Changes to the laws governing the independent Bermuda Tourism Authority could herald a government takeover, an Opposition senator said yesterday.
Marcus Jones added that the Bermuda Tourism Authority Amendment Act may seem “practical and logical to the layman” but was a “red flag” to those in the industry.
Mr Jones, who has worked in hospitality for 25 years, said that general managers of hotels wanted the Government to provide concessions and long-term planning for the sector.
He added: “Once the Government does those two things, get out of the way.”
Mr Jones was worried that the legislative changes were “a move for the minister of the day” to get “closer to the day-to-day operations” of the BTA.
He added: “Is it the start of a full takeover?”
Mr Jones was speaking during a Senate debate on the controversial legislation passed in the House of Assembly last month.
The independent, but taxpayer-funded, BTA’s board members were in the past elected by the board in consultation with the tourism minister.
But the amendment will mean board members will be appointed by the minister after consultation with the board.
A second amendment gave the minister power to appoint a deputy chairman of the BTA.
The deputy chairman would not have to be an existing board member but must have “suitable qualifications and experience in the travel and tourism sectors”.
Mr Jones said that it was important that a “gap” existed between the minister and the BTA board to “remove the appearance of ministerial interference”.
However, Jason Hayward said Mr Jones’s views were a “grandiose exercise in pontification” and insisted the Bill was not about the Government taking control of the tourism industry.
Mr Hayward said: “This is not increasing the powers of a minister — this is simply providing the minister with greater input on the make-up of the BTA board.”
The Progressive Labour Party senator added that the Government was “not trying to play games with tourism”.
Mr Hayward said: “If tourism is doing well, we certainly don’t want to put measures in place that impede the success of the tourism industry.”
He told senators that the BTA was created on the understanding it would in time operate without government funding.
Mr Hayward added: “I’m not sure what happened to the business model, but that is not the case.”
Nick Kempe, Senate leader for the One Bermuda Alliance, said that the idea that the BTA was not self-funding was a “bit of a fallacy”.
Mr Kempe said that money collected through hotel occupancy and cruise ship taxes went to the Government, with a grant later provided to the BTA.
He added: “If those taxes — which are the two primary taxes created by the tourism sector — went directly to the BTA they would have a large overfund each year.”
Mr Kempe said the National Tourism Plan “should trump government policy”.
He added: “I’m struggling to figure out why we’re trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”
James Jardine highlighted the “excellent results” achieved by the BTA.
The independent senator added: “We need to ensure that these positive results continue.
“We need to be careful that moving forward we don’t tinker too much with something that is running well.”
Mr Jardine said that he had examined legislation for 11 other island quangos.
He said that he had “no issue” with the appointment of a deputy chairman by the minister, or with the minister being the only person who can appoint persons to the board after consultation with the board.
Mr Jardine added that since the BTA relied “substantially” on a government grant “the Government must exercise some control over whom it appoints to be responsible for the governance of this key authority”.
He added: “Politics must not play a part here.”
Mr Jardine said that he was prepared to support the Bill, but that he encouraged the Government to conduct a “detailed review” of all quango legislation “to ensure consistency with the governance aspects”.
Crystal Caesar, a PLP senator, said the legislative amendments had “nothing to do with the day-to-day operations” of the BTA.
She added: “This all speaks to how the board and the minister interacts.”
The Bill passed despite objections from OBA senators Mr Jones, Mr Kempe and Dwayne Robinson.