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May 28, 2004

Cruise tourism: How much is too much?

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Ever since the cruise craze took off in Belize several years ago, there have been rumblings from those in the overnight tourism industry who believed that large numbers of low cost day trippers was not the way to go. But recently those rumblings have moved from late night bar talk at the eco-lodges to the front pages of the newspapers. And with a press release this week, the Belize Tourism Industry Association has brought the misgivings into the mainstream. According to the B.T.I.A., the nation is not prepared to handle the radical increase in cruise arrivals and the situation is negatively impacting the nation’s environment, infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, its long cultivated image as a pristine destination for soft-treading travellers. In short, according to B.T.I.A. President Steve Schulte, the destination once known as “Nature’s Best Kept Secret” is turning into the “K-Mart of the Caribbean”. Today, News 5′s Stewart Krohn sat down with Mike Heusner, proprietor of Belize River Lodge. Heusner, a veteran of both the hotel industry and environmental movement, says that while cruise tourism is here to stay, we’ve got to make it work better for Belize.

Mike Heusner, Hotelier/Environmentalist

?We?re concerned that the large numbers of people that are overcrowding our more sensitive environmental locations, our visitor sites. The numbers of people that come off the cruise ships is not so much the problem as how well or how poorly they may be managed, how many are at a given sight at any one time, and what it does to the site as well as to the other tourists that we take there to visit those sites. Eco-tourists going to visit Altun Ha or Xunantunich or even some of the caves or even the reefs, we have to work around the schedules of the cruise ship. If we don?t know a cruise ship day and we take people out there and we find three or four hundred other people there, it is not the experience we have been selling.?

Stewart Krohn

?Is there a way that increasing cruise tourism can coexist with our traditional ecotourism, overnight tourism??

Mike Heusner

?I would like to take the positive side on that and say yes it can coexist and may coexist very well. It depends on how well we manage, how well we monitor, and how we diversify, the management diversifying the visitor sites that they will visit. If everybody just goes to Altun Ha Maya ruins or Xunantunich, to the caves by Jaguar Paw and to Goff?s Caye, those sites will be overrun with large numbers of people and nobody else will want to go there on cruise ship days. Cruise ship day used to be one or two days a week, now it could be five or six days for the week. Some weeks, it?s four days in a row that we have to avoid some of these sites.?

With no guarantees that the demands of the cruise marketplace will taper off, the question arises as to whether the government and private sector have the ability to make the tough decisions necessary to manage the future.

Mike Heusner

?Well we are a couple of steps behind already because the infrastructure, the management has not being put in place to keep up with the large influx of cruise ship tourists that have come in. The cruise tourism people have done a great job in bringing lots of people to Belize. The private sector, and maybe even the government as well, probably has not done what it should have done, or if they are doing it now, it?s not as fast as it should be done. They say things take time and good things take even longer, I believe that if we had developed cruise tourism by adding two hundred thousand or four hundred thousand people a year, that would have been a little more practical. But to go from the way it?s jumped in the last three years, up to expecting almost a million cruise tourists coming into Belize City alone this year, is leaps and bounds beyond what the infrastructure can handle. Yes, the Tourism Village was built and can bring ashore up to twelve or thirteen thousand people in one day, but that?s on a good day when nothing goes wrong, when the weather is right, there?s no break downs, no serious problems, no accidents. They have done it and they claim that that proves that they can do it. But even when five ships are in, everybody has problems, including the operators of cruise tourism. And talking to them they will tell you it?s a nightmare when there are five ships in the harbour in one given day.?

Other issues cited by Heusner and the B.T.I.A. include the lack of environmental monitoring of cruise ship waste disposal, the failure of the cruise lines to purchase Belizean products like shrimp and citrus, as well as the uneven playing field in which the overnight tourism industry is heavily taxed while the cruise lines pay virtually no taxes on their multi-billion dollar income.

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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