BVI re-elects premier dr. orlando smith
The British Virgin Islands, a green covered cluster of volcanic islands in the Caribbean Sea, took part in their own Westminster-style election on June the 8th of 2015. The results returned to power the governing National Democratic Party and its leader Dr. Orlando Smith, with one extra seat out of 15 and a prevailing wave of popular support. The political campaign itself was hotly contested, and marred by allegations of corruption, xenophobia and bias towards an ever-growing expatriate community. A report by the Election Observer Mission (EOM) found that most voters described the campaign as ‘the most negative they have ever witnessed’, with charges of patronage and personal attacks on character prevailing over ideological or political discussions. Amongst this chaos was the backdrop of global pressure over financial transparency, an international political issue with a uniquely local perspective.
A fair number of popular themes were raised during the campaign, the most prominent and perhaps influential of which were the roles of tourism and the financial services sector within the local economy. The BVI is a leading offshore international finance jurisdiction, with an ever-expanding list of foreign registered companies reflecting an accommodating and stable tax regime.
With the current global push for tax transparency putting somewhat undue and ill-informed pressure on offshore centres, the perception of the BVI on the international stage as a ‘tax haven’ has been a recurrent theme in political discourse. Most candidates seeking election promised to fight this image, recognizing the vital part that the sector plays in sustaining the economy and the increasing attraction of the BVI to foreign companies. The national government has routinely invested time and money into the financial infrastructure of the BVI to keep up with demands for transparency and efficiency. As these demands rise on a global scale, this investment needs to be increased and the resulting clarity emphasized in order to counter the damaging ‘tax haven’ narrative and retain the BVI’s prime offshore position.
The role of tourism as well harnessed some due attention by the political class. In 2014 the tourism industry accounted for 27.0% of BVI GDP, and 33.2% of total employment. The territory relies on a steady stream of visitors from cruise ship lines such as Disney and Carnival, as well as a growing luxury market centred around private residential developments like Oil Nut Bay and holiday resorts like Bitter End Yacht Club, the infamous Necker Island and the new Costa Smerelda Yacht club in Virgin Gorda. Visitors from America and the rest of the globe are attracted to the quality of sailing, the pristine beaches and the incredible diving opportunities - some even call the BVI the ‘sailing capital of the world’. However, there is local division over the amount of usable revenue that is generated by tourists visiting the BVI on cruise ships, considering most of them are filtered to specific beaches and restaurants by tour guides and taxi drivers and don’t spend much money on local businesses. Often, tourists are left to their own devices in the capital, Road Town, with little direction as to how and where to spend their time. Tourism will continue to be a vital lifeline for the BVI, so it is expected that politicians will seek to use the natural beauty of the islands and the strong sailing industry to attract visitors whilst trying to develop a more sustainable and profitable tourist sector.
Running alongside these issues was scrutiny of land ownership, corruption, the price of living and inequality. In a territory where a large part of the population are expatriates from England, Australia and America there exists a vast difference in the quality of life for local residents of the British Virgin Islands and those who live there temporarily whilst working in the financial and tourism industries. Most politicians promised a rebalance of investment towards improving local medical care and infrastructure such as roads and public buildings, and the preservation of BVI culture which some feel is threatened by the commercialization of the islands through tourism.
To what extent these two main issues, tourism and the financial sector, will continue to be reformed under the newly elected administration is yet to be seen. During their past period in power the NDP invested in the new Peebles hospital complex, began cruise ship dock construction and sought to counter on the international stage the negative perception of the BVI financial services industry. They also began to consult on a proposed airport expansion that has sharply divided the BVI community over its cost, suitability and potential revenue. What is clear is that more attention must be paid to the pressure brought by these issues on a small and concentrated population, whose main focus is the quality and price of living. The British Virgin Islands is an area of outstanding natural beauty, referred to as ‘nature’s little secret’, but as international attention focuses more discriminately on the territory the government must seek to sustain both local and international confidence in their transparency, credibility and ability to get something done.