So far unspoiled, Belize faces tourism explosion. Developers wait in the wings to pounce

The Toronto Star August 13, 1988, Saturday, SATURDAY SECOND EDITION

AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize - Jerry McDermott lights a cigarette and looks out his window, a glimpse that takes in paradise: Swaying palm trees along the shore, sand, sparkling water, warm sunlight and, most especially, the second-longest barrier reef in the world, visible less than a mile away across the shallows.

In one sentence, he signs the death knell for the peace and quiet of this unusual and largely undeveloped nation - and at the same time signals its probable destiny as a major tourist destination in the western Caribbean:

"That beauty, that scenery, that landscape, that geography . . . It demands to be exploited."

It is a vision he seems to be quite comfortable with. McDermott is a former oilman, driven to Belize by the collapse of the Texas petroleum industry. He owns and operates one of the best-known tourist facilities in the country, the Paradise Resort Hotel at the north end of San Pedro, the major settlement on Ambergris Caye.

His is a common species in this tiny Central American nation and a powerful one.

Over the years, Americans like him, as well as other foreigners with ample money - or ample energy - have come to try their hand in Belize because here they have found a government friendly to foreign investment and willing to grant business concessions.


It was once called British Honduras, and is still ruled by British law with strong ties to the United Kingdom. It is a multilingual, multi-racial society living under a peaceful and mostly progressive system of government virtually unheard of in volatile Central America. Indeed, only one other country - Costa Rica - is as peaceful.

In fact, most observers say the country is more laid-back Caribbean than revolutionary Central American, and all the evidence supports that view.

By most estimates, Belize is perched on the edge of a tourism explosion. You hear this from hotel owners, from dive-shop operators, fishing guides, government officials, British soldiers, official State Department studies and from tourists who have been coming to Belize for years.

And they're probably right. It's almost inevitable because Belize is a dream vacation spot for North Americans:

* Almost everybody speaks English. It's the official language, and Spanish is taught as a second language. More than 60 percent of the population is bilingual; 16 percent are trilingual.

* The population of Belize (1980 census) was 145,350; present population is estimated at about 150,000. Included in that total are an increasing number of refugees from other Central American nations, especially Guatemala and El Salvador.

Best diving

* Belize is a naturalist's fondest dream. Seventy-five percent of the land is uninhabited. The mainland is filled with thousands of species of birds and animals. Jaguars are here in numbers that insure their survival and are protected by the government.

* The bays and cayes along the coast are filled with marine life; the areas along the reef and near the large offshore atolls offer some of the best diving in the world.

* One of the best atoll areas has been turned into a national park and bird sanctuary. Preservation of the country's small population of manatees is a national priority.

* The game fishing is superb. And the bush area toward the Guatemalan border is filled with unexcavated Maya temples and a wealth of wildlife, including the national animal, the tapir, a big pig.

* Prices are low. On Ambergris Caye, it is possible to find a clean and acceptable hotel room for $20 U.S. a night. Or, you can get wild and spend $400 a night. Meals are varied, good and often cheap.

Calmed down

* You can drink the water. The water is mostly from rivers and wells with little contamination. Most diseases have been eradicated and the general health service in the country is probably the best in Central America, says the Agency for International Development, or AID, a branch of the U.S. State Department that concentrates on developing nations.

* The country is protected by the Belize Defence Force, largely composed of British soldiers. When Belize became independent in 1981, the British government guaranteed its security by placing troops in the country for "an unspecified time."

The troops were sent primarily as a deterrent against Guatemala, which has a long-standing claim to Belize not acknowledged by Great Britain (or the United Nations).

Things calmed down considerably after the British kicked the Argentines out of the Falklands and then told Guatemala that the U.K. was not reluctant to use force in other areas - meaning Belize.

The general population, though poor, is well educated. And to make a sweeping generalization, they also seem to be very friendly, open and proud of their country. Although there is a serious crime problem in Belize City, most of the rest of the country seems to be much safer than either one of its Latin neighbors.

The current government has made tourism its No. 2 priority. Agricultural development is No. 1. The new emphasis on tourism has not yet translated into any major improvements in the way Belize handles its tourism industry, but it does signal a change in philosophy. What is lacking now, and will become a major problem if expected tourism expansion takes place, is central planning.

The country also lacks an infrastructure capable of handling a massive increase in tourists. Water and sewer systems are barely coping now, hotel facilities in many areas are crude, the international airport in Belize City, while quaint, is a logistics nightmare, and there are no nationwide standards for tourist facilities and no uniform building codes for hotels or restaurants.

Another Waikiki

How developed is Belize? Well, the tallest building in the country is the old Maya temple at Xunantunich, near the Guatemalan border.

All this is likely to change, of course.

There are articles in Belize papers from time to time worrying about the expected invasion of North Americans, and the role of the United States in the future ofBelize is a constant topic of conversation around the country.

Belize has a long history of political and philosophical attachments to England and a long history of economic ties to the United States. But there are concerns thatBelize, if it is not careful, will turn into another Cancun or Waikiki.

One thing bothering some observers - North Americans as well as Belizeans - is the increasing role being played by the Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps in Belize.

AID has proposed a number of improvement projects around the country, which the Belize government welcomes but which sometimes carry U.S. requirements that irk some Belizeans - changes in priorities, changes in accounting procedures, U.S. directives on staffing, etc.

Belize also has the largest per capita number of Peace Corps personnel of any country in the world: about 180, or about one volunteer for every 900 Belizeans. There have been charges that some Corps volunteers are incompetent and are actually taking jobs that should go to Belizeans. The United States denies this.

To many Belize-based Americans like McDermott, however, the future of Belize is inevitable - and logical.

"This is no banana republic," he says. "You can't really class it as a Central American country. Look at the racial mix, blacks and whites and Mayans and Chinese and Caribs and Spanish, and there's no appreciable amount of racial prejudice here, and no economic prejudice. There's no keeping up with the Joneses, no conspicuous consumption.

"The country is slowly but surely becoming modernized, and here's something - we're one of the few Third World countries who are current on their debt payments, not just interest, but principal. There's not a Communist in the whole damned country, and both political parties are very right wing.

"It's a perfect place for Americans to take a vacation. It's got it all. The last two years the tourist industry has grown tremendously. I've been here 18 years. The first 16 years, there was zero tourism. But we've had a great deal of publicity, all good, and the whole thing's going to change.

"I thought when I came down here I'd lie back in my hammock, but as you see your investment grow and you get financially secure, you have to make a choice: stop it right here, don't let anybody else come, or accept the inevitable."

He stops, looks out the window, lights yet another cigarette.

"I came here broke, but I had the innate American trait of trying to make a profit. I just don't want to let a good deal go by."