From initial misgivings to warm embrace

'Butch' Stewart and Sandals win over Bajan tourism sector

BY DESMOND ALLEN
Executive editor – special assignment
allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 14, 2018

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BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — An intimate dinner at Sandals Barbados resort here on Thursday evening symbolically marked a burying of the hatchet, as the Barbadian tourism community laid out the proverbial red carpet for Gordon “Butch” Stewart and Sandals for their contribution to a resurgence of tourism in the island.

Tourism and International Transportation Minister Richard Sealy thanked Sandals for its part in Barbados achieving a historic 1.5 million visitors — 825,000 from cruise ships and 650,000 stopovers — in 2017.

“I am happy to see that we are one big tourism family. Tourism in Barbados is in a good place right now and Sandals has had a lot to do with that,” Sealy said to applause from the room full of representatives from the top echelons of the industry.

Sandals began operations in the eastern Caribbean island in 2013, in the nick of time, as the bottom fell out of the international business and financial services, the number two biggest contributor to the economy, after revenues plummeted from $356 million in 2007 to $97 million in that year.

The hotel chain last month opened its second hotel — the ultra-chic Sandals Royal Barbados — and plans to begin construction later this year on a third under its Beaches brand.

However, the resort's initial entry to Barbados was anything but warm. Hoteliers gave Sandals the cold shoulder, complaining that it had received lavish tax concessions not offered to local hoteliers.

After first insisting that the concessions could only be given to entities bringing the massive investment that Sandals had brought, the Government relented and offered it to the industry as a whole, an idea Sandals fully supported.

In the relatively short four years, Sandals quickly jumped to the top of the statistical heap, already becoming the single largest foreign exchange earner and largest employer after the Government, a now familiar position in Caribbean islands where it operates.

“Tourism is moving in the right direction,” Sealy told his compatriots at the thank you dinner hosted by Stewart, the Sandals founder and chairman. “We have challenges but we have far more going for us at this time.”

Barbadian business icon Richard Edghill noted the change in how Sandals is regarded, saying: “I can't say enough what Sandals has done for Barbados.”

Chairman of Ocean Hotels group Peter deFreitas said Stewart and Sandals had “done a lot for Barbados, having made a big difference” and had raised the bar for the local hotel sector.

DeFreitas was supported by Ocean's Group General Manager Patricia Affonso-Dass, who paid tribute to Stewart telling him: “We're extremely proud of you and grateful for what you have done for us.”

Responding, Stewart thanked Barbadians for working with him and Sandals to achieve much for the island. He described the country as “uniquely disciplined and highly civil”.

He said the Barbados Tourist Board was one of the easiest to work with and reiterated that the hotel chain would be moving apace to construct the promised Beaches resort, for which ground will be broken later this year.

Stewart on Friday told journalists the Beaches hotel would feature a mix of four-, three-, two- and one-bedroom accommodation, and would easily be the biggest development in Barbados, representing “a new Beaches on steroid”.

He estimated construction would take 32 months and employ at least 1,500 persons. The hotel would provide permanent employment for another 1,500 individuals.

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