Part 2 of 2. Copyright by Lan Sluder
The annual fee for either type of certificate is US$750 for professional and technical work, a category that covers almost any kind of work a foreigner is likely to do. For general workers the fee is US$100. Permits must be renewed annually. With rare exceptions, work permits are not granted for waiters, domestic workers, farm hands and anyone involved in retail or other types of sales. For information and application forms, contact the Immigration and Nationality Department, tel. 501-822-2611, or the Labour Department, tel. 501-822-2204.
If that sounds like a lot of red tape, it is. The Belize government is trying hard to discourage foreigners from working in jobs in Belize that Belizeans can perform. Tammy Martinez, who moved to Ambergris Caye from Florida, says, “It was very hard for me to find work. My husband found work as a bartender at Fido's the first week we were here, but he is Belizean, so he didn't have the problem of a work permit to deal with. I found that businesses are reluctant to hire you if you don't already have a permit in hand. The problem is, the price of work permits has gone up to US$750 for professional permits which encompasses most jobs. None of the employers want to spend that amount of money when they don't know if you will stay or go. So basically, you could be the best qualified person for the job and not get it because you don't have the permit in hand.” Martinez later left the island but returned in 2002.
Another American, Katie Valk, who was an executive in the music business in New York City before moving to Belize, recalls the frustrations of trying to get a work permit: “It was not at all difficult adjusting. Belize was a perfect fit for me. Finding work wasn't a problem for me, either. Getting a work permit was, however, and it took a tremendous amount of stick-to-it-ness, patience and energy. But I finally got that, then my residency and now I’m seconds away from being a citizen.”
Starting and Running Your Own Business
With good-paying jobs few and far between, most foreigners who want to generate an income in Belize will be looking at operating a business. In theory, the Belize government welcomes investors who can contribute to the Belize economy and provide work for Belizeans, particularly in tourism, agriculture and manufacturing. But, theory in Belize is about as worthless as a Belize dollar outside Belize. It’s rarely simple or easy to do business in Belize.
A time-worn saying in Belize is that if you want to make a small fortune in the country, better start with a big one. Belize’s small domestic market, inefficient distribution and marketing systems, heavy-handed government red tape and other factors make it difficult for entrepreneurs to achieve great success in Belize.
Judy duPlooy and her husband Ken, who passed away in 2001, started one of the first lodges in Cayo, duPlooy’s Lodge, and have continued to expand their operation. “Starting a business and actually making a profit is difficult,” says Judy duPlooy. “We are fortunate to have a good location and reputation so we do quite well. Always, your market is small due to limited numbers of tourists and limited local population,” she says.
One expat says: “As to ‘investing,’ first realize that when Belize's government or general population speaks or thinks of foreigners ‘investing in Belize’ they mean bringing money and handing it over. They also contemplate a long-term, possibly permanent, commitment. They are not so solicitous of your expectations to realize a RETURN on your investment, and in some cases tend to think it craven of a ‘rich’ first-world person to try to make money off poor Belize. The approved motivation for investing in Belize is for the benefit of Belize. The investor's benefit is gratification at helping Belize advance, and any other motivation may be seen as exploiting rather than investing. As a general rule, don't even dream of investing in Belize unless you plan to be present with your eyes on your investment every day.”
Businesses that are most likely to succeed in Belize are those whose main markets are outside Belize. The Belize market itself is small and spread out, and with a per capita income of under US$2,700 the average Belizean doesn’t have the income to buy much beyond the basic necessities of life. Opportunities include any kind of export-oriented business, from agriculture to manufacturing. Niche products such as specialty or organic agricultural products may have a future. They also include businesses that target international tourists to Belize, although this market is much smaller. There are probably opportunities to supply products to tourist businesses – for example, to sell specialty herbs, fruits and gourmet vegetables to larger resorts.
Besides the small size of the market and large doses of red tape, entrepreneurs in Belize face several problems related to the labor market. Unemployment in Belize is stubbornly high, yet many of the best-trained and ambitious Belizean workers have moved to the U.S. This brain drain means that it’s difficult to find skilled, motivated employees. In rural areas, many Belizeans have never held a regular job. Training must start with the basics like showing up on time and coming to work every day. Another problem is that the cost of labor in Belize, while low compared with the U.S., is relatively high compared with other third world countries.
