BELIZE TOURISM UP SLIGHTLY IN 2001, DESPITE POST-9/11 DECLINES International arrivals by air to Belize increased 1.6% in 2001 over 2000, to 133,774. September arrivals, following the terrorist attacks in the United States, were down 22% and December arrivals were down about 8% from the previous year. November was flat and October actually saw an increase, but statistics for these months are misleading because Hurricane Keith cut travel to Belize dramatically last October and part of November. Belize eked out the year-to-year gain despite the impact of Hurricane Iris, the recession in its major market, the U.S., which contributes more than three-fourths of air visitors to Belize, and cutbacks in air service by TACA and American airlines. Tourism operators say that since Christmas tourist business is picking up, especially on the cayes. However, by international standards, tourism in Belize is still a drop in the bucket: On the average day in 2001, only about 366 international visitors arrived by air at Phillip Goldson International Airport.

SALE OF PASSPORTS DISCONTINUED After years of controversy under both the PUP and UDP administrations, the economic citizenship, AKA buy-a-passport, program has been halted as of January 15. Applications still in the pipeline will be processed, but no new applications are being accepted. The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Act program, designed to attract retirees aged 45 and over to live in Belize, continues and is not affected by the discontinuation of the economic citizenship plan.

GOVERNMENT TO PRIVATIZE 'FOUR Ps' -- PORTS, PRISON, PRINTING AND POST OFFICE Belize ports, prisons, printing department and post office soon will be in private hands, if plans announced by the government materialize. Already, electricity, water and telephone services have been privatized.

TWO KILLED AT CAYO LODGE; SIX GUESTS TERRORIZED, ONE RAPED; NO ARRESTS YET In late December, a gang believed to from Guatemala killed John Luce, the American manager of Black Rock Lodge on the Macal River near San Ignacio, and assistant manager Mario Cocom. They then attacked six guests who were staying the lodge and raped one woman, an American. According to Caesar Sherard, owner of Black Rock and also Caesar's Place on the Western Highway east of San Ignacio, the killings were the result of an unresolved argument between the Luce and a Guatemalan family. A police investigation continues, but to date there have been no arrests. Black Rock Lodge is located only about 3 miles from the Guatemala border. In the wake of this and several other incidents involving tourists in western Belize, several lodges in Cayo have beefed up security, hiring guards or taking other measures to assure the safety of their guests. Most visitors to Cayo say they feel completely safe, but travel agents and others in the tourist industry say they have received a number of questions from would-be visitors to Cayo, expressing concern about travel to the area.

The U.S. State Department so far has not issued a new travel warning about Belize. Indeed, the State Department's warnings about Costa Rica, Belize's Central American neighbor which gets more than four times the number of American visitors as Belize, but which attracts a similar type of visitor, is much stronger. The State Department's Consular Information Sheet on Costa Rica says, in part: "Crime is increasing and tourists are frequent victims ... In recent years, several Americans have been murdered in Costa Rica in urban, rural and resort locations. Many of the perpetrators have been arrested, and some convicted. Other assailants remain at large. U.S. citizen women have been victims of sexual assaults both in cities and in rural areas." The State Department also has strong words about crime in Honduras and Guatemala.

PLACENCIA RECOVERY ON TRACK Most of the debris from Hurricane Iris has been removed, and the peninsula has water and electricity again. Nearly all the hotels north of Placencia village have reopened, as have some in Placencia village. Still, with many businesses having little or no insurance to pay for rebuilding, full recovery is likely to take many more months. Several of the cayes off Placencia, including Laughing Bird Caye, were severely damaged by the storm. (A complete status report on Placencia, courtesy of Mary Toy of Kevin Modera Guides, is available on the Current News page of the Belize First Web edition.)

GREENBACK SHORTAGE CONTINUES It's not a currency crisis, according to government officials, but the shortage of U.S. dollars continues to be a problem for Belizean businesses. Many businesses must pay for imported products and shipping in U.S. dollars, as the Belize dollar can't easily be converted outside of Belize. Being unable to get sufficient American currency through legal channels, business owners are in many cases buying dollars on the grey market, paying Belize 2.20 to 2.40 for 1 U.S. dollar, 10 to 20% higher than the 2 to 1 peg. Other businesses are requiring payment from customers in U.S. dollars. Rumors continue regarding an official devaluation of the Belize dollar. Such rumors have occurred regularly over the years, but no devaluation has taken place. As Belize imports far more than it exports, a devaluation could be devastating for the country, according to conventional economic wisdom. A weak Belize dollar would drive up the cost of many products, creating inflation. A devaluation would probably not boost tourism to Belize, as most hotel and tour prices in Belize are denominated in U.S. dollars. The government has moved to crack down on grey market money changers, claiming that only the Belize Central Bank can designate who can legally hold American dollars. The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry has gone on record supporting the concept that all Belize adults and businesses should have free access to U.S. currency.

SAM PEDRO GETS SECOND OFFSHORE MED SCHOOL The Medical University of the Americas began operation in mid-January with 35 students in residence on it temporary campus in San Pedro at the Belize Yacht Club. If students in clinical rotation are included, the school has 75 students. St. Matthews University on San Pedro has 185 students in full-time residence, according to school officials; including students in clinical rotation and students at its campus in Maine, the school has about 485 students. A third offshore school, Belize Medical School, is in Belize City.

Lan Sluder/Belize First