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Nov 27, 2002

Tour operator dispute cripples cruise tourism

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The ruction that rumbled around the Tourism Village today came as no surprise. Indeed, viewers of last night’s newscast were well prepared for the predicted confrontation between street vendors and a City Council bent on relocating them. But the pitched battle that greeted radio listeners this morning did not involve small vendors or hair braiders fighting for the crumbs off the cruise ships table. Instead it was the big boys at war; those pillars of the tourism industry including the nation’s biggest bus line and one of its pioneering tour companies. That the embarrassing spectacle unfolded in front of the season’s biggest crowd of cruise visitors speaks volumes about the fragility of the tourism product…and our own ability to manage its vast potential. News 5′s Jacqueline Woods reports from the scene.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting

It was a spectacular sight; four cruise ships simultaneously anchored in the Belize City harbour. But the majestic sight at sea was in direct contrast to the confusion that prevailed on land.

This morning, shortly after 7:00, as buses and guides were getting ready to take thousands of tourists to their destinations around the country, order quickly disintegrated into chaos. The problem was a dispute between tour operator Cruise Solutions, and the Novelo’s bus company. Apparently Cruise Solutions, which has a two year contract to rent busses from Novelo’s, was told that the company would not be sending them any transport.

James Francisco, Accounts Manager, Cruise Solutions

“This problem all started just around 7:30 this morning, just before our first tour was set to leave. What we did as we normally do each cruise ship day is to get our people set up and request our buses from Novelo’s. This morning, the buses they came as they usually do. But when we made our request to have the buses pull up so we could have passengers board, we were refused. Our request was refused from the Novelo’s group.”

That decision not only affected some thirty tour guides, but thousands of tourists who had made arrangements with Cruise Solutions were left stranded outside of the village with no where to go.

Joel Rosen, Cruise ship Passenger

“You know we were planning on going up the Lamanai river, we are unfortunately here for just one day, so we are disappointed about the fact that we can’t see the rest of the country, we can just see your port.”

The tour guides, determined to take revenge on Novelo’s, responded by blocking both entrances to the tourism village, preventing any other tour buses from leaving the premises.

James Francisco

“Temporarily we are at a lost. And to make the situation worst what our tour guides are doing, is if we cannot leave neither can the Novelo’s tour guides.”

Stanley Herrera, a tour guide with Cruise Solutions had apparently blocked one of the entrances with a car and the police were determined to remove it.

Stanley Herrera, Tour Guide, Cruise Solutions

“The situation here is simply the officers are trying to arrest me right now because all of us as tour guides here are not working today because Mr. Tony Novelo refuse to send buses for Cruise Solutions.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Why?”

Stanley Herrera

“Because they have their difference, that doesn’t concern us. We are tour guides and we are working. We work hard for our money; we are all working today as free lance guides, making our daily bread to mind our families. Now you tell me what is wrong? Why is Mr. Tony Novelo sending buses for Belitur and not for Cruise Solutions. If they have a problem, let them deal with that office to office, but not with us. We are tour guides, and we are going to stand out here if it takes all day.”

Jacqueline Woods

“As a result of the problem, how many tourists are stranded?”

Stanley Herrera

“At least about three thousand tourists right now, and there are more on the ships coming in today. There are more.”

Jacqueline Woods

“But do you see this helping out the tourism industry?”

Stanley Herrera

“I see one thing helping out our industry right now, let Mr. Tony Novelo send the buses to take the tourists where they want to go. That’s all I see will help this industry. If not, our whole industry is going to collapse and Belize is going back to where it once used to be, having no tourist in the country.”

The tourists, some armed with cameras in hand, had mixed feelings about the scene unfolding in front of them.

Cruise Ship Passenger

“I hope we are having a nice day in Belize, but so far…hey this is better than I expected.”

Phil Quase, Cruise Ship Passenger

“I got my wife and four other people and we decided to come on down to find out what was going on. They look fairly dedicated in that little line up there when the bus was moving forward and they were looking right at the driver saying, come on, bring it on. So they look pretty dedicated, I’m not sure this is going to be resolved in the next little while.”

Jacqueline Woods

“So you are stranded right now, nowhere to go?”

Phil Quase

“Right. But we had a lot of people hitting us up, offering us to use their taxis and stuff, so that may be an alternate today for something to do, rather than waiting around here.”

