Bottom line: Ships want to make money while in port here.
Bottom line: Ships want to make money while in port here.
Premier Ewart Brown's cruise ship gambling bill got a major boost yesterday, with the Chamber of Commerce coming out firmly behind the proposal.

The bid to allow ships to open their casinos in port has become the number one political issue, with MPs in favour calling it a referendum on whether St. George's and Hamilton want their cruise ship

industries to survive.

However, rebel PLP MPs have joined the UBP in

arguing that it is morally wrong to allow cruise

passengers to gamble in Bermuda while residents of the island do not enjoy that ­luxury.

The battleground has turned uglier still because some PLP members are said to be standing against the bill as a continuing protest against Dr. Brown's ­leadership. Yesterday the Premier received the good news that the Chamber of Commerce is weighing in on his side. The Chamber said it canvassed its members and found that opinion was "varied and equally passionate on both sides." However, on consideration of the finer details, the Chamber decided to support the bill.

A statement released last night read: "The Chamber is supporting the cruise ship concessions in order for the Ministry [of Tourism] to investigate and capture smaller, niche ships for the City of Hamilton and St. George's moving forward. The Chamber has received submissions from both the Ministry of Tourism and Transportation, and cruise lines themselves, that in order for Bermuda to attract the smaller niche ships (which generally attract a much more affluent and urbane passenger), Bermuda must provide the same opportunities that other cruise ship destinations are doing, as well as offset the disadvantage cruise lines have in only calling for extended stays on Bermuda."

The Chamber goes on to say that it supports the proposals on the understanding that the bill will be used only to entice smaller niche ships to Hamilton and St. George, and that casinos will only be allowed to open only between 10pm and 6am. Dr. Brown has tried to table the bill once before but withdrew after it became obvious he faced defeat. He is now desperate to see it pass before the end of the current session in mid to late summer - after that the bill will have to start afresh, which will be embarrassing with cruise lines paying close attention.

Earlier this week the Bermuda Sun reported that a luxury cruise line - Holland America - had written to Government implying it was reviewing its two-year commitment to berth in St. George's because of politicians failure to pass pro-gambling legislation. It sparked a passionate debate, in which the UBP and PLP rebels were accused of playing politics with the economic future of the two towns.

Weak bargaining

Dr. Brown, in turn, has been accused of putting Bermuda in a weak bargaining position by telling cruise ships Bermuda will soon have softer gambling laws. Dr. Brown is currently off island. His press secretary, Glenn Jones, said of the Chamber's support: "How could they not support it? I think the argument is that if you want cruise ships in Hamilton and St. George's this is the concession we have to make. I hope to see more public support for the measure once people have had a chance to look at the issue analytically. Once you do that, support is an obvious choice."

In recent days, Mr. Jones has faced criticism for claiming the Chamber of Commerce, along with the corporations of Hamilton and St. George's, support the gambling bill, when in fact none of the organizations had made a firm commitment. With the Chamber now on board corporations will be under pressure to commit one way or the other.