LATE NEWS FROM BELIZE
A Round-Up of News and Opinion
By Lan Sluder
Belize First www.belizefirst.com
TROPICAL WAVES CAUSE FLOODING, TEMPORARILY CLOSING HIGHWAYS IN WEST AND SOUTH The rainy season began in earnest with a crash of thunder, as a series of tropical waves moved across Belize in late June, creating torrential rains that temporarily closed the Western and Southern highways, along with the Coastal road from Democracia to near Dangriga. The bridge over Beaverdam Creek at St. Matthews village on the Western Highway was damaged and, for a time, bus and truck traffic were barred from crossing the bridge. The bridge has now reopened for all traffic, but a new bridge is planned. Several bridges along the Southern Highway, including one at Deep River, were under water for several days. Conditions are returning to normal, however, and hotel operators say there is no need for anyone to cancel a trip to Belize because of the flooding, which is common from time to time during the summer and early fall.
BELIZE CRIME WAVE GETS WORSE Murders, shooting sprees and attacks on security guards continue to be almost daily occurrences in Belize City, the murder capital of Belize. On June 18, two Bowen and Bowen employees, Patrick Robateau and Leslie Pipersburg, allegedly shot three security guards at the company's distribution center on Slaughterhouse Road, killing two of them. Later, the two allegedly murdered a couple in a car in the University Heights area of Belize City. Robateau and Pipersburg remain on the loose, somewhere in Belize or possibly Mexico. A drive-by shooting killed a Belize City newspaper vendor in late June, while a San Pedro woman, shot in the back in the East Canal area of Belize City, is recovering from a gunshot wound. On Neal Penn Road, a man died after robbers broke into his home, put a bucket over his head and beat him severely. Thugs have attacked at least six different security guards in the past month, stealing their weapons. Armed robberies of shops and stores in Belize City happen so frequently that many are not even reported in the media. One gas station, the Texaco near the BelChina Bridge, was robbed three times in a six-week period beginning at the end of May. But crime isn't confined to Belize City. In mid-June, a gang of four went on a rampage in Corozal and Orange Walk Towns. The gang kidnapped a Mennonite couple from Shipyard, Susanna and Enrique Petkau, robbing them, killing the wife and injuring the husband. They also gang raped at least two women and robbed several businesses. On Ambergris Caye, a resident was stabbed to death in a family dispute.
BELIZE CURRENCY STABILIZES After months of weakness in the face of U.S. dollar shortages, the Belize dollar appears to have stabilized. In late June, legal casas de cambio in San Pedro and Belize City were offering just 2.05 Belize dollars to 1 US dollar for most transactions, and even grey market money changers at the Santa Elena border crossing near Corozal were offering only 2.05 to 1 for small transactions, and a little better for larger ones. Previously, some money changers had been giving from 2.20 to 2.40 for each US dollar. Regular transactions at most Belize businesses still are at the established rate of 2 to 1.
NEW TOURIST VILLAGE IN BELIZE CITY GETS RAVES FOR EYE APPEAL AND CLEANLINESS, BUT BUSINESS COULD BE BETTER Tourists and locals who have seen it give the new Fort Point Tourism Village high marks for its attractive shops, cleanliness, ease of parking and safety. But shops in the Tourism Village say business results so far are mixed. When cruise ships are in port, the Village is busy. Many cruise passengers are just lookers, however, and don't buy much, shop clerks say. With free food available on the ships, passengers are loathe to spend money at Village restaurants. At times when no cruise ships are docked, business is very light. Among the shops at the Tourist Village are a number of gift and craft shops, tour operators, a car rental agency (Crystal), an Internet café and several eating establishments. Some local residents were put off by the fact that initially the Village locked out locals, permitting access only by tourists. Now, however, the Village is advertising aggressively for local business. Local hotel owners say they like having some water taxis to San Pedro and Caye Caulker based at the Fort Point Tourist Village.
