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Sep 29, 2004

Tourism Minister knocks Carnival contract

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If yesterday’s presentations at the forum on the impact of cruise tourism were polite, today’s could only be described as blunt. Representatives of Belize’s traditional overnight tourism sector openly called for greater control of cruise tourism, the unbridled growth of which, they say, is destroying the nation’s environment and will in the end degrade Belize’s viability as both an overnight and cruise destination. And while leaders of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Belize Hotel Association and Belize Ecotourism Association appealed for an even playing field with the powerful cruise lines, their ire focussed on one specific issue, the signing of a contract with Carnival Corporation for a new cruise port in Belize City…a contract that was allegedly negotiated without input from either the tourism industry or Ministry and is said to give Carnival virtual sovereignty over the operation for thirty years. The man in the middle, tourism minister Mark Espat, is in the unenviable position of trying to make the best out of a bad situation. We asked him to explain where things stand.

Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism

?Cabinet made a decision in order to try and resolve the impasse between the Royal Caribbean contract and the Carnival contract. I believe that we have been able to resolve some of the outstanding issues as it relates to the Fourth Street Tourism Village and based on Cabinet?s mandate we are now attempting to resolve some of the issues that relates to the Carnival contract. Those issues include the cruise policy, the licensing process, the minimum number of passengers, the opportunity for Belizeans individuals and companies to be able to get their fair share of the business that will be generated. So we are in discussion with Carnival at this time.?

Stewart Krohn

?Listening, however, to the BTIA president this morning, I believe he reported that it is his impression that a contract has been signed and maybe government based on your insistence is now trying to renegotiate that contract. What is the real position??

Mark Espat

?There is a signed contract. We have been in discussion with Carnival because of the specific concern as I mentioned earlier and in an attempt to try and create as level a playing field as possible we are in discussions with them and we are hoping that as a responsible investor in Belize they will see that for the medium and long-term success of the project, that these things are pre-requisites.?

Stewart Krohn

?But if you are Carnival and you?ve already got a signed contract why on earth would you turn around and renegotiate it on terms less favourable to yourself??

Mark Espat

?Well we faced a similar situation with Royal Caribbean and we have been able to address–I think–most of their concerns. Unfortunately, some of that is at the tax-payers expense. But at the end of the day, the government is convinced that this project will bring development to Belize, development to the Cruise Tourism Sector and we have to do the best we can to satisfy the mandate of the Cabinet.?

Stewart Krohn

?Is Mark Espat satisfied with that??

Mark Espat

?I am not satisfied with the contract as it currently stands and we are working to try and address those issues. I am satisfied and my Ministry is that the investment–if it were to materialise and we have had a chance to review the business plan–there will certainly be opportunities for people on the South Side and for tourism. So we are embracing the concept; we are in principle, supporting the investment. But it has to be in a way that is a two way street; it has to be in a way that would offer Belize the opportunity to get those benefits that are promised.?

The Carnival contract, which has not been made public, is alleged to contain clauses which allow the cruise line to land an unlimited amount of ships and passengers, employ foreigners without reference to labour laws and generally operate free of any government control within its compound at Port Loyola. The project’s supporters have hailed it as a much needed boost to the city’s impoverished south side, although it has not been made clear exactly how residents of the area would benefit.

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