STATEMENT BY PREMIER DR. THE HONOURABLE D. ORLANDO SMITH, OBE
SIXTH SITTING OF THE FIRST SESSION OF THE THIRD HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
MONDAY, 25TH JANUARY 2016
Madam Speaker, I wish to address this Honourable House on the matter of the interim closure of Rosewood Little Dix Bay Resort.
It is now well reported that Rosewood Little Dix Bay, Virgin Gorda, one of the leading hotel properties in the British Virgin Islands will on May 1, 2016 begin a resort renovation project, the most extensive in its more than 52-year history.
It is also well reported that in order to ensure that the renovation is undertaken with greatest efficiency and to the highest possible standards, the owners of the hotel determined that it will have to be closed for approximately 18 months.
My immediate thoughts when I was informed of this development on the afternoon of Thursday January 14 were for the 330 staffers who will be directly affected by the closure.
I’ve previously expressed my personal compassion and concerns to them in several forums.
But, I want to go on record in this Honourable House to express my profound empathy and that of my entire Government -- to the staffers, their families, community businesses as well as the entire Virgin Gorda Community.
Indeed I am deeply saddened and burdened by the impact of the closure on all of you.
I wish to reiterate that my Government and I remain committed to your economic and social well-being and will support you in every possible way.
I also want to thank these workers for their stalwart contributions to the BVI tourism industry while working at Little Dix Bay, some for close to 50 years.
Madam Speaker, it is evident that since that Thursday, this matter has been one of my highest priorities. I am personally leading all efforts to navigate and mitigate the impact of this significant development.
Immediately after the announcement Madam Speaker, my Ministers and I visited the property to meet with and show support for the affected workers. Subsequently I have lead a delegation of Ministers, the 9th District representative, and Senior Managers from Tourism and Labour Ministries and Departments to meet with the employees of the Hotel.
Our discussions with the staff were very engaging and constructive, and at times extremely candid. We were able to provide answers to many of their questions many of which related to severance, new employment opportunities and government assistance.
Madam Speaker in the midst of this obvious anxious period for the employees and the Territory, I have galvanized my Government into further action. Among other things we have:
· Set up a working group which will be chaired by the Junior Minister for Tourism, Honourable Archibald Christian and which will report directly to me. The Group which will comprise senior managers from the relevant ministries, as well as the Board of Tourism will be responsible for advising me on all aspects of this matter (employment, development, social, fiscal and economic issues) as we seek to manage and mitigate the implications of the interim closure.
· Put in place a “Help Desk” which will provide personal assistance to all affected employees. The desk will be my ‘eyes and ears in the air and feet on the ground’ in Virgin Gorda, serving primarily as liaison between the workers and the Government. It will in conjunction with the Labour Department help to coordinate opportunities that arise for new employment as well as handle other queries and concerns.
· Tasked the Labour and Immigration Departments with ensuring that special assistance is provided to affected employees both in the processing of permits and transfers as well as in immigration time. Each Department is dedicating personnel specifically to handle and support the affected employees.
· Tasked the Labour Ministry with working closely with the management of Little Dix Bay to ensure that all the employees are treated fairly and receive their respective benefits.
· Tasked the Premier’s Office with coordinating the governmental aspects of the renovation project to support the Hotel’s reopening in 18 months’ time.
· Commissioned an economic impact assessment of the Hotel’s closure, in order to be fully aware of the economic impact and to inform our wider strategy for offsetting the impact.
Madam Speaker, in adversity there is opportunity.
This is why it is important that even in this adverse and impactful situation that government and industry work closely together.
For over 50 years, Rosewood Little Dix Bay has been a signature luxury resort that has helped to define the BVI Tourism industry.
It has contributed to significant growth in the number of visitors to our Territory, and has also provided immense benefits for the people who live and work on Virgin Gorda, as well as our economy.
This is the type of mutually beneficial partnership that we expect to continue both through this transition and in the future.
Already you can see from the above measures that we will be working closely with Little Dix to ensure that that the employee related issues are handled fairly and satisfactorily, that new and transitional employment opportunities accrue to the affected workers, and that development plans, approvals, and permissions are progressed expeditiously and in a mutually beneficial way.
Madam Speaker, I must hasten to add that modern day BVI exists in a very competitive world and daily we are called upon in the global marketplace to defend our wicket as we constantly strive to get consumers to purchase the services we sell. Those services Madam Speaker are in two of the most fiercely competitive sectors, financial services and tourism.
For the BVI to stay ahead of the curve, we must ensure that the products and services we position in the global marketplace, from which we earn our livelihood and by extension fuels our economy and our high quality of life, are best in class.