Belize has several incentive schemes designed to encourage investment in the country, including the Fiscal Incentives Act, the International Business and Public Companies Act, Export Processing Zone Act and Commercial Free Zone Act. However, as a U.S. Commerce Department advisory notes, “many foreign investors have complained that these investment promotion tools are rarely as open and effective as they are portrayed.”
REAL ESTATE ON AMBERGRIS CAYE
Real estate prices on Ambergris Caye are among the highest in Belize. As elsewhere, prices vary tremendously depending on location and on the specific property. Houses and lots in predominantly Belizean areas, mostly on the back or lagoon/bay side of the island, tend to be much less expensive than seafront property preferred by foreign investors and residents.
Demand in recent years generally has been strong for beachfront lots and beachfront homes. Appreciation has run 10 to 20% per year, according to local real estate brokers, although this appreciation rate slowed in 2001-2002, with the economic slowdown in the United States, the repercussions of the terrorism attacks and concern about the stability of the Belize dollar. Agents point to beachfront property on North Ambergris which went for US$450 a front foot in the late 1980s and that is selling for US$1,250 a foot now. Prices in Belize are to a great extent dependent on economic conditions in the United States. When the U.S. sneezes, Belize catches cold.
Condo development continues on Ambergris Caye. A number of hotels are converting some or all of their units to “condotel” status. The idea is to sell now for immediate cash, then make 40 to 60% of revenues in management fees for running the hotel for absentee owners. Sales, however, have not always met expectations, as some investors are wary of condominium laws in Belize – condos are new to Belize and exist mainly in San Pedro – and some have been burned by disputes with developers. One-bedroom condos in particular have been in oversupply on the island for several years.
Many developers offer some type of financing, typically 20% down, with the balance payable over 10 years at around 12% interest. Usually, there’s a balloon payment at the end of the term.
Timeshares have not fared well on Ambergris Caye or anywhere in Belize. Buyers have been few, and most who did buy quickly became dissatisfied with their purchase. Basil Jones is the latest timeshare fiasco on the island.
Building lots: Caribbean seafront building lots range from around US$800 to $1,900 per beachfront foot. Less-expensive lots generally are on upper reaches of North Ambergris, which is accessible only by ferry or water taxi. Waterfront lots on the lagoon or Chetumal Bay (back side of the island) start at around US$250 per waterfront foot, with back side lots in nicer areas south of San Pedro starting at around US$500 a front foot. Building lots not on the water are much less, starting at around US$12,000, with second-row back from water lots with electric service on North Ambergris running around US$25,000, and around US$30,000 south of San Pedro Town. In general, lots a row back from the sea are just 30% of those directly on the water. Buyers should be aware that some beachfront lots have mangroves, not sand, on the water side, and a permit is required to cut mangroves. Recent offerings include: a one-acre lot with almost 90 feet of beach frontage, about five miles north of San Pedro near Mata Chica, US$185,000; a 100 x 200 foot lot on the third row back at Mexico Rocks, US$25,000; a one-acre lot in a subdivision on the back side of the island, with 200 feet of bayfront footage, US$55,000.
Homes: Two- or three-bedroom modern houses on the beach on North Ambergris Caye (access via water taxi or ferry) range from around US$175,000 to $350,000. Those south of San Pedro Town on the sea start at around US$200,000. Homes not on the water but with with sea views are available from around US$100,000. Homes with “sunset views” – that is, on the west side or lagoon side of the island – start at around US$75,000 for a simple house on stilts. At the top end, deluxe, recently built beachfront three and four bedroom homes may go for US$300,000 to $600,000 or more.
Condos: One-bedroom condos near the water but without sea views start at around US$75,000, and those with sea views run about US$115,000 to $160,000. High-quality two-bedroom condos with sea views range from around US$200,000 to $275,000.
Home construction: Building costs on Ambergris are relatively high, due to the need to dig deep foundations and install pilings for stability in the sandy soil, and to build with hurricane protection in mind. Bringing building supplies in by barge also adds to the cost. Expect to pay US$60-$100 a square foot for quality reinforced concrete construction. As elsewhere in Belize, labor costs are lower than in the U.S., but most building materials are more expensive. An exception is native hardwood lumber, which is beautiful and cheap.