Joel Rosen

“Oh, I think it is great that people are able to demonstrate and sort to have a democracy and the ability to express their opinions. I think for tourism, it would be really wonderful if the problem could be solved in such a way that… This I think is the beginning of the high tourism season and we are actually here for only one day and we would love an opportunity to see the country and see kind of the beautiful countryside, but a labour dispute I understand between a couple of companies is not helping the country at all.”

Inside the building, other stranded tourists were being advised of their options.

Woman on bullhorn

“The bus situation is going to be resolved in a few minutes, and they are asking that we line up the passengers for Xunantunich, Lamanai and cave tubing… At this moment if you decide to, you can cancel your tour. All you need to do is return the ticket to our office and they will reimburse you if you decide not to continue to participate in the tour.”

Allan Deeks, General Manager, Belize Tourism Village

“This is a disgrace and it’s a dispute between Mr. Gegg and Novelo’s and it shouldn’t have been resolved this way.”

Jacqueline Woods

“This really looks bad for the industry.”

Allan Deeks

“It’s going to hurt us internationally. This young man here is from Florida and he’s saying he came here as an observer and he says this is going to be real bad news for us.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Are you all in a position to help this situation?”

Allan Deeks

“We have already offered our help.”

Jacqueline Woods

“In what way?”

Allan Deeks

“Whatever is needed in sorting out the dispute.”

As the tour guides continued with their protest, a colleague arrived on the scene to reassure them that the buses would be released and they should clear the area… but the no one would move.

Tour guide talking to crowd

“There is no reason for us to continue dealing with the gates or blocking off the gates because we have the buses coming.”

Protestor

“We are not going to move until the buses are here!

Tour guide talking to crowd

“The buses are coming in a very short while. From the very moment that you see the first bus appear in that section.”

Protestor

“Not the first bus, the first five buses.”

On the other end of the village, the situation got out of hand after the authorities started to clear the area of protestors.

The police then moved towards Herrera, who was standing by the obstructing vehicle. The authorities wanted the key Herrera was holding…but cooperation was definitely not on today’s itinerary.

The police did find the car key and they quickly removed the vehicle. As for Herrera, he was handcuffed and taken away by the police. The cruise ship passengers were finally able to get aboard the buses and leave for their various destinations.

Today in a press release, Novelo’s Bus Line informed the media that over a number of months, Cruise solutions has failed to honour its obligations under the contract, and as a last resort Novelo’s withheld its buses. Tracy Taegar, Director of the Belize Tourism Board, says it was a sad day in Belize’s tourism industry.

Tracy Taegar, Director, Belize Tourism Board

“Jackie, we are very disappointed. What happened this morning hurts not only the cruise ship sector, but the entire country. It should not have happened, I think that government and the board has worked very hard in trying to create new opportunities, not only in tourism sector and the over night sector, but in the cruise sector. And because of some dispute that can’t be settled in a more productive way, we have what we had this morning, which is horrendous and really causes a black eye for Belize.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Could B.T.B. have intervened?”

Tracy Taegar

“If we were alerted, I think we may have been able to help the situation. We have spoken to both parties involved, and we have gotten a firm commitment that this situation will not reoccur, so if we had known that this action was coming… I think we’ve intervened in the past successfully and I think we would have been able to try and alleviate or mediate in some way.”

Taegar says B.T.B. is in discussion with both Novelo’s Bus lime limited and Cruise solutions to resolve the matter. In the meantime, Taegar says B.T.B. will continue to meet the requirements necessary to improve the situation in the cruise ship sector.

Jacqueline Woods

“Today we had four cruise ships coming into the country; do we have the accommodations to meet the number of tourists coming on shore?”

Tracy Taegar

“It’s questionable. Certainly we would like to see fewer ships extended for more days, for example three ships seven days a week, but obviously, we need to create job opportunities and certainly our board and the relevant agencies are working over time to make sure that the capacity is there.”

Jacqueline Woods for News 5.

In the end hundreds, perhaps thousands of tourists were unable to take their scheduled inland excursions. From the point of view of the cruise lines, this not only meant dissatisfied customers, but a significant loss of revenue. Typically, the cruise line that books the tours keeps fifty percent of the total price. Out of the remaining fifty percent, the Belize tour operator must pay for shore reception, transport, guides and other incidentals.

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