By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday blasted the former government for forcing him to lay-off new hires, describing the decision as "gut wrenching".
Dionisio D'Aguilar slammed what he described as "political expediency" in the Christie administration's decision to hire 22 persons at the Ministry of Tourism within the two months prior to the May 10 general election, disclosing that this added $750,000 to the annual wage bill.
However, his predecessor, Obie Wilchcombe, yesterday appealed directly to Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis to intervene and half any further lay-offs at the Ministry of Tourism.
He argued that if the Government could find millions of dollars to take part-ownership of the Grand Lucayan it "can certainly find $500,000" to ensure another nine-11 persons were not added to Grand Bahama's unemployment line.
Confirming that the Ministry is terminating nine persons in Grand Bahama, Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business: "Thirty to 60 days before the general election, the Ministry of Tourism employed 22 people at an additional cost to the Treasury of $750,000 a year.
"It's unfortunate that we....... I guess that's the way politics runs in this country. It becomes politically expedient to hire a lot of people, and given Budgetary conditions and Budgetary reality, executives at the Ministry of Tourism thought these people are not all critical; not at this time.
"We can't simply afford to absorb these additional costs," Mr D'Aguilar continued, adding that not all new hires will be impacted. "What we said is where we have need of a certain skill set, and where we felt a certain skill set is necessary, we will keep them.
"We are guided by the Budgetary constraints, and these people are in their probationary period. Hopefully, we will get an opportunity to re-engage with them and bring them back.
"It's gut wrenching, and I resent being put in this position, but when you're running an organisation it's important to make the right decision. These decisions made for political expediency, it's irresponsible to have done that."
Mr Wilchcombe, though, told Tribune Business: "I appeal directly to the Prime Minister to intervene in this matter and stop the process of putting more Bahamians in Grand Bahama on the unemployment line at a time when the Grand Bahama economy is sluggish.
"Just recently the Government announced it would pump money into recovery efforts at the Grand Lucayan, a decision I welcome. If they can find millions for that, they can certainly find $500,000 to prevent putting 11 more Grand Bahamians on the unemployment line, mindful of the impact to their families and communities of these decisions."
While acknowledging that Mr D'Aguilar needed to run the Ministry of Tourism as he sees fit, Mr Wilchcombe nevertheless argued that "his plans should not inflict hurt or pain on individuals" that were contributing to the industry's development.
"Such decisions do not benefit the Bahamas, but inflict more pain on an island that unanimously agreed three months ago that it's the people's time," the former PLP MP for West End and Bimini said.
Mr D'Aguilar indicated that Freeport's weakened tourism industry, with 59 per cent of its room inventory out of action due to the Grand Lucayan closure and Memories pull-out, may have influenced the Grand Bahama lay-offs as there was relatively little to be marketed.
"Hopefully we will get the economy moving and hotel open in Freeport," he told Tribune Business. "The time is coming, and the Government understands the critical need of getting that hotel open.
"I remain confident that in short order something will happen in Freeport to get the hotels back on stream. It's a very fluid and moving situation."
The termination of new hires is the second cost-cutting measure by the Ministry of Tourism under the Minnis administration, having previously recalled 12-15 persons back to Nassau after it amalgamated its Washington D.C. and Los Angeles offices with New York and Houston, respectively.
Mr D'Aguilar said that move would save around $1 million per annum, and was desperately needed following a 20 per cent or $14 million cut to the Ministry of Tourism's 2017-2018 Budget.
He previously emphasised that the Budget cuts made it necessary to reduce the Ministry's fixed overhead costs so that more monies could be dedicated to marketing the Bahamas' tourism brand, which he described as its primary function.
This was reinforced yesterday by the Ministry of Tourism's official release on the impending redundancies, which emphasised that it would have been "fiscally irresponsible and counterproductive" to maintain fixed costs that exceeded its marketing budget.
The statement also indicated the difficulties facing the Government in its bid to cut public expenditure by 10 per cent, noting that fixed costs accounted for 75 per cent of the Ministry of Tourism's Budget with "few dollars left" for promoting Bahamian tourism.
"After careful analysis of the Budget for fiscal 2017-2018, and review of the organisational structure, it is critical that we implement cost-cutting strategies within the Ministry of Tourism," the Ministry said.
"It is imperative that costs are reduced and efficiencies increased, given that 75 per cent of our Budget is fixed costs, with few dollars left for marketing, promotion and sales."
It confirmed that "a workforce reduction strategy must be executed" as part of this plan, with the Ministry of Tourism confirming that it was seeking to become "a leaner, and more streamlined and efficient organisation".
This process will involve reassigning staff; dissolving unnamed departments; repatriating workers from overseas; retirements and terminations.
"It would have been fiscally irresponsible and counterproductive to continue with operational costs outweighing the available marketing budget," the Ministry of Tourism said, adding that its primary function was to market the Bahamas and grow tourism arrivals.