CRUISE TOURISM: HOW WILL IT WORK OUT? The bright spot for Belize tourism this year appears to be cruise ships calling on Belize City, but the jury is still out on how successful this will be in the long term. The Belize Tourist Board has said about 200 ships will stop in Belize City this year. Among the ships set to call on Belize City this year are Norwegian Sea, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Dream (Norwegian Cruise Line), Galaxy (Celebrity Cruise Line), Volendam (Holland America Line), Carnival Spirit, Carnival Legend and Carnival Pride (Carnival Cruise Lines), Nordic Empress, Rhapsody of the Seas and Splendor of the Seas (Royal Caribbean International). Typically, these ships are on a seven-day Western Caribbean itinerary, beginning in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Miami or New Orleans. Other stops may include Key West, Fla., Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Celebrity's Galaxy is unusual in that it has a 10-day itinerary leaving from Baltimore. Cruise lines are adding "exotic" new ports of call, such as Belize City, to appeal to experienced cruisers who have visited the standard Caribbean ports several times. In addition, the small (100-passenger) ships of American Canadian Caribbean Line makes stops in Belize during the winter.
Because the Belize City harbor is too shallow to allow large cruise ships to dock, ship passengers are brought in on tenders. Passengers line up to get on the tenders and disembark at the new Point George Tourist Village. Typically ships arrive in Belize City in the early morning and leave around 6 p.m. Many passengers appear intrigued by Belize, but others say they find little to do in Belize City. The cruise director for Celebrity's Galaxy said that passengers on the 1,850-passenger Galaxy who sign up for organized tours -- cave tubing at Jaguar Paw being the most popular -- are usually very satisfied with their Belize experience, but that those who just walk around Belize City are often not enthusiastic about Belize. They report little to do or see, and some passengers, having heard stories about Belize City crime, are reluctant to walk even as far as the new Museum of Belize in the Central Bank Building, just a few blocks from the Tourist Village. The bulk of the cruise ship tours are handled by a few large tour operators, such as Belize City-based Cruise Solutions.
Tourism experts say cruise ships are a mixed blessing for a tourist destination. While they deliver a large number of visitors, and generate income for local governments in the form of port fees, many passengers spend little money locally. Cruise ships rarely buy supplies from ports where they stop. Most of the income from cruise operations goes to a handful of well-connected tour operators. In areas such as Cozumel, where as many as eight to ten ships, each with around 2,000 passengers, call on the port each day, the atmosphere of the local community can be dramatically changed by hordes of day-tripping tourists, and local hotels may actually suffer from the area's reputation as a cruise ship port. Belize City is far from reaching this point, however.
WHAT'S NEW IN BELIZE ? A whirlwind country tour by BELIZE FIRST Editor Lan Sluder in mid-June found hotel and tourism operators cautiously optimistic about the balance of the year and next year's high season. Since Easter, however, business at many resorts has been slower than expected. Operators see a pickup starting in late June. Resort development has slowed in Belize, with only a few places opening or expanding. Many hotels remain up for sale.
Around the country, business owners are complaining about BTL and the new seven-digit telephone dialing system. Some businesses claim the new BTL 2002 telephone directory contains a lot of errors. "The new directory is a fiasco," says Bill Wildman, a real estate developer and surveyor based in Corozal. "Every telephone and fax number of ours is incorrect both white and yellow, no e-mails even. Other people have also got similar problems. BTL does it again and nothing we can do about it but suffer the year." Other businesses are giving up on BTL's Internet access and going with Starband or another high-speed satellite Internet system, which provides DSL-speed downloads even in remote areas. Technically, these systems are still not permitted in Belize, and a U.S.-address must be given for billing.
Until the torrential rains in late June, which caused severe flooding in several areas, temporarily closing parts of the Western, Southern and Coast highways, the rainy season had been off to slow start in Belize, with only sporadic rains in most areas. Due to rains earlier in the year, however, mosquitoes were worse than usual in a number of regions.
