I watch with amusement and sadness at the controversy taking place in Belize City over the handling of tours for the cruise lines…and cannot help but note the implications for what is being contemplated for the expansion of cruise tourism to southern Belize. Of course the battle between local tour operators and a foreign owned company is a fight in which both sides are right. Local companies SHOULD handle the tours, yet at the same time the cruise lines SHOULD be able to hire the most competent from amongst all operators.
The problem here is not with any individual on either side of the issue; the real culprit is structural. As long as the cruise industry operates the way it does, those people in countries like Belize trying to make a living off cruise tourism will always be fighting over the crumbs that fall off the table. Why?
The three companies that control the bulk of the world’s cruise trade are huge. Carnival Corporation alone generated gross revenues of over 13 BILLION US dollars in 2009…and this was at the height of the global economic meltdown. Compare this to the total revenue of the Belize Government during the same period of around 360 MILLION and you get some idea of the disparity of strength when these two parties sit across from each other at the negotiating table. A single cruise company is nearly forty times as large as our entire government!
What, one wonders, is the balance of power when Carnival sits down with a single Belizean tour operator? To use an analogy that many Belizeans can relate to, it’s like the relationship between the man driving an Escalade and the crack head who wants to wash his car…and just to be clear: we’re not the guy in the Escalade.
By the way, in case you are wondering, for all its global operations in 2009 Carnival paid a total of only US$16 million in income tax on profits of $1.7 billion. This is roughly the same amount of business tax paid by our own BTL, a company around two hundred times smaller than Carnival. It should be obvious that the cruise companies did not get where they are by being stupid. Their guiding principal is the same as that followed by the meatpacking industry.
When asked to list the parts of the pig his company made use of, the slaughterhouse manager replied “everything but the oink”. So too the cruise lines seek to squeeze every last cent out of their passengers leaving little or nothing to go to “waste.”
Having calculated exactly how much the average passenger will spend on any given cruise both on and off the ship, it is the aim of the cruise company to make sure that as large a portion as possible of that total spent winds up in the corporate pocket. If a passenger books a cave tubing tour for a hundred dollars the cruise line keeps fifty as a “booking fee”. That leaves the local tour operator with only fifty to run the tour and make a little profit.
And while trying to scratch a few cents out of that fifty after paying guides, bus, food and administration, our hard pressed tour operator needs to keep pushing down his own costs because next year his desperate competitor may offer to do the tours for forty-five. For most local businesses, getting involved with cruise tourism is a lot like stepping into the Princess casino: for every winner there are a hundred losers.
In cultural terms the imbalance is just as great. Look at overnight tourism. For over two decades it has been the country’s largest single engine of economic growth. Beginning from next to nothing in the mid 80’s, this initially foreign-dominated sector has grown impressively in both size and local involvement to the point where Belizean resorts have come to consistently dominate the top spots in annual polls of Latin America’s best travel destinations.
Speak to any resort-based tour guide working with birdwatchers, fly fishermen or divers and virtually every one will tell you that they regularly correspond with favorite visitors who come back year after year. I know many guides who have established such close friendships with their clients that they and their families go to the States for regular visits and even form productive business partnerships.
What does this have to do with cruise ships? Only that I know few cruise guides who establish meaningful relationships with their tourist clients. How could they when they are shepherding 40 impatient day trippers on a mad dash up and down a Mayan temple so they can make it back to the boat in time for free ice cream and salsa lessons?
Tourism, at its heart, is a cultural encounter. Long, relaxed, unhurried stays by visitors who have time to meet, interact with and understand Belizeans and Belize not only means more money in our pockets for beds, food, drinks and tours; it produces the kind of relationships that small countries in a highly competitive world find increasingly necessary.
In short, Belize needs all the friends it can get: the richer and more powerful, the better. Overnight tourism promotes these valuable international personal relationships. Cruise tourism at best produces a few pennies for a few people; at worst a negative impression born of an impersonal encounter that puts us in the same category along with a dozen other forgettable destinations characterized by the slogan - “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt”.
At this point you might agree that OK, it’s obvious that big predatory companies exploit small poor countries. That is hardly major news. You might also admit that locals don’t have much to gain from cruise tourism beyond some chump change. But hell, chump change is still change and even the shilling the guy in the Escalade flips to the crack head is still a shilling more than he had before. So what’s the harm?
The real harm is not in what we see, but in what we don’t see. It’s the cruise tourist who spends an hour walking around the Tourist Village in Belize City and thinks he has seen Belize. Having paid $279 for a five-day cruise to the Western Caribbean he is now on a statistical par with the overnight tourist who spent ten days in the rainforest and cayes and left $5,000 in the hands of local hoteliers, restaurants tour guides and transportation companies.
Both of these visitors go home saying that they have seen Belize. The overnight tourist probably had a great experience and could quite possibly come back and repeat the process or at least will tell his friends good things about his Belize Adventure. The cruise tourist, however, has now checked Belize off his “places to visit before I die” list and will not return. Multiply this fellow by 600,000 cruise visitors a year, and pretty soon you wind up with a hell of a lot of people who are not coming back to Belize.
And what of the overnight visitor to Cayo who makes the mistake of visiting Xunantunich on a cruise day? Chances are, she’s not coming back either.
What this boils down to is that by embracing cruise tourism we are selling Belize cheap. Way too cheap. If you want to hear the local band in Placencia, chances are you can head down to Barefoot Bar, have a drink and dance the night away for free. But if you want to experience a performance by the Black Eyed Peas in a New York City club you might pay $200 - if you could get in. Different attractions, different prices.
So, is Belize the local house band or the Black Eyed Peas? For me it’s a no brainer. Having had the good fortune to travel to almost every tourism destination in the Caribbean (business, not pleasure), I can objectively report that there is no place I have ever been that even comes close to having the combined world class attractions that Belize has. Sure, on an individual basis the white sand beaches of Anguilla are nicer than Placencia, diving in Bonaire may be slightly better than San Pedro, Tikal may be a bit more awe-inspiring than Caracol, the bonefish six ounces bigger in Key West and Mount Kilimanjaro may tower over Victoria Peak.
But I defy you to find ANY PLACE ON EARTH where you can catch a permit, tarpon or bonefish before breakfast, dive a barrier reef before lunch, climb a jungle-covered mountain in the afternoon and kayak down a rushing river in time to watch a sunset from the top of a two thousand-year-old Mayan Temple…ALL IN ONE DAY. And with the new Placencia road you can do it in comfort and safety.
The fact is that in the world of great places to visit, Belize is Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner and the Beatles all rolled into one unequalled show. So why do we let so many people enjoy the concert for free? It’s because as a nation we suffer from what psychologists would call a case of low self-esteem. We are the beautiful intelligent loving woman whose abusive boyfriend has her convinced she is worthless. It’s a common affliction, but in our individual lives, there are professionals who help us overcome such obstacles.
Fortunately in national life there are also professionals who can help us understand and overcome these problems, but despite their repeated advice our leaders do not always listen. Expert after expert has told us that Belize’s future lies in eco and high end tourism. We know that cruise tourism is the opposite of high end ecotourism. So why is our government trying to foist the curse of cruise tourism on us?
For Belize City it’s probably too late. The ships are already too entrenched in that struggling economy. The various players now at war will make their peace and muddle through as best they can. But as a resident of the Placencia Peninsula who has invested heavily in overnight tourism I can only plead with the Ministry of Tourism, the Prime Minister and Cabinet to look at the facts, think long term, stop selling the country short and realize that by promoting cruise tourism in the South they are - like our friend the crack head - grabbing the shilling and thinking it’s a bag of gold.
Seine Bight Village