“Be warned, if you stop us from making a living…BTB, FSTV could be looking at the end of cruise tourism in Belize.” – Tom Greenwood

Earlier last week, on Tuesday, there were reports that there was a bit of an uproar at the Fort Street Tourism Village (FSTV) in Belize City when a taxi operator was detained by police after he acquired the use of a bullhorn to beckon incoming cruise tourists.

The various service providers – taxi drivers in particular – who congregate outside the Fort Street Tourism Village during the cruise season, have been complaining that the new zoning system that was put in place by the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) is not working because the new rules are not providing fair opportunities for them to make a living.

Well, Friday, the Federation of Cruise Tourism Associations of Belize (FECTAB) summoned a press conference in order to address those very same issues, among others. They told the media – and those in attendance – that the entire system needs to be revamped, and warned the BTB and FSTV that they both need to come to the table to dialogue with those being affected by the new regulations, or else the two entities might aggravate a total shutdown of the cruise tourism industry in Belize.

FECTAB – led by its firebrand president Tom Greenwood, and members Yhonny Rosado and David Almendarez – is once again enraged because they claim that the new zoning system that was implemented by the BTB, at the FSTV, has caused more than 200 tour guides, hair braiders, taxi drivers, and other service providers to be displaced from the areas where they usually solicit for their business. According to FECTAB, the vendors – taxi drivers especially – are all disconcerted because they believe that since they have been relocated from Terminal Two, they have been basically locked out from securing any business opportunities in and around the Tourist Village, given that they have been pushed too far away from where they are able to make their pitch to cruise visitors.

The new rotation system which has been called into question was implemented two weeks ago by the Belize Tourism Board, which manages the Fort Street Tourism Zone on North Front Street in Belize City. Under the new system, different groups of service providers get to be up front to meet and greet tourists on different cruise days, and thereafter they rotate once again to the back to allow the others to get a chance to do the same. Managing the crowd of service providers who normally assemble outside the FSTV is no easy task – particularly when the cruise season is in full swing – which is inevitably what led to both the implementation of the system and the incident on Tuesday.

FECTAB’s Tom Greenwood said that although the new system appeared to be effective at first, they soon realized that the numerous stakeholders – which include independent taxi and tour operators, hair braiders, and other vendors – were being displaced and, in effect, were being denied money-making opportunities. One of the reasons for their frustration is that the move will now force visitors to walk a distance to the Baron Bliss Lighthouse in order to board tour buses or taxis.

The members of FECTAB clamored for the BTB and FSTV to urgently discuss with them a different approach to appease those who have been negatively affected by BTB’s latest decision which has brought about the recent changes at the Fort Street Tourism Village.

David Almendarez asserted that this is the best time to find an amicable solution to the issue, particularly since it is prior to the start of the high season for tourist arrivals to the country. Almendarez said, “The [high] season hasn’t even started yet, [therefore] the best time to fix this problem is now. That’s why we are holding this press conference. Let us get together and dialogue. I am pretty sure that everybody who works out at the Tourism Village [know that] that’s our livelihood, and nobody will mess [around with] our livelihood, so we need to get the system fixed… We at FECTAB have noticed that even my fellow brothers, the taxi drivers, are saying ‘it’s not working out’, and if isn’t working out [then] we need to find a way to make it work out. The hair braiders are saying the same thing – ‘it’s not working out’; [so] it needs to be improved. We’re heading out of the slow season into the high season. This is where I’d like to call on the ‘powers that be’ that we need to dialogue. We need to look at the system that we’ve been using for the past couple of weeks and improve upon it. I can say that for some people it’s benefiting, but we need to bear in mind that most people who work out at these terminals… we are [at] the ‘bottom of the barrel’ – we’re fighting for the crumbs; and for them to be so overly regulative of the system, in my opinion, is sad. I think this a perfect conduit, the perfect way for us to reach out and dialogue, look at the system and we need to see how it’s affecting people.”

Tom Greenwood accused the FSTV of blatantly and literally locking out the vendors from the gates of one of the terminals at the usually frantic tourism village. Greenwood stated, “All of a sudden Terminal [1] opened again; this is the one with the cover – glory halleluia. This is what we wanted; people started coming out both there and at Terminal 2 because it takes time to change back. Two days later, we learned that chain and padlock were put on Terminal 1 door and people started coming [in and] out of Terminal 2 again, [which is] the same dangerous situation [that] we have always been confronted with, [whereby] buses and people [are] on the same ground.”

“It’s going to be chaotic and once again there are going to be masses of large buses and people mixed together in a closed scenario with iron gates and cement walls. What do you think is going to happen?” Greenwood cautioned.

According to FECTAB, this is because the managements of BTB and FSTV are misguided, and their decision will result in bad reviews by visitors who choose to come to our shores. Yohnny Rosado said that apparently, they (FSTV and BTB) don’t care about the taxi drivers, hair braiders, or anyone else who is outside the tourist village. He said, “If we get 30% to 40% bad reviews with all the taxi men, tour guides, and tour operators wandering and walking around outside terminal 1, 2, and 3 – if we get a couple bad reviews, imagine how much bad reviews we will have now when a guest cannot come out in the vicinity in front of the Tourism Village? …So we are again asking FSTV to regulate themselves with Terminal 1, Terminal 2, [and] Terminal 3 because what they are doing is a malicious act. They removed the tour operators from Terminal 2; setting us up at Terminal 1, and then they locked up the door. We’re asking to them change the rules because I don’t know who they are getting advice from, but the rules that they have right now are going to create a lot of problems, and then FECTAB is going to be in the media. We are here today because the beginning of the high season hasn’t started [yet] and the police are already taking some taxis, some tour guides and tour operators to the station to get charged for whatever bogus charges they want to put [on them].”