Rentals: Demand is fairly tight for rentals on the island, and rental prices are similar to those in parts of the U.S. A “North American-style” two-bedroom unfurnished house rents for from US$700 to $1,500 a month, and a one-bedroom US$400-$800, depending on location and length of lease. Small apartments start at US$250 a month, with modern one-bedroom furnished apartments going for about US$400 to $700. A furnished one-bedroom condo rents for US$750 to $1,600 a month, including utilities. Off-season rentals are cheaper than during high season.
SAN PEDRO REAL ESTATE AGENTS
Keep in mind that, in Belize, real estate agents require no special education or licensing. Anyone with a business card can become an agent.
Ambergris Seaside Real Estate and Rentals (Sue Wiesing and Charles Payne), P.O. Box 163, Barrier Reef Drive, San Pedro; tel. 501-226-4223; e-mail: email@example.com; www.ambergris-seaside-realestate.com.
Coldwell Banker Triton Properties, Barrier Reef Drive, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye; tel. 501-226-3783, fax 226-2403; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.triton-properties.com.
Diane Campbell, San Pedro; tel. 501-226-4032; e-mail email@example.com.
Island Real Estate (Susan Boyd), San Pedro; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southwind Properties, San Pedro; tel. 501-226-2005, fax 226-2331; e-mail email@example.com; www.AmbergrisCaye.com/southwind/.
Sunrise Realty, P.O. Box 80, Barrier Reef Drive., San Pedro; tel. 501-226-3737, fax 226-3379; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.sunrisebelize.com.
OTHER CHOICE PLACES TO LIVE
Ambergris Caye is the most popular place for retirees and other expats to live in Belize, but there are many other choices. For details on all these areas, see Adapter Kit: Belize, by Lan Sluder (Avalon, 2001, 268 pages, US$17.95) the only comprehensive guide to living, retiring and buying property in Belize.
Corozal in Northern Belize
Most travelers to Belize either never get to Corozal or pass through quickly en route somewhere else. But Corozal Town and nearby Consejo village offer a lot for those staying awhile: low prices, friendly people, a generally low-crime environment, the beautiful blue water of Corozal Bay and the extra plus of having Mexico next door for shopping.
Corozal is one of the undiscovered jewels of Belize. There's not a lot to do, but it's a great place to do it. The Sugar Coast – sugarcane is the main agricultural crop here – is a place to slow down, relax and enjoy life. The climate is appealing, with less rain than almost anywhere else in Belize, and fishing is excellent. The sunny disposition of residents – Mestizos, Creoles, Maya, Chinese, East Indians and even North Americans – is infectious.
Real estate costs in Corozal are among the lowest in Belize. Modern North American-style homes with three or four bedrooms in Corozal Town or Consejo Shores go for US$75,000-$200,000, but Belizean-style homes start at less than US$25,000. Waterfront lots are US$35,000 or less, and big lots with water views are US$10,000-$15,000. Rentals are relatively inexpensive – US$100-$300 for a nice Belizean-style house or US$300-$700 for a modern American-style house.
Placencia on the Southern Coast
You'll love Placencia if you're looking for a little bit of the South Pacific in Central America. Placencia has the best beaches on the mainland, and it's an appealing seaside alternative to the bustle of Ambergris Caye. This peninsula in southern Belize has some 16 miles of beachfront along the Caribbean, a backside lagoon where manatees are frequently seen, two small villages, a few dozen hotels and restaurants and an increasing number of expatriates and foreign-owned homes.
In recent years, the Placencia peninsula has been undergoing a boom, a boom that was slowed only by Hurricane Iris in 2001. Building lots have been sold by the score to foreigners who think they'd someday like to live by the sea. Seafront real estate costs are higher in Placencia than anywhere else in Belize, except Ambergris Caye. Beachfront lots cost US$800 to $1,000 per front foot, making a seaside lot around US$50,000 or more. Lots on the lagoon are less expensive. There is little North American-style housing available for sale or rent, and most expatriates are building their own homes, with building costs ranging US$35-$75 or more per square foot, depending on type of construction.
Cayo District in Western Belize
Cayo has a lot going for it: wide open spaces, cheap land, few bugs and friendly people. This might be the place to buy a few acres and grow oranges. The major towns are San Ignacio/Santa Elena, with a population of about 13,000, about 10 miles from the Guatemala border, and Belmopan, the sleepy capital of Belize, with a population of around 8,000.
