Cruise ships will be allowed to open late-night casinos in port after Cabinet approved a plan aimed at fighting off increasing competition from rival cruise destinations.
The Opposition United Bermuda Party last night attacked the move, which it said had been made without any public consultation and would open the door to gambling on the Island.
Premier and Tourism Minister Ewart Brown announced the decision in the House of Assembly on Friday as one of a number of alterations to cruise ship legislations.
The Premier said ships would now be allowed to open bars and signature shops and “provide full entertainment inclusive of the opening of casinos after 10 p.m. while in port”.
He said cruise lines would in return be required to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to on-Island activities such as the Bermuda Music Festival and Harbour Nights.
Opinion over gambling has long divided the Island, with the AME Church recently condemning the controversial casino ship Niobe Corinthian which came to Bermuda and the Seventh-day Adventist Church hitting out against poker games which were being played in bars.
UBP Leader Kim Swan said in a statement released last night: “The United Bermuda Party is extremely concerned the Brown Government has allowed gambling in Bermuda without any public consultation whatsoever.
“Premier Brown’s statement in the House of Assembly that his Government will allow cruise ship casinos to operate while in port says he would rather bypass than engage the public on the matter.
“All Bermudians should be concerned about such a development, and ask themselves if they prefer not to have any say in Government decisions; particularly ones that may well impact the future. Make no mistake: Dr. Brown’s decision opens the door to gambling in Bermuda.
“Gambling is a highly controversial issue among Bermudians and the public should have been consulted prior to any decision on the matter.
“Dr. Brown’s rationale for the decision could well have provided the basis for a constructive public debate, but it is clear he would prefer to govern by edict than to bother with the views of the people.
“The decision raises legal issues since Bermuda outlaws gaming houses. It also raises the question of double-standards since the Government moved aggressively a few years ago to shut down the use of gaming machines around the Island.”
Then Premier Alex Scott, who vigorously opposes gambling on moral grounds, pushed through legislation to outlaw the Island’s 300-plus gaming machines in 2004.
Pro-gambling groups hoped Mr. Scott’s successor Dr. Brown would bring a more relaxed attitude, and have pointed to the Premier’s participation in overseas poker tournaments, including his much-criticised recent appearance at a gambling tournament at the notorious Los Angeles Playboy Mansion.
Poker games played by hundreds of people in Bermuda’s bars were suspended last year after Police raised concerns they could break gambling laws.
On Friday, Dr. Brown said a review of cruise industry trends concluded that Bermuda was losing its competitive edge attracting cruise ships, especially the smaller premium ships capable of docking in Hamilton and St. George’s.
He blamed this partly on increased competition from other summer destinations such as the Mediterranean and the Baltica and high operating costs in Bermuda.
But he added: “The common practice of prohibiting on-board revenue from shops, professional entertainment and casinos while ships are docked in Bermuda is also contributing to Bermuda’s loss of competitive advantage.
“The combined effect of increased competition and restricting on-board revenue sources has resulted in cruises to Bermuda being substantially less profitable when compared to Europe.”
As well as allowing casinos on cruise ships, Cabinet has also approved a proposal to waive the $14 cabin tax for Hamilton and St. George’s for three years from 2009.
Dr. Brown said Norwegian Cruise Line has committed to pay $150,000 a year to the Bermuda Music Festival and provide entertainers for Harbour Nights in Hamilton, produce an on-Island dining brochure distributed to all its cruise guests, and donate a total of $275,000 to the Bermuda Heritage Museum and St. George’s Foundation.
Negotiations are underway with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.
Describing the deal as a “win-win”, the Premier added: “With this programme we are confident that we will attract the smaller, premium ships to Hamilton and St. George’s which will assist the economy of both ports and provide additional revenue.”
But Mr. Swan responded: “We are not convinced of the Premier’s argument that cruise ship casinos on Front Street will improve Bermuda’s nightlife. It seems to us that the whole idea of keeping cruise ship casinos open is to keep cruise ship passengers on board instead of visiting local night spots.
“We are further concerned that cruise ships are driving public policy and not the people of Bermuda. In the past few years, Dr. Brown has shifted millions of dollars of public money for the development of the Dockyard cruise ship pier, in response to an industry trend and without any public debate.
“In that case, as in this decision on gambling in Bermuda, we are not convinced all options were thoroughly investigated before decisions were made. It appears more and more to us that the Tourism Ministry has become the personal fiefdom of the Premier to manage as he, and he alone, sees fit. Bermuda is bigger than this.”