Rosado urged the authorities to refrain from harassing the vendors, and told BTB and FSTV that they are supposed to be sharing the economic “meat pie” with the vendors. He stated, “We are supposed to share this meat pie [therefore] we’re calling on the authorities to please restrain from taking any taxi [driver], hair braider, tour guide or tour operator without the consent of the president of each tour guide, taxi association or union. We have leaders, and before the police or BTB or FSTV have anything against us, they should communicate with our presidents. …We are saying that [although] it’s very simple for us to get angry on the job, I call upon the tour guides, hair braiders, taxi and tour operators to remain calm because apparently the police have been sent upon us with a brutal force. We have seen one taxi guy taken already. We don’t want to see no more of the hardworking people that come early in the morning –we get up five o’clock, five-thirty in the morning to get ready so by the time six, six-thirty, seven o’clock we are ready, not expecting to get hit by no police.”

The group contended that when individuals try to stand up for their share of the pie, they are quickly intimidated and arrested by the police, who are supposed to be there to protect the innocent citizens of the country.

While on that subject, Greenwood took the opportunity to expose an incident that took place about a year ago at the Tourism Village in which he alleged that his son was “roughed up” by a police officer – a corporal – who, Greenwood maintained, is still attached to the Tourism Police Unit (TPU). He gave a detailed account of the incident, which happened while he (Greenwood) was in Orange Walk, and said that the matter is just now coming to light because he had hoped that his relationship with the TPU would improve. Apparently it has not, and now Greenwood has demanded the immediate removal of that specific officer from the tourism village.

Greenwood also had some strong words for the BTB and FSTV, who he furiously lambasted while expressing his dissatisfaction. He issued a stern warning to the managers of FSTV, and affirmed that legal recourse is available in the case of a shutout of independent operators. Greenwood warned, “FSTV must understand that the day that the operators and guides and everybody else involved – hundreds of people quietly involved – and it’s all about taking bread and butter home in tourism – that the day that they continue this kind of behavior and cause us loss; if they think that we’re going to lap our tails between our legs and just walk home and forget it; and they’ll sit there with their preferred tour operator and basic people inside there and enjoy it, they are going to be looking at the end of cruise tourism in Belize. We say that very, very easily and very fairly; be warned. You stop us from making a living, we’re not going to sit there and watch you make that living, okay. You take that warning and you take it seriously and there are legal, aboveboard, quite acceptable ways to that, okay. You don’t have to break the law. To every crisis there is a solution, and to every problem there is a way to settle it. These are not angry moments; these are moments where we realize that we’ve reached a crossroads with survival. Survival, that’s what it’s all about.”

Today, Amandala got in contact with the Director of Tourism, Laura Esquivel-Frampton, who told us that the new rotation system does not affect persons who have online bookings, or who do their own marketing because those persons are not included in the group of vendors who normally stand outside the tourist village. She also explained that the hair braiders are not included in the rotation process since tourists would normally braid their hair when they return from their tours. Esquivel-Frampton informed us that the system was put in place due to the chaotic state that normally occurs at the terminal gates, especially on a day when there are multiple cruise ship arrivals. She stated that the move to close the terminal gates was carried out by FSTV in an effort to contain the ruckus outside in front of the terminal, and therefore has nothing to do with the BTB.

She also mentioned that there are two hair braiders’ associations who gather outside the tourism village; and that one of them is quite mild-mannered and cooperative, while the other seems rebellious and does not listen to authorities.

According to Esquivel-Frampton, the rotations take place in front of Terminal 2, which would normally be one of the most hectic terminals, and that the system has been working well because the vendors are alternated between four tents in front of the village, with each vendor getting an equal opportunity to get as close to the tourists as they possibly could.

BTB’s Tourism Director also clarified that they did have several meetings with all the stakeholders who were included in the rotation. As a matter of fact, she said that the BTB coincidentally had held a meeting with the heads of the unions and associations that have been affected at the House of Culture at the same time that FECTAB was raining down fire and brimstone at their own press conference.

Laura Esquivel-Frampton made it clear that she and the BTB are by no means trying to downplay the concerns of FECTAB and the vendors; however, there was ample time to address those concerns to BTB, she said, especially since there were two meetings with those who would be affected within the past two months, and even a dry-run period for them to see how the system would play out.

She explained that there are still a few adjustments that need to be done with the system, which they continue to tweak and fine-tune in order to make the necessary refinements. Esquivel-Frampton said that it is an unfortunate situation that there are over 200 people trying to do business on one small street, and that although they have asked some of the associations to be restrained in recruiting new members, they have continued to do so, which has instead resulted in their unwarranted expansion.

Amandala