Why we continue the fight against Norwegian Cruise Line

“It’s a done deal!”
“You can’t win against a big rich company like NCL!”
“You can’t fight the Government!”

We have all heard these words before, both in Belize and around the world. They are the words of people who are counting on average citizens to shut down their brains, shut up their mouths and bow down to their masters. At tonight’s public consultation these same people—Norwegian Cruise Line and their paid agents—will try to impress you with a large crowd and a lot of noise. Why? Because that’s what you have to do when you don’t have the facts on your side. All we ask from the Department of the Environment, the National Environmental Appraisal Committee and those citizens attending this consultation is to look at the facts behind the Harvest Caye cruise port and decide for yourselves whether it will make life better for you, your children and your grandchildren.

It’s all about jobs. At least that’s what they will tell you. The fact is that every time they talk about jobs it’s always a different number. Laura Esquivel Frampton and Tracy Taegar of the Ministry of Tourism claimed 800-1000 direct jobs…but the EIA from NCL says only 250 jobs including both the caye and Malacate on the mainland. With NCL having a ship in port at most only 150 days per year are these jobs full or part time? Year round or seasonal? Salaries? If the cruise line can give a number the must know exactly what the jobs are. For example, how many bartenders? How many cooks? How many landscapers? Security guards? Secretaries? And what about the 25% of employees that NCL has told Government will be filled by foreigners? Presumably they will get the highest paying jobs so where does that leave Belizeans? Please NCL, show us the jobs, the hours and the pay scales.

But at least there will be plenty of jobs for tour guides, right? Well, not necessarily. With all those “fabulous” attractions on the island that make NCL money will people really be encouraged to go on tours? There are two genuinely fabulous zip lines in southern Belize but the EIA says that NCL will have its own zip line on the island. Why? Will the snorkelers diving the reef in front of the caye be guided or on their own? And who will run the tours? In similar situations in the Caribbean the tours are contracted out to a few large operators, often owned by outsiders. Where does that leave the large number of independent local tour operators and guides? Will those independents be given access to sell tours to cruise visitors on the caye or at Malacate? For that matter will anyone be given access to Harvest Caye? If friends or relatives from the States come on a cruise can you pick them up with your boat on the island and take them out to lunch in Placencia?

And speaking of jobs, could the cruise port endanger 1200 jobs at nearby shrimp farms? If you look at the satellite photos you’ll see that directly to leeward of Harvest Caye are a number of shrimp farms with many others nearby. These mainstays of the economy depend on the highest standards of purity for a world market increasingly concerned with food quality. What will be the effect of sewage disposal on the island on the shrimp farms’ intake of clean water? Massive pesticide use on the island that is famous for sand flies? Contamination of virus free farms by waste from diseased Asian shrimp served onboard the ships? NCL will no doubt say that it will employ the highest sewage standards, use the most “green” pest control and even that they will buy only Belizean shrimp. Let’s see it in writing…and ensure that their promises are closely monitored.

OK, so the jobs aren’t great but the Government will certainly earn a lot of money from taxes, no? Actually, no. Although there is a paltry US$7 tax paid by each passenger, under the memorandum of understanding signed by Government and NCL, the cruise line will be given a kickback by the Government of US$4! This, it has been explained, is to help NCL “recover its investment”. Based on its own figures this means that NCL will recover its full capital investment from Belizean taxpayers well before its exclusive 25 year concession has expired. That’s right, we the citizens of Belize will pay back NCL every penny of their US$50 million investment! No hotel in Belize has ever received a penny’s worth of refund of the hotel tax. In fact no project anywhere in Belize has ever received this kind of special treatment . It’s kind of like the slave being asked to repay the slave master for his room and board. It’s also worth noting that NCL did not pay a penny in transfer tax on the purchase of the island or the company that owns it, thus depriving the treasury of perhaps a million dollars before the company hired even a single employee.

Taxpayers spent a fortune on consultants, studies and a Master Plan for tourism. What do those reports say? The National Sustainable Master Tourism Plan, the Seatone Report – and all other expert advice, says, “Don’t Do This!” That Master Plan, commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism and endorsed by Cabinet as the guiding document for tourism growth and development in Belize through 2030, clearly and directly states on page 132 that:

“Pocket Cruise tourism is the only acceptable form of cruise tourism in South Eastern Coast Belize.”

That’s it, that’s what the Plan says – no, ifs, ands, or buts. No mass cruise ship tourism in southern Belize.

Further, the Seatone Report, commissioned and