They must be second to none!
We cannot afford to do otherwise. That is why at virtually every meeting of this Honourable House there are multiple pieces of financial services legislation aimed at keeping that sector relevant and on the cutting edge.
Madam Speaker, in the tourism space it is no different. While you will not see legislative changes with the frequency of those in the financial services space, much of what keeps this destination globally competitive in tourism takes place at the accommodations level at our properties, resorts, villas or charter yachts.
It is why for example since early December almost weekly we have seen a large cargo vessel anchor in Road Harbour unloading new yachts for the Moorings fleet, as they strive to maintain and average age of 3-5 years for their fleet.
That is why over the last several years Peter Island Resort has been investing substantial financial resources in its new welcome center and the renovation of its guest rooms.
The same is true for my friend Quito Rhymer who is about to commence a complete rebuild of the Ole Works Inn on Cane Garden Bay as the owners of Maria’s by the Sea did a few years ago.
Madam Speaker it is about being globally competitive. It is about having a product that meets the needs of our visitors. Here the role of government is to be partners in facilitating this process because it helps to keep the destination globally competitive.
For fifty plus years Little Dix Bay Resort has been the flagship property not only on Virgin Gorda by the Territory as a whole and a leading resort regionally. We are all fully aware of its significant contributions to our community over that period in helping us to raise and maintain our standard of living.
Therefore, closing one of the island’s most popular and iconic resorts for this period though impactful, when completed and re-opened is expected to yield significant benefits and opportunity. This is why I view the closure as an interim measure.
I am told that in the resort space the standard for complete renovations is 7- 10 years to reflect changing trends and tastes and to remain competitive. Little Dix will be undergoing its substantial transformation in under 2 years.
The redeveloped and rejuvenated Rosewood Little Dix Bay will be a shot in the arm not only for the property and tourism on Virgin Gorda but also for tourism in the entire territory.
It will mean that throughout the construction phases, job opportunities will arise for the people of Virgin Gorda and that tens of millions of dollars will be injected into the local economy.
It will mean that the property will be well positioned to continue to be a vital player in our tourism for the next 50 years and will provide jobs for Virgin Gordians, and spin off business for restaurants, taxis, car rentals, charters and other businesses providing services to the resort.
In the area of marketing, the destination will also benefit from the global buzz and the huge amount of press that will be generated by the planned redevelopment and the new facilities when completed. This will place the BVI as a destination top of mind over the next 2 years and beyond.
Although I applaud the fact that Little Dix Bay is upgrading its facilities I would reiterate my regret that the Company chose to advise this administration in the way that it did, with such short notice and that there was not more dialogue about the approach they planned to use. As I said from the beginning the welfare of the workers was paramount and will continue to be.
Be that as it may Madam Speaker, the Little Dix scenario is but one property, but from a private sector perspective underscores an important rationale. That is, the need for ensuring the fundamentals that drive and facilitate our tourism industry is right.
For Little Dix Bay, they are undertaking a substantial renovation to ensure that their infrastructure, operations are top in class and thus repositioning themselves as a premier global resort.
This rationale is no different for us a country.
You see, I firmly believe that one has to look beyond your face to see your hand. And Madam, this is what we are doing we are looking beyond, because we must!
So today, I stand grounded and firm on my words, holding fast to my Government’s commitment to build a better Virgin Islands.
To fix Fundamentals such as air access, hotel infrastructure, road infrastructure, sewerage infrastructure, health infrastructure, trained and skilled labour etc. To put us in place so that we can be repositioned as a premier global tourism destination.
This is why my Government almost three weeks ago announced the ‘game changing news to, this year, support direct flights between the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport and the Miami International Airport aboard BVI Airways. Indeed that would help us more competitive in the global market place.
And it is an interim step in our access plan.
The next big step or the next game changer is the extension of the runway at TB Lettsome Airport. We have successfully met the requirements of our medium-term fiscal plan. We have received the support of Her Majesty’s Government to undertake this project.
I expect that we will be moving in earnest on this project by mid-year.
With a larger airport, we expect consequential infrastructural development in the tourism sector; higher participation of BVI businesses in activity outside of the BVI; and ultimately more employment opportunities for our people.
What we must do now is look forward to the next chapter in Little Dix’s life and the resultant positive impacts on the community.
I cannot say it often enough that my Government remains committed and steadfast in protecting and supporting all affected persons during this interim period. We are also steadfast in pursuing our wider initiatives that will not only strengthen the growth of our tourism economy and keep us at the forefront of Caribbean Tourism, but will broaden and deepen our entire economy for the sustainability of our future generations
Madam Speaker, I thank you.