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Jun 30, 2004

G.O.B. says no contract signed for Caracol

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And while we’re still on the subject of transparency, government appears to be very sensitive regarding a plan to involve the private sector in developing the area around the Caracol archeological site. On Monday of this week an unknown source distributed to the news media copies of what purported to be an unsigned memorandum of understanding between government and a company operated by local business magnate, Eugene Zabaneh. The memorandum outlined a deal under which Zabaneh?s company and a U.S. partner would receive exclusive ninety-nine year rights to develop the five square mile site and an additional twenty square miles around it for tourism development.

Coincidentally, today in the regular cabinet briefing, we are told that body has appointed a three minister committee to prepare a master plan for the site, after which interested investors will be invited to participate in the area’s development.

At the same time the National Institute of Culture and History issued a press release denying that Caracol had been sold or leased and that no agreement involving Caracol had been signed. The release went on to point out that government frequently receives private proposals for all sorts of projects, but no decision had been made on any for Caracol and no project would be green lighted without consultation with industry partners.

The flap would be a little more than a footnote were it not for two factors: one, the current internal industry debate over the future direction of Belizean tourism, and two, the particular person involved in the proposed project.

In the memorandum a major driver for the project appears to be cruise tourism and the need to expand cruise tourist activities into the interior of Belize. This is a red flag to existing inland hotel and tour operators, particularly in Cayo, who have viewed the relatively remote Caracol site as the one place safe from the hoards of down-market day-tripping cruise tourists; a destination reserved for those visitors willing to pay for a long stay at traditional overnight ecologically friendly establishments.

As for the man involved in the proposal…while Eugene Zabaneh may be a respected businessman of ample means and boundless energy, he is generally perceived as a government insider and major PUP financier who, in recent years has been the beneficiary of considerable official largesse. He was perhaps the largest beneficiary of the DFC-busting loan to Novelo?s and is a major player in the banking, airline and telecommunications industries, not to mention his traditional base in citrus and other agricultural exports. For Zabaneh to be the principal in what amounts to a massive first of its kind venture of suspicious pedigree might be asking a bit too much of an already cynical public.

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