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Mar 31, 1998

Tourism industry blasts Government

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They have established a trend by naming their pronouncements after various meeting rooms at the Radisson Fort George Hotel, which are themselves derived from the names of popular ancient Maya sites. Hence today’s gathering of tourism interests produced the Caracol Declaration, not to be confused with last year’s Lamanai Declaration. But whatever you call it, the bottom line is that the people who make tourism happen in Belize are not happy. What appears to bother them most is not necessarily the decisions made by Government, but the way that those decisions are made. Patrick Jones reports.

The meeting was called by B.T.I.A. primarily to discuss with its membership, issues affecting the industry and to ensure that all the players are in the same game, or in this case, the same boat. High on the agenda were proposed bi-lateral agreements with Mexico and suggestions that the Marine Terminal at the foot of the Swing Bridge be relocated to the Handicraft Center building in the Fort George area.

President of B.T.I.A. Susan Fuller, informed the gathering that while no firm position has yet been arrived at, it is generally believed that the inclusion of tourism in any agreement with Mexico would at this time not be in Belize’s best interest.

Susan Fuller, President, B.T.I.A.

“The private sector arm of B.T.I.A. has represented the position which is a position that our members feel comfortable with, which is basically to leave tourism out of that proposal, because for us it’s one of the sensitive areas that we feel needs not be placed within a free trade agreement. And that in so far as we are concerned, the bi-lateral agreements that are entered into and private sector has more of an input into without that long range and long ended consequence, it would give us more of a level playing field in attempting to ensure that Belize gets the best possible position out of that.”

While an agreement allowing a Mexican aircraft to land, drop off and pick up passengers in Belize has already been signed, members of the National Tour Operators Association say it’s time to put a moratorium on the remaining agreements until the situation is more friendly to Belize.

Sandra Aguilar, Adviser, B.N.T.O.A.

“As operators and as land transportation we will not allow the land, one, to be signed unless we have our two cents in there, unless we look carefully at how it is going to affect us. Because at the moment it is affecting each and every one of us terribly.”

Q: “Why?”

Sandra Aguilar

“Because there is no regulations in place at the borders for these transportation, yet when we cross the border, we follow the Mexican’s regulations, or the Guatemalan’s regulations. At the moment our country receive no revenue at the border from these transportation coming in.”

Steve Maestre, Proprietor, Great House

“I think the hoteliers need to take a closer look at this as well.”

But it’s not only the Tour Operators who are concerned about their survival as Belize looks to enter into these bi-lateral agreements with our neighbor to the north. Those in the hotel and water transportation business say they too have a lot at stake.

Steve Maestre

“As they develop their hotels on either sides of our borders and they start to put packages together including Belize, particularly for Europe, their packages could be forty, fifty percent cheaper than ours and that our product, the reef, everything else becomes an extension of their hotels.”

Jose Marin, Proprietor, Triple J

“Who is going to invest such, quite a few million dollars to bring in tenders just to tender, one contract is signed with a cruise ship for one day only in a week and is going to tie that boat, millions of dollars worth of boat up for the rest of the week, they said well that is not going to work so because their going to also get into the ferry boat business between Belize, Caye Caulker, San Pedro and back.”

Marin says they’ve taken their concerns all the way to Belmopan and are yet to get a formal response, even though the Minister of Tourism has been on radio and television talking about the issue. But that type of frustration is not unique to only one sector of the tourism industry. As the meeting dragged on past the lunch hour, it became clearer that there has been a total breakdown in communication between the key players in Belize’s tourism industry, a consensus that was confirmed by the Chairman of the Tourist Board.

Santino Castillo Jr., Chairman, B.T.B.

“I’ll be the first to agree to that, but after all isn’t that the way it always is in most associations in Belize? And I’ll be the first to say that certainly where the Belize Tourist Board is concerned, we certainly would appreciate more communication with Ministry and Government of Belize, Port Authority, on any issue which can make the Belize Tourist Board look embarrassed and be in the hot seat as I was today.”

And a major embarrassment the Board could have done without was talk of moving the marine terminal and all the business operating out of it to a proposed tourist village on the site of the old Custom’s Wharf. According to Castillo, it was a case of the Director of the Tourist Board, Kevin Gonzales putting his foot in his mouth.

Santino Castillo Jr.

“The Marine Terminal will not be moved. I can state that categorically that it will not be moved. It was just ideas which the director was discussing with different people and he had not even presented it to the Board to be ratified. So I can tell you clearly that no negotiation would take place without the total support of all the players involved and with proper consultation with all of them.”

But while that point may have been cleared up, there is still a world of darkness surrounding the multi-million dollar tourist village. No one at today’s meeting could determine the project’s present status but many were quite vocal about what they thought they knew. Tom Greenwood, Vice President of the Belize National Tour Operators Association, said he had to travel all the way to Miami where the Port Authority and Government were trying to sell the idea of a tourist village to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. According to Greenwood, when he surprised the Belize delegation at the meeting, he discovered that everything was not as it seemed to be.

Tom Greenwood, Proprietor, Melmish Tours

“One single operator was invited, and I can’t blame that operator. That operator was invited. Nobody contacted Homer Leslie, President, nobody invited Tom Greenwood, Vice President, nobody contacted Sandra who is filling our shoes many times, and I said wow … or the Tourist Board, I agree with you there Santi, nobody so I said fine, went into my pocket, flew to Miami and I attended this thing and when I saw the Port Authority people I raised cane.”

Greenwood told the meeting that because some unpleasant laundry was aired in public abroad, Belize might have placed some stumbling blocks in its own development path.

Tom Greenwood

“And I said, don’t you think it would have been nice to have contacted the shipping agencies, the Tourist Board, the tour operators that you’re holding this thing, as a result of which twenty two lines of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association are aware that one, we don’t have our act together, two, because we don’t have our act together those boys play hard ball, they can come in and start punching, pulling and hauling and getting the best things there are. In fact I can tell you frankly that they treated us with a little bit of disdain.”

And so the membership suggested to the leaders of B.T.I.A. that a carefully worded letter be dispatched as early as possible to the Minister of Tourism, informing him of their concerns and asking that a moratorium be placed on the signing of any bi-lateral agreement and that the idea of the proposed tourist village be put on hold until all the chaos in the tourist industry can be worked out. Patrick Jones, for News Five.

When News Five called Port Commissioner Nick Coye he would only say that a feasibility study on the project will soon be completed by a consulting firm in New Orleans. That study would then be open to review and comment by all concerned. Participants at today’s conference, however, tell News Five that the tourist village is a done deal, with loan funds already committed by Hibernia Bank and guaranteed by government. The project is allegedly being pushed by Port Chairman William Longsworth. As to why the Port Authority is suddenly interested in tourism, one theory is that government has plans to sell the port to private interests. To make the sale more attractive the port’s assets are being enhanced by the tourist village as well as the claiming of prime property on Half Moon Caye, English Caye and other islands on which the Authority operates lighthouses.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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