Agriculture, ranching and, increasingly, tourism are the major industries here. About 20 years ago, the first small jungle lodges began operation around San Ignacio. Now there is a flourishing mix of hotels, cottages and jungle lodges near San Ignacio and in the Mountain Pine Ridge, along with a lot of natural attractions and outdoor activities – canoeing, caving, hiking, horseback riding, to name a few. The country's most accessible Maya ruins are here, as well as Caracol, in its heyday a larger city-state than Tikal.
Between Belize City and San Ignacio, Belmopan is the downsized capital of Belize, but the attractions are in the surrounding countryside. The Belize Zoo is here, as are several excellent jungle lodges. Along the scenic Hummingbird Highway are barely explored caves, wild rivers and national park areas. Small farms are available for US$10,000-$50,000.
Punta Gorda in Southern Belize
Rainy, beautiful and remote, Punta Gorda in far southern Belize is the jumping-off point for unspoiled Maya villages and for onward travel to Guatemala and Honduras. Over the next few years as paving of the Southern Highway to Punta Gorda is completed and the road is extended into Guatemala, this area is expected to take off, both in terms of tourism and as a place for expatriate living. "PG," as it's known, is Toledo District's only population center, with about 4,500 people, mostly Garifuna, Maya and immigrants from Guatemala. Maya villages, hardly changed for centuries, are located around PG. Cayes and the south end of the barrier reef offer good snorkeling and fishing. Lumbering and fishing are about the only industries.
Undeveloped land is inexpensive, with acreage beginning at a couple of hundred dollars an acre. Few North American-style homes are for sale. Quality rentals are expensive due to demand from missionaries and lack of supply.
Hopkins, a Garifuna Village on the Southern Coast
On the southern coast of Belize in Stann Creek District between Dangriga and Placencia, Hopkins today is what Placencia was like just a decade or so ago. Expatriates are moving to Hopkins, a friendly Garifuna village that got telephones only in the mid-1990s, and to real estate developments nearby. New small seaside hotels are going up in Hopkins and Sittee Point. Although at times the sand flies can eat you alive here, you can get in some excellent fishing and beach time, with day trips to the nearby Cockscomb jaguar reserve and boat trips to the reef. You'll love Hopkins if Placencia is too developed for you.
Residents here have managed to maintain close ownership of land on the island. Lots and homes for public sale are only occasionally available. A few apartments are for rent, starting at around US$100 a week.
The days of buying your own private island for a song are long gone, but if you have money to burn and the willingness to rebuild after the next hurricane, one of Belize's remote islands could be yours, beginning at about US$100,000. Developers also are selling lots, starting at US$5,000, on Long Caye and a few other small cayes.
MAINLAND REAL ESTATE AGENTS:
Belize Land Consultants, Corozal Town and Placencia, tel. 501-423-1005, fax 423-1006; e-mail email@example.com; www.belizelandconsultants.com.
Emerald Futures Real Estate, Belize City, tel. 501-223-6559, fax 223-6087; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.emeraldfutures.com.
Regent Realty, Ltd., Belize City, tel. 501-227-3744, fax 227-2022; e-mail email@example.com; www.regentrealtybelize.com.
BELIZE’S RETIRED PERSONS INCENTIVE ACT
The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Act passed by the Belize legislature in 1999 is now in force and being implemented by the Belize Tourism Board. The program, which resembles the formerly popular but now defunct pensionado program in Costa Rica, is designed to attract more retirees to Belize. Several hundred people so far have been approved. Interest in the program is high, the BTB’s Gina Escalante says, with thousands of people visiting the program's Web site monthly and hundreds of them calling or e-mailing for information.
For those who can show the required monthly income from investments or pensions, this program offers benefits of official residency and tax-free entry of the retiree's household goods and a car, boat and even an airplane. This program eliminates some of the bureaucratic delays built into other programs. The BTB guarantees action on an application in no more than three months, but we have heard of qualified retirees getting approval for this program in only two to three weeks. Key features of the Act include:
• Open to anyone age 45 or older who is a citizen of the U.S., the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, the European Union or Belize; a person who qualifies can include his or her dependents in the program, including children under 18 (up to age 23 if enrolled in college).
• Applications for the program must be made to the Belize Tourism Board and include the following:
– Copy of birth certificate for applicant and each dependent.
