BELIZE HOTEL SURVEY FINDS MODEST SLOWDOWN
IN AFTERMATH OF TERRORIST ATTACKS
-- Christmas Bookings Remain Strong But 2002 Looks Iffy --
By Lan Sluder
Belize First Magazine
In the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks in the United States, at BELIZE FIRST we wanted to assess the impact of the attacks and the worldwide travel slowdown on tourism in Belize. Tourism, with agriculture, is a top driver of the Belize economy. During the first week in October, we surveyed about two dozen hotel owners and managers in all areas of Belize, including Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, Belize City, Cayo, Placencia, Hopkins and Corozal, asking them about current bookings and future trends. Here are the results.
1. Most properties in Belize have experienced cancellations for September and October, some ranging up to 30%. However, due to the time of year -- September and October are routinely the slowest months of the year for tourism in the Western Caribbean -- the actual economic impact in Belize has been modest so far.
2. Bookings remain strong for the prime Christmas holiday season, and hotels so far report few cancellations for this period. However, since stiff cancellation penalties don’t usually kick in until 30 or 60 days before arrival, more guests may cancel as these deadlines approach.
3. In the aftermath of the attacks, future bookings for 2002 slowed significantly, but hotel operators are seeing some bounce now.
4. Hotel operators are unsure about how the terrorist attacks and an anticipated U.S. and global slowdown will impact Belize tourism for the next year. The consensus appears to be that tourism in Belize next year at best will be flat, with no growth from this year. A few operators are still holding out hopes for a strong 2002, while the more pessimistic believe that if the global economy sours and military action heats up, next year could turn out to be the worst for Belize tourism since at least the Gulf War in 1991.
Here’s what hotel owners and GMs are saying about tourism in Belize. Keep in mind that this is not a scientific sampling of the more than 400 hotels in Belize. However, it does represent the views and experiences of the operators of many of the largest and most successful hotels, lodges and beach resorts in Belize.
* Nearly all hotels surveyed in Belize have experienced cancellations or no-shows for September and October. In most cases the number of cancellations has been small, from “a few” to around 30%. With flights into Belize canceled for almost a week following the attacks, a few hotels saw business after September 11 drop 40% or more. However, because September and October are routinely the slowest months of the year for tourism in Belize, and some hotels and lodges were already scheduled to be closed for part of this period, the impact of the cancellations so far has been relatively modest. One island resort operator says: “Our business is probably down about 25-30% for September and October. I would guess November will be down some but not as much. Activity on our web site was way down but now has returned to normal levels. Hopefully that's a sign that people are considering traveling to Belize.”
* Hotels are handling cancellations in various ways. Some are offering credits for future stays, some are applying their standard cancellation fees, and a few are providing full deposit refunds and waiving penalties.
* Hotels and lodges that traditionally have gotten a lot of business from New York and the Northeastern U.S. are feeling the impact more than hotels that generally draw from other areas. Although the survey sample is not large enough to state this with confidence, it appears that the more upscale properties catering to older, more affluent guests are seeing greater weakness in bookings than budget properties catering to younger travelers, especially those from Europe.
* Almost all hotels surveyed say bookings for the prime Christmas and New Years period are strong. A number of the caye and coast resorts are fully booked for the period this year, as they were in previous years. Hotels report virtually no cancellations yet for Christmas. However, since at many properties stiff cancellation fees don’t kick in until 30 or 60 days before arrival, more guests may cancel as these deadlines approach. Says a Belize City-based operator: “It’s hard to find a room for Christmas and New Years, but we’re not over the hump yet. Most hotels only have deposits now. They’ll know more when they request the balances, usually 30 days prior to arrival.”
* Overall, bookings for early 2002 appear to be significantly lighter than last year and below operator expectations. A beach hotel operator says: “Christmas is mostly booked as usual but early 2002 still looks weak. Many people seem to taking a wait and see attitude at this time.” A lodge operator reports: “As of the first week in September, we were well on our way to having a banner season ... It was dead quiet from the 11th for at least two weeks. But now, I'm getting several inquiries a week, and deposits for next year are coming in.” Another mainland operator says: “Bookings stalled for the first few weeks ... and have now returned to just plain slow, but I should be seeing lots more requests at this time for future bookings.”
* Due mostly to economic softening in the U.S., which is the source of about three-fourths of Belize tourist arrivals, Belize hotel owners are holding the line on price increases. In most cases, rates for 2002-2003 are being kept the same as for this year, and in at least one case a hotel rolled back a planned service charge. So far, hotel operators haven’t announced plans to discount to attract new business.
* Looking ahead to 2002, most hotel operators are cautiously optimistic. The consensus is that tourism in Belize won’t see the growth previously projected but will remain at about 2001 levels, flat but not down. A lodge operator says: “I think it will result in this season going from a great year to a fair year but probably not as bad as the year of Desert Storm.”
* Tourism in Belize won’t collapse, operators say, because much of their business -- especially on Ambergris Caye -- is repeat business from visitors who know Belize and won’t hesitate to come back. Also, Belize may get more business from Europe and more from Americans who may decide to vacation closer to home rather than to travel to Europe or elsewhere. A lodge operator says: “It is conceivable that we may even do better due to redirection of travel from Europe, Middle East and Asia. Wholesalers and agents will be hustling for safe close-to-home product or they will go out of business - I think Belize fits the bill.”
* Hotel operators say they think things will slowly return to about normal, assuming there is no major war. Overall, operators are more concerned about a U.S. recession than about the fallout from military action against terrorists or countries that harbor terrorists. A San Pedro hotel operator says: “The economy is an even greater worry since we have been enjoying the benefits of Americans with lots of disposal income. In San Pedro, we have the same guests returning several times in one year because they could afford it. That will cease.”
* Hotel operators say it is still to early to assess the full impact of the attacks and the potential global recession. Much depends on what happens militarily and how the economic slowdown, especially in the U.S., plays out. “This ain’t over by a long shot. This is a brave new world, and no one knows what it will turn into,” says one knowledgeable tourism operator.
* Should the slowdown continue for a long time, or should the global economy go through a severe downturn, Belize tourism operators, who are mostly small, lightly capitalized businesses, could have a hard time coping. Despite two years of record or near-record hotel occupancies, many hotels in Belize are barely staying afloat. Says one operator: “Many hotels in San Pedro are still recovering from both Keith and Mitch, bank loans are at high interest, costs are very high, everything we buy costs us and arm and a leg. Most people live close to the bone, and not a lot of skin covering. I’m not pessimistic, but I’m being realistic.”
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