• Belize City: Despite its serious crime problems, Belize City continues to grow and to become a more livable small city. Several new restaurants have opened in the Fort George area, including the Village Steakhouse in the Fort Point Tourist Village, the Wet Lizard and Harbor Light. Jam-Bel Jerk, which has a location in San Pedro, reportedly is opening in the old Three Amigos spot. Hotels remain fairly busy, thanks to regional business and meeting business and overnight stopovers by tourists. The owners of Colton House are thinking of selling their beautiful guesthouse across from the Radisson, with the price around US$400,000, we're told. The attractive and modern department store, Mirab, remains an asset for the city centre. The Feinstein-developed Fort Point Tourist Village (see above) is a well-executed project, but its long-term viability may depend on its ability to attract local residents as well as tourists, while keeping a damper on crime, observers say. The new Museum of Belize, on the grounds of the Belize Central Bank building in what was the former national prison, is a jewel. Currently on the first level is a historical exhibition on Belize City. The exhibition was organized by Yasser Musa, son of the Prime Minister. Upstairs on permanent exhibit are Maya artifacts from the Belize National Collection. Among the items displayed are stunning jade pieces and pottery in amazingly perfect condition. If you're in the city, the Museum is a must-see (admission US$5).
• Corozal Town: Corozal remains as laid-back as ever. More expats are discovering the area as a retirement or relocation destination, thanks to its low real estate prices and proximity to Mexico, but real estate prices in expat areas such as Consejo have had little appreciation over the past decade. A real estate/retirement tour planned by Bill and Claire Gray for mid-year was canceled. Thanks to medical mission business and other group business, established hotels in Corozal Town (but not in outlying areas) are enjoying healthy occupancies this summer. On the night we came through, Tony's Inn was full except for one non-A/C room. Overall, however, Corozal isn't even on the radar screen of most tourists visiting Belize. Sadly also, crime is increasing in Corozal, though it remains one of the friendliest and safest places in Belize. Even the Hok'ol K'in Guesthouse was held up at gunpoint earlier this year. The blue sky plans for a casino, hotel and shopping area near the Corozal Free Zone have been deconstructed and now only a casino may get built, sources say. Reportedly the old Don Quixote hotel site in Consejo is under contract and may become a fertility center. Top restaurants in town include the French-Caribbean Café Kela, which is supposed to get a liquor license in August, and which has some of the best pizza in Central America, and Cactus Plaza, home of tasty bargain-priced Mexican food.
Placencia: Visitors to Placencia these days are split into two camps: those who rave about the good time they had there and urge everyone to visit despite the lingering impact of Hurricane Iris, and those, mainly budget travelers, who are put off by the state of Placencia and Seine Bight villages and, while sympathizing with the plight of the villagers, aren't pleased with the lower peninsula as a vacation destination and, in some cases, actually leave early for other budget areas such as Tobacco Caye or Caye Caulker. Has the peninsula recovered from last October? Yes and no. In Maya Beach and other areas north of around Seine Bight village, things are about back to normal. All the major resorts are fully operational, and some are doing good business. But dozens of wood homes in Seine Bight village were destroyed and have still not been rebuilt. Parts of Placencia village look quite different from pre-hurricane days, and there is still debris which has not been removed. With a few exceptions, such as Inn at Robert's Grove, where occupancies have held up reasonably well and the hotel continues to expand with a new restaurant, dive shop and small marina on the lagoon side, hotel and tourism business is down sharply for many. Luba Hati, for example, closed in late May for the summer, and except for Tradewinds and a few other places in Placencia village, there is only limited budget-level tourist activity this summer. Another exception is The Moorings, a yacht charter business in Placencia Harbor which opened right after the hurricane and by all accounts is doing a booming business. It is expanding part of its operation to Robert's Grove marina, where it will base six captained boats. Real estate continues to be a driving force of the local economy, and several large upscale homes are being built at The Plantation and in other developments. Robert's Grove has sold four condos in what is the mainland's first "condominium zone." Owners Robert and Risa Frackman plan to build other condos on the lagoon side, but only when sold and not on spec. The Southern Highway is now paved past the cut-off to Placencia, but the 25-mile road to Placencia village remains a potential hazard after heavy rains. We're happy to see, however, that one of southern Belize's prime watering holes, Sugar Reef (formerly Lagoon Saloon), stays busy, especially during happy hour. In other miscellaneous Placencia news, beginning June 1 non-Belizeans visiting Laughing Bird Caye must pay a US$4 fee. A terminal building at the airstrip is nearing completion. Despite indications that lobsters will be in less than abundant supply this year, the Placencia Lobsterfest in late June attracts visitors from all over the country. Construction and rebuilding of Turtle Inn, which will be the name of Francis Ford Coppola's beach place (instead of Blancaneaux's Turtle Inn) is well underway. Grand opening is tentatively set for mid-December. Quite a few of the lodges and hotels on the peninsula reportedly are for sale, including Soulshine, Kitty's, Nautical Inn, Luba Hati, Barracuda and Jaguar Inn, and others.
