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GUEST COLUMN: Sandals edge unfair

Glyne Murray

GUEST COLUMN: Sandals edge unfair

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NO MATTER HOW LONG and hard I have thought about it, I have found it impossible to understand, far less accept, the apparent indecent haste with which the Government seems intent on prostrating itself before the altar of Jamaican hotelier Gordon “Butch” Stewart and his Sandals and Beaches brands.
That’s because of the information and comments coming from Government thus far, especially in relation to its hell-bent, logically and rationally unsatisfactory and unconvincing intention of placing the sprawling and highly desirable seaside Almond property at Heywoods, St Peter, under the control of Stewart, without even giving interested local parties a chance at managing this prime property.
This disquiet has been fomented by Tourism Minister Richard Sealy’s praise, in a recent House of Assembly debate on revamping the Barbados Tourism Authority, of the interim management of Almond by the team of Barbadian hotelier Bernie Weatherhead as “very impressive”. He also voluntarily disclosed that Government had entered a “non-binding” memorandum of understanding  (MOU) with the Stewart operations regarding the future of the Almonds site as a Beaches entity.
However, days later Sealy was stressing that in spite of Weatherhead’s “best efforts”, it was still Government’s “intention for the time being” to remain committed to Sandals and Beaches and had started discussions with the brand regarding the Almond property for the next year. Then quite surprisingly and puzzlingly, Sealy said that, “because it has value”, he was looking at the possibility of taking the Almond brand to other properties in Barbados.  
The obvious $6 million-dollar (the sum Government paid Neal and Massy for the Almond brand) questions must therefore be, how can Government speculate that Almond would have value at other Barbadian properties and not recognise that its worth has already been proven at the Heywoods site from which its reputation sprang? The enduring drawing power of Heywoods has, according to Weatherhead, been further demonstrated by the “shockingly” strong response of tour operators and former guests that since January 2014 earned it 80-90 percent occupancy, without the promotional and sales involvement of major tour operators.
Government’s obsession with Stewart and Heywoods becomes even more astounding when it is remembered that the Jamaican hotel magnate already has a presence in Barbados in the form of its premier Sandals brand that has been attached to the former Couples property he bought from Neal and Massy, and which also once carried the Almond label.
Could it be that the Jamaican organisation is grabbing at the chance to use a highly regarded location like Heywoods and the long established overall upmarket reputation of Barbados as a tourism destination, to add value to its much lesser known and regarded Beaches brand, by taking advantage of a compliant government anxious to stimulate a local tourism industry struggling for the past several years?
In the absence of suitable offers, Government cannot be faulted for its activist role in buying the St Peter property to safeguard it for the public, given the quality and rarity of the locale on our northwest shores. But what must be seriously questioned is the rush to place it in Stewart’s grasp, having paid Neal and Massy US$53 million for it and while negotiating a $600 million Chinese loan for its demolition and rebuilding, without the Jamaican investing in the project, but benefiting from 40 years of stupendous concessions, unlike what any other hotelier has previously enjoyed.
Barbadians are on a number of grounds now questioning whether Government still needs to proceed with the original Stewart proposal for Heywoods. For Sealy has admitted that their MOU is non-binding, therefore basically making it nothing more than a proposal; and Weatherhead having demonstrated success with the present temporary Almond operation and based on his practical experience, sees not demolition but refurbishment of existing sound structures, infrastructure and amenities that would be less costly with a staggering national debt.
Weatherhead, who had been invited to provide short-term management for Almond, has announced his determination to provide Government with a proposal for both retaining Heywoods as Almond and through a competitive process to keep it a Barbadian venture.
Glyne Murray is a retired diplomat, Cabinet minister and journalist.