Fun while it lasts: but should Bermuda allow cruise ships to keep casinos open while in port here? *MCT Photo
Fun while it lasts: but should Bermuda allow cruise ships to keep casinos open while in port here? *MCT Photo
Rebel MPs have vowed to stand firm against portside gambling even in the face of mounting pressure from cruise lines and Premier Ewart Brown.

Former Premier Alex Scott - one of the leading anti-gambling rebels - said yesterday he would be "very, very surprised" if Dr. Brown managed to force through his gambling bill. Mr. Scott said Dr. Brown's persistence with the legislation - in the face of massive opposition - was only strengthening the resolve of those who are fed up with the Premier's entire political programme.

However, MPs are under increasing pressure to give cruise ship gambling the green light. Last week, the Chamber of Commerce came out in public support of the bill, which would allow ships to open their casinos while in port between 10pm and 6am.

Meanwhile, the office of the Premier is waging a public campaign to get MPs on side; and the cruise lines themselves are insisting the failure of the bill may force them to leave Bermuda for other ports. In a letter to Government, seen yesterday by the Bermuda Sun, Holland America Line said they are "fearful" the company's long-term ambitions in Bermuda could be "in jeopardy" if they are not allowed to open their casinos in port.

Holland America is the only cruise company so far booked in to St. George's for the 2011 season. The letter from the company's president and chief executive officer, Stein Kruse, reads: "The reason we pulled out of Bermuda in the 1980s was low ticket pricing and poor onboard revenue sales, and those basic economics of our business model have not changed.

"If we proceed with the same formula as before I am fearful of the same result and the long-term partnership we envision would be in jeopardy."

The letter goes on to say that the casino issue is not purely about revenue, but also "product appeal": the company wants to give its customers the same option of a casino as they would find "on any Holland America Line ship anywhere in the world."

However, Mr. Scott vowed the cruise ship lobbying would not sway MPs. He said: "When you shift through the arguments of the cruise lines, is it the story of an industry in difficulty in serving Bermuda, or is it the story of an industry that would like to 'further' capitalise on their visits to Bermuda?

"The arguments have merits for the cruise lines, but what do they say to the people of Bermuda?"

Mr. Scott said the number of MPs lined up against the bill is still "significant and sufficient", despite the pressure. "I would be very, very surprised if this measure succeeds," he said. "That would go against all the information I have."

MPs on both sides of the political aisle oppose the bill on three grounds: firstly that it is unfair to allow tourists to gamble when it is illegal for Bermudians; secondly, that it is a step towards casinos onshore; and thirdly that it is a bad move for the island's tourism product.

On the third point, Mr. Scott said: "Allowing gambling is a band aid measure. The short-term gain - if there were any short-term gain - would be nowhere near as tremendous the gain and boost if we were to improve our product. We need to make our portsides more attractive to make visitors want to leave the ships and won't need their casinos.

"I believe if we take the band aid approach then that may be an excuse not to take the real steps towards making Bermuda more attractive to cruise visitors."

Dr. Brown tried to table his bill once before, but withdrew it when it became obvious it would be blocked. MPs from both parties are lining up against the measure, which would be left to a conscience vote. Insiders say he is desperate to get it tabled again before this session of Parliament ends in mid to late summer. Tourism bosses fear any further delay may make cruise ships think twice about their 2012 schedules.

Mr. Scott said the Premier's persistence is turning politicians against him. "There is great opposition to this bill, not just from MPs but from a majority of the populace. The Premier ignoring the strong feeling against it has probably caused some individuals to harden against his stance and his legislative programme."

The Premier declined to comment yesterday.