HOW IS BELIZE TOURISM HOLDING UP?
New Poll: 70% of Belize Hotels Report Travel Bookings Down
--Tourism Could Fall 20% in 2002--
[Copyright 2001 -- this article may be reproduced only with credit to Belize First, ]www.belizefirst.com]
By LAN SLUDER
A survey of more than 30 Belize hotel operators around the country has found that about seven in 10 of the hotels report bookings for the 2002 high season are down, compared with the same period last year.
Based on projections by hotels in Belize and on trends in international air travel, plus the lingering impact of Hurricane Iris on Placencia area hotels, tourism in Belize is likely to be off by about 20% next year, according to estimates by knowledgeable observers and projections from hoteliers.
If there's good news, it is that Christmas bookings are holding up fairly well, with few cancellations reported by hotel operators. Some hotels, especially on Ambergris Caye, are fully booked for the holidays.
Of hotels surveyed in November, about 70% report that bookings for the first four months of 2002, Belize's high tourist season, are down from the same period last year. The percentage decline ranges from a very little to "big time," as one lodge operator in Cayo put it. Another hotel manager in northern Belize reports a decline in bookings of more than 90%. Only one hotel, on Caye Caulker, predicted an up year, while about 22% felt that future reservations were flat or about the same as last year.
Airlines flying into Belize and Central America say international travel has declined by 25% or more since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. American, which serves Belize City from Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami, reported a 32.9% decline in international seat miles for November, though figures for the Belize routes weren't available. A seat mile is one passenger flown one mile.
Most Belize hotels, however, say that bookings for the Christmas-New Year period are strong, with few cancellations. U.S. airlines also report that holiday air travel levels will be close to that of last year, despite the slowing economy and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "The events of September 11th gave us a bad October and November, but the future doesn't look as bad as I originally thought -- presently we seem to be getting more Europeans than usual for this time of the year which is making up for the reduced amount of Americans traveling," says one Belize City hotel operator.
The exception for Belize is the Placencia peninsula and nearby areas, where Hurricane Iris cleanup and rebuilding continues in Placencia and Seine Bight villages, and where some parts of the peninsula still do not have pipe water or land telephones. While most of the resorts north of Placencia village, including well-known places such as Inn at Robert's Grove and Kitty's Place, have reopened, the lack of e-mail and telephone access since the October 8 storm and reluctance by tourists to book into an area devastated by a hurricane means that holiday tourism levels will be very low compared with the last few years. This is true also in Toledo district, but that area gets relatively few visitors even in an ordinary year.
Overall, unless conditions change significantly in early 2002, next year could see a one-fifth drop in international arrivals in Belize. This would be the biggest year-to-year drop in tourism ever recorded. A large upswing in cruise ship arrivals will partly offset this drop in air and land arrivals, but the positive impact will be felt mostly in Belize City and among the small group of tour operators serving the cruise market.
"Things have slowed down big time, but I anticipate a lot of last minute bookings getting into the season, even more so now that everyone is offering specials," says a Cayo lodge operator.
Interviews with Belize hotel operators and responses to the poll also show these trends:
-- Travelers are waiting later than usual to book and are making more last-minute bookings.
-- While Americans still dominate the Belize tourist market, representing about 75% of Belize arrivals, hotel operators are seeing more European visitors than before. European travelers to Belize are mostly at the budget level, though they tend to stay longer than Americans.
-- Hotels in Belize are holding down price increases, typically keeping 2002 rates at the same level as 2001.
-- More hotels are running specials, promoting discounts in the high season, a practice rarely seen before.
-- Hotels in popular resort areas, especially Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, appear to be doing better than those in other areas, including Belize City, Cayo and Corozal.
Says one knowledgeable tour operator in Belize: "I noticed the slow down last April. Things went dead September 11. They've started picking up, but it's still up and down, not up. I've called lodges and hotel owners to see how they are doing -- they say fine and then I get there and it doesn't look so fine to me. Thanksgiving was good. It always is. Christmas is (almost) sold out. It always is. But Osama bin Laden could have sold out his hotel in Belize during Christmas, if he had one."
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Lan Sluder is the author or co-author of six books on Belize, including Adapter Kit: Belize and the upcoming San Pedro Cool. He also edits Belize First Magazine.