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Sep 25, 2008

Tourism industry hit by death of U.S. tourist

Story PictureSince the beginning of the year, Belize’s tourism industry has been taking a licking. Arrivals are down and bad publicity from the grenade incidents and a sensational gang documentary has made things worst for the industry. And tonight one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions is the spotlight due to the death of a woman on Wednesday as concerns over safety measures arise. News Five’s Kendra Griffith reports.

Kendra Griffith, Reporting
Every year thousands of tourists visit the Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve to go cave tubing.

Donna Young, Owner Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort
“Usually people being at five tunnels and they come to an opening and then to come to a final tunnel and opening and the final cave ends right where our property line begins and so this is where Jaguar Paw is situated. But the government park, which is further down river, when people go through the government park and they do the cave tubing trip, they come out of the cave here, but they continue downstream until they return back to the park and then they take the same trail where they left the park.”

Most of the tourists enjoy the activity without incident, but on Wednesday morning on one such tour conducted by Bel Cruise, fifty year old Orlando, Florida resident Linda Linan lost her life.

Laura Esquivel, Director of Product Development, B.T.B.
“It seems that at the very end of the cave system where there is a little rush, if you will, a situation happened where there was a bottleneck and this person unfortunately was thrown off her tube and got swept under with the rapids. That’s the information we have so far.”

Kendra Griffith
“You all investigating to see if there was any negligence on anyone’s part?”

Laura Esquivel
“Well, we do have a tour operators licensing committee and this committee will be tasked with bringing the tour operator to answer certain questions, but the real investigation will be taking place with the Institute of Archaeology as it is their park that they manage. So they will be taking the lead in the investigation.”

On that day the currents were flowing swiftly and the river was high and now questions have been raised as to whether the tour should have been allowed to proceed.

Fidelio Montes Jr., Tour Guide, Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort
“The water gets very fast; there are areas in the cave that need extreme caution. Without proper guide procedures and without proper knowledge of what you are actually doing, it is very problematic because what happens, you can end up trapped in places where you don’t belong. It’s just very fast water, very dangerous.”

Eduardo Linan is the husband of the deceased.

Eduardo Linan, Husband of Deceased
“The safety should be in place and the trip should be cancelled automatically. It should have been cancelled because we tourists we don’t know how to operate in the water in different situations. My wife and I and two more people raised our hands on the bus to say that we are poor swimmers to our guide. The guide was busy giving instructions to forty plus people and he said ok you guys keep going and he forgot completely me and my wife and the two people.”

Kendra Griffith
“When it comes to the allegation that the tour probably should not have taken place in the first place because of the high tide that was there, the strong current, under whose jurisdiction does it fall?”

Laura Esquivel
“It is up to the Institute of Archaeology to determine if the park needs to be closed or not. However, I did speak to them and they do have a measuring stick if you will, not literally a measuring stick, but they do have a guide which they go by for opening and closure of the park and from what I have been told, the water levels were still within the levels of which you can operate and that’s why the park was not closed. However, all tour operators ad tour guides were told they need to use extreme caution.”

Linan says there were two guides to the approximately twenty-five persons. We have been unable to reach anyone at Bel Cruise or the Institute of Archaeology for comment. But according to Director of Product Development at the B.T.B., Laura Esquivel, while there are some regulations in place, there are also loopholes.

Laura Esquivel
“There are several regulations, various safety precautions that must be taken by the tour operators. In the instance of cave tubing, there is a legislation of a one to eight ratio, one tour guide for eight guests. Unfortunately, when I came into the situation, I found it was really being adhered to and we have several other complaints and issues that have come up.”

One of the persons who have been complaining about the tours conducted at the caves is Donna Young, owner of the Jaguar Paw Jungle Resort. On Wednesday Jaguar Paw cancelled their cave tubing tour due to safety concerns.

Donna Young
“It’s been going on for years, I’ve been saying someone is going to die, someone is going to drown and it was just a matter of time and by the grace of God you know, there’s been some incidents and accidents but no one was ever killed. I kept saying someone is telling us something, someone is warning us and we have to be careful. You can’t play with water.”

Esquivel says just last month the B.T.B. and the I.O.A. were looking into the situation and working to implement proper policies.

Laura Esquivel
“We made the effort to actually visit the site on August twenty-eighth of this year so that we could see for ourselves what the situation is, if the guide to guest ratio is reasonable, those sorts of things. We also met with the Institute of Archaeology to discuss what we can do as both bodies together to try and regulate everything that’s there. Unfortunately, with the guide to guest ratio, it does not follow with a penalty in the law, so that is something we have to work on. In the meantime, we are working with the Institute Of Archaeology to put policies in place that they can enforce since it’s their park.”

A post-mortem was conducted this afternoon on Linan’s body, but the results have not yet been released.

Laura Esquivel
“We need to send our condolences to the family of that person. Look at that angle of it also. Of course, we have the bigger issue to look at and, like I tell you, we had already identified some issues and we’re working on putting these policies in place. It is a shame we weren’t able to get the policies in place before something like this happened.”

Kendra Griffith reporting for News Five.

This evening Bel Cruise Management told News Five that they are unable to grant any interviews because the investigation is ongoing. They instead issued a press release offering condolences to Linan’s family and saying that it quote “deeply regrets the unfortunate tragedy that occurred yesterday at Caves Branch … and is working closely with NICH officials and cruise ship executives to investigate and identify the factors that may have influenced this unfortunate event.” That apparently is not good enough for the Carnival Cruise Line as a news story in the U.S. media quotes an official statement from the company saying that it has “suspended all future sales of the excursion at this time and an investigation into the accident is underway.”

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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