The U.S. recession has definitely placed a strain on the tourism industry throughout the entire country and no other place is feeling this pinch a bit more than Ambergris Caye whose residents highly monitor the highs and lows of the industry. The town of San Pedro highly depends on the tourism dollar and whenever tourist numbers fall, residents become concerned about their livelihood. This is very much so the case this year as the beginning of the peak of the tourism season got off to a rocky start.
Reports coming in from the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) are that there has been a significant decline in the number of visitors coming into the country. The BTB is keeping a close eye on the situation and has reported that there have been layoffs at various hotels and resorts around the country. In the south in Placencia, it is known that at least three hotels have sent home about 100. In the west, there are also reports of layoffs and here in San Pedro A.C. many resorts are cutting back on staff. The Belize Hotel Association is tallying the numbers and the Belize Tourism Board is currently conducting its own survey to see which tourism destinations are experiencing the slump.
The topic of conversation here in town is usually about how people are seeing the arrivals. "How do you see the arrivals and bookings?" At the moment, things point out to a good end of year with plenty of bookings and visitors roaming the island. But what everyone fears is what will happen after the New Year celebrations when they tourists head back home. There is no foresight into figures of arrivals beyond next month as hotel personnel indicate that bookings are coming in last minute and not in advance like most seasons.
“We are working with hotels and doing our own survey of what their booking figures are looking like," commented Laura Esquivel, Director of Marketing for the BTB. "What we’re seeing right now is a trend of not so much advanced booking. We’re seeing a lot of bookings that’s coming in the last two to three weeks before people will be arriving. In the past we saw people booking like six months in advance, four months in advance."
There are some businesses that are for some reason, doing worse than others," she continued. "We actually have—I just went and I checked with some of the staff about the surveys—we have some hotels that are saying that they have numbers higher than last year. So it’s just a question of the demographics of where you’re marketing to and those kinds of things that are playing a role right now in the kind of tourism that each individual property is seeing.”
Here in San Pedro it seems that hotels and restaurants are not laying off people, but have placed some non-essential staff on an extended leave until things get better. All the Caribbean countries that primarily focus their marketing on the United States market are really seeing declines. Some countries are seeing as much as 20% decline in their numbers. Laura Esquivel says that our numbers are not that dismal as yet.
"In fact, in November, we were only down by 1.1% which, I know that that still hurts the industry but in comparison to the other countries that are seeing 15%, 20% decline, having a 1% down in November, which is the beginning of our season, isn’t all that bad considering where we focus our marketing," said Esquivel. On the other hand, the country has seen an increase in its European and Canadian visitors.
The real peak of the season comes around February and March when the weather is even better and many US residents are running from the cold weather there. The BTB says that it has been doing a lot of pushing in the European and Central American markets, primarily Mexico and hoping that within the next year the country can balance off any trends that are happening within the United States.
In the meantime, residents here are being very cautious and holding back on spending during the holiday season. The general consensus is that the tourist dollar is being spread thin amongst the number of hotels, restaurants and other businesses on the island. Word over the weekend is that over 500 island residents left the island to head home to their families for the Christmas weekend. This will definitely impact business and according to others in the industry, many more employees can be sent home immediately following the New Year's Day when visitors begin to head back home. All that we can hope is for good numbers for the holidays and have a positive outlook for the coming year. Until then we will just have to keep a close eye on tourism arrivals on a month by month basis. Ambergris Today