– Marriage certificate (if applicant is also applying for a spouse).
– Notarized copy of complete passport of applicant and all dependents.
– Copy of police record from last place of residence (completed within one month of application). You should request this from the police department where you last lived. Sometimes there is a small processing charge of US$10 or so.
– Copy of medical exam including AIDS testing.
– Four front and four side-view photos of applicant and each dependent.
– An official statement from a bank or financial institution certifying that the applicant is the recipient of a pension or annuity (including U.S. Social Security) of a minimum of US$2,000 per month or that the applicant's investments will generate a minimum of US$2,000 per month. The two types of income can be combined – for example US$500 from a pension and US$1,500 from investments, but all income must be in the same applicant's name. A husband and wife each with a US$1,000 pension cannot combine that to qualify as having a US$2,000 monthly pension income. Within a month of approval of residency status, the first deposit of at least US$2,000 must be made. It can be deposited in any bank operating in Belize, either annually in a lump sum or monthly. There is no restriction as to type of account, savings or checking, but it must be a Belize dollar, not U.S. dollar, account. The funds are available for living expenses of the retiree. A number of retirees have told us that the BTB is fairly flexible in applying the rules for qualifying income and has been lenient in approving marginal cases. Several retirees say that while they qualified with more than US$2,000 a month in investment income, they only have been required to deposit US$1,000 a month in Belize banks.
• Funds from pension or investments must be deposited monthly in a bank in Belize.
• Persons applying for residency are subject to a background check by the Belize Ministry of National Security.
• Persons residing in Belize under the program cannot work for pay in Belize.
• Persons retiring in Belize under the program are exempt from the payment of all Belize taxes on all income or receipts from a source outside of Belize whether that income is generated from work performed or from an investment.
• Persons retiring in Belize under the program qualify for duty and tax exemptions not exceeding US$15,000 on new and used personal and household effects. A list of all items with corresponding values that will be imported must be submitted with the application. In addition, a personal vehicle, which must not be more than three years old, a boat used for recreational purposes and a light aircraft – any of these or all three – can be imported duty free under the law or can be purchased in Belize. Duty-free import of these items can be done in stages but must be completed within one year of moving to Belize.
• Fees for the program total US$705 per application (individual, couple or family.) These consist of a nonrefundable application fee of US$100 payable to the Belize Tourism Board submitted with the application; a program fee of US$500 payable to the Belize Tourism Board upon acceptance into the program; on first entering the country after approval, a fee of US$100 must be paid to the Immigration Department; a BZE$10 stamp must be attached to each application that is submitted to the Belize Tourism Board for processing.
For information on the program, contact:
Belize Tourist Board, Attn: Gina Escalante
Central Bank Building, Level 2, Gabourel Lane
P.O. Box 325
Belize City, Belize
Tel: 501-223-1913 or 800-624-0686, Fax 501-223-1943
The BTB has a Web site covering the program at www.belizeretirement.org.
An application form for this program is available on-line at www.belizeretirement.org/applicationform.htm.
REGULAR RESIDENCY IN BELIZE
Requirements and benefits are similar to those of the Retired Persons Incentive Act. For example, as a regular permanent resident you can import household goods and a personal vehicle duty-free. The application process and supporting documents needed are virtually the same as for retired residency. Here are the main differences:
• As a regular permanent resident, you do not have to deposit any particular sum in a bank in Belize. However, you do have to show financial resources sufficient to obtain residency status.
• You can work for pay in Belize.
• You must live in Belize for one full year before you can apply for regular permanent residency. During this period, you cannot leave the country for more than 14 consecutive days.
• It is more expensive to apply for regular permanent residency than for retired permanent residency. Application fees vary according to your country of origin, ranging from US$125 (citizens of Mexico and Guatemala) to US$1,500 (citizens of Mainland China). Citizens of the U.S. pay US$625 per person, and Commonwealth country residents pay US$500. Once residency is granted, you pay a fee of US$62.50 for a residency card.
• After five years as a resident, you can apply for Belizean citizenship.
• You apply to the Belize Immigration Department rather than through the Belize Tourist Board. For information and application form, contact:
Immigration and Nationality Service
Ministry of National Security and Immigration
Belmopan, Belize, C.A.
Tel. 501-822-2423, Fax 501-822-2662