilla of nearly 200 sailboats with more than 2,000 crew members aboard left Rhode Island a week ago on a 635-nautical-mile voyage to one of sailing’s most popular destinations – Bermuda.

But this year’s edition of the bi-annual Newport-to-Bermuda Race wasn’t just a treat for competitors, anxious to get back to the reef-ringed North Atlantic jewel after the 2020 race was cancelled because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

For Bermudians, the arrival of the fleet competing in the 52nd running of one of sailing’s highest profile international offshore events was a welcome hint that after two years of strict protocols governing visitors, the comeback of tourism, an economic mainstay, was starting to see some rays of hope.

The Dark-and-Stormy rum drinks were flowing freely on the docks as the boats arrived in the capital of Hamilton. The Swizzle Inn pub, a favourite among sailors, was buzzing just like old times. Through the week, restaurants, hotels and shops filled up with crews eager to let loose after thrashing through squally weather to the island affectionately known as the Onion Patch.

“It’s a really good sign,” said Mikey Lambe, Jr., a Bermudian who has been driving a taxi cab for more than 22 years. “We are very glad to have them come back. We missed them.”

The past couple of years have been something of a thrash for Mr. Lambe, who has a young family to support. When air travel slowed and cruise-ship visits to the island stopped in 2020, his business all but dried up. He had to sell his small fishing boat to pay some bills.

Bermuda’s pandemic restrictions, among the strictest in the world, were a painful side effect of the virus for islanders – “decimating,” according to the Bermuda Tourism Authority. After a record year of 800,000 leisure visitors in 2019, the numbers plummeted in 2020. Air visitors dropped 84 per cent; cruise visitors dropped 98 per cent, and overall visitor spending declined almost 89 per cent.

Tourism accounts for almost one-third of the island’s gross domestic product – with 85 per cent of vacationers coming from North America. Most of the rest of Bermuda’s economic output comes from international insurance and reinsurance business.

A big regulating factor on visitors during the pandemic has been the island’s health care resources. The number of hospitals and medical centres is limited – the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, the island’s largest, has 300 beds.

The math tells the story. A fleet of more than 2,000 recreational sailors or a cruise ship with several thousand passengers arriving on the island would put enormous strain on medical resources geared to a population of just 65,000 people if there were an outbreak.

As a result, some protocols remain in place for visitors. For sailors competing in the race, the belt-and-suspenders clearance process was time consuming and at times frustrating.

Each entrant was required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test and vaccination status as part of an online process to acquire government travel authorization. Then, they lined up for hours in Newport before the race started to provide Bermudian immigration officials on-site with much of the same documentation.

But the annoyances of long lines and duplicative clearance tasks were all forgotten when the sailors crossed the finish line off the east end of the island and heard race officials say on the ship-to-shore radio: “Welcome to Bermuda.”

For Brook West, a marine-service manager from Stamford, Conn., who has competed in eight Newport-to-Bermuda races, the welcome message marked a much-anticipated reconnection with the legendary Bermudian hospitality.

“Being greeted by the shop owners and taxi drivers with those warm Bermuda smiles and genuine thank yous makes the last two-plus years fade away,” he said. “It seems the residents of Bermuda are as happy to have us back as we are to be here.”

Steve Minninger, Jr., an investment advisor from Connecticut with six races under his keel, was struck by the contrast between the high level of service his family received at the Reefs resort and the struggles many U.S. employers face trying to find staff willing to work.

“Our experience demonstrated an enthusiasm for quality service and care, and told us Bermudians are grateful for the return of tourism,” he said. “It’s so contrary to what employers are experiencing in the U.S., where economic policies in response to the pandemic have created employment dislocations and workplace apathy.”

Around the island, there are still vestiges of the pandemic. While mask mandates were suspended in the spring, some people still wear them, and they are required on buses and at the L.F. Wade International Airport. Most stores, restaurants and hotels have ample supplies of hand sanitizer available for use by visitors.

Mr. Lambe estimated his business is at about 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, so there is still some room for improvement. He said the return of cruise ships in early May was good news, though they are not operating at full capacity. And activity at the airport is picking up, but is not yet back to full strength.

“The whole experience taught me I need to save more.” Mr. Lambe said. “I don’t take anything for granted any more. It was a hard lesson.”

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