Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail
Riding the high winds and mountainous seas of a strong weather front, a flotilla of nearly 200 sailboats with more than 2,000 crew on board left Rhode Island a week ago for a 635 nautical mile voyage to one of the most popular sailing destinations – Bermuda.
But this year’s edition of the Newport-to-Bermuda Race was not just a treat for competitors, eager to return to the reef-shrouded jewel of the North Atlantic after the 2020 race was canceled in due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
For Bermudians, the arrival of the fleet taking part in the 52nd edition of one of sailing’s most prestigious international offshore events was a welcome sign that after two years of strict protocols governing visitors, the return of tourism, an economic mainstay, was beginning to see some glimmers of hope.
Dark-and-Stormy rum drinks flowed freely on the docks as boats arrived in the capital Hamilton. The Swizzle Inn pub, a favorite among sailors, was buzzing like the good old days. Throughout the week, restaurants, hotels and shops filled with crews eager to go wild after battling gusty weather to the island affectionately known as Onion Patch.
“It’s a really good sign,” said Mikey Lambe, Jr., a Bermudian who has been driving a taxi for more than 22 years. “We are very happy to have them back. We missed them.
The past two 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 came to a halt 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, have been 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, numbers have plummeted in 2020. Air visitors have fallen by 84%; cruise passengers fell 98% and overall visitor spending fell nearly 89%.
Tourism accounts for almost a third of the island’s gross domestic product, with 85% of vacationers coming from North America. Most of the rest of Bermuda’s economic output comes from international insurance and reinsurance business.
A major regulating factor for visitors during the pandemic has been the island’s healthcare resources. The number of hospitals and medical centers is limited – King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, the largest on the island, 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 suitable for a population of just 65,000 in the event of an outbreak.
Therefore, certain protocols remain in place for visitors. For sailors participating in the race, the process of releasing the belt and shoulder straps was time-consuming and frustrating at times.
Each participant had to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test and vaccination status through an online process to obtain government travel authorization. Then they lined up for hours in Newport before the race started to provide Bermuda immigration officials on site with much of the same documentation.
But the troubles of long queues and duplicate clearance tasks were all forgotten when sailors crossed the finish line off the east end of the island and heard race officials say on ship-to-shore radio: “Welcome to Bermuda.”
For Brook West, a marine services manager from Stamford, Connecticut, who has raced eight races from Newport to Bermuda, the welcome message marked a long-awaited reconnection with Bermuda’s legendary hospitality.
“Being greeted by shop owners and taxi drivers with those warm Bermuda smiles and heartfelt thanks makes the past two years disappear,” he said. “It seems the people of Bermuda are as happy to see us again as we are to be here.”
Steve Minninger, Jr., an investment adviser 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 to find staff willing to work. .
“Our experience has demonstrated an enthusiasm for quality service and care, and told us that Bermudians are grateful for the return of tourism,” he said. “It’s so contrary to what employers are experiencing in the United States, where economic policies in response to the pandemic have created employment disruption and workplace apathy.”
Around the island, there are still remnants of the pandemic. While mask mandates were suspended in the spring, some people are still wearing them, and they are mandatory on buses and at LF Wade International Airport. Most stores, restaurants and hotels have enough hand sanitizer available for visitors.
Mr Lambe estimated that his activity was around 85% of pre-pandemic levels, so there is still room for improvement. He said the return of cruise ships in early May was good news, although they were not operating at full capacity. And activity at the airport is resuming, but has not yet returned to its maximum.
“All of the experience has taught me that I need to save more.” said Mr. Lambe. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore. It was a hard lesson.
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