Hopkins Area: The Hopkins area has benefitted somewhat from post-Iris troubles farther south. There are now more than two dozen hotels, guesthouses and resorts in the Hopkins/Sittee Point area. A few, such as Jaguar Reef, Pleasure Cove and Hamanasi are larger properties owned by Americans or Canadians, but most are small guest houses, in many cases operated by local families. Most visitors have nothing but good things to say about the friendliness of Hopkins residents. There are now not one but two Web sites focused on Hopkins: www.hopkinsbelize.com
Between Placencia and Hopkins is Belize's newest all-inclusive, Kanantik, built and operated by Roberto Fabbri, a former yacht salesman who was born in Italy but lived for many years in San Francisco, and his partner. Kanantik opened a couple of months ago, after seven years of planning and construction. It has 25 thatch cabanas with air-conditioning, a 1,200-ft. stretch of beach and a beautiful pool. Everything is included for one price here -- food, prepared by a chef from Guatemala, deluxe lodging, air transfers from Belize City, tours, local drinks, diving and, for the time being at least, fishing. The one price isn't cheap, US$300 per person double occupancy, and we feel it's still too early to say whether this business model will work in Belize, but we wish Roberto well.
Ambergris Caye: The hyper-development of Ambergris Caye has slowed a bit, although two large new bank buildings, one for Belize Bank and the other for Alliance Bank, are under construction on Front Street and numerous other commercial and residential buildings are going up. Seferino Paz is building some beautiful and pricey (like US$450,000) condos south of Banyan Bay. Tim Jeffers has added 31 units to his popular Banana Beach resort. The units range from regular hotel rooms to four-bedroom suites; a few may be rented on a monthly basis, starting at US$900 a month for a one-bedroom suite with the tenant paying utilities. A second pool is open here, and a new air-conditioned restaurant and gift shop are on the way. The island real estate market remains active, though the apartment rental market has softened significantly with the departure of many of the nearly 200 students at St. Matthews offshore med school, which moved in late spring to Grand Cayman. Two other schools, Medical School of the Americas, now in temporary space at the Belize Yacht Club, and St. Luke's downtown, may take up some of the slack as they add students. More hotels are for sale on the island than we've seen in a while. Among them: Hotel Del Rio, for US$580,000; Hideaway Sports Lodge, asking just under a million US; Coconuts, US$850,000 with some owner financing now possible, we understand (if we had the money, this is the place we'd probably buy); Mayas Katut, $275,000; and Caribbean Villas, US$1,875,000. The rumor mill has it that several other resort properties south of town are in play, with the potential buyer being a group associated with a well-connected island businessman.
El Cayo and Mountain Pine Ridge: In the Mountain Pine Ridge, there are plans to set out millions of Mountain Pines to replace those killed by the Southern Pine Beetle. A nursery near Blancaneaux is growing the seedlings. Speaking of Blancaneaux, this lodge looks better than ever despite the death of many pines on the grounds. An American crew was brought in to remove the dead trees, and landscaping highlights the remaining trees and shrubs. Although there's no denying the impact of the blighted pines, near the four lodges in the Pine Ridge are large areas of broadleaf forest unaffected by the beetles. Hidden Valley Inn has been purchased by the family that operates Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City and SunBreeze in San Pedro. The lodge will reopen soon, with a new pool and other improvements. Eventually, a dozen more cottages may be added. Some of the lodges and hotels in San Ignacio have suffered from the slowdown in tourism, and several are for sale. The nearly new Mayaland Villas near San Ignacio is being sold at public auction.
ON THE LIGHTER SIDE: How many Belizeans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to screw in the light bulb, one to collect the new light bulb tax, and one to check with Lord Michael Ashcroft to see if it's okay to change the bulb.
What's the difference between a Belizean and a canoe? The canoe sometimes will tip.
An American retiree in Corozal went to the doctor for a physical. The doctor said, "I'm afraid I have bad news. You have cancer and you have Alzheimer's." The expat said, "Well, at least I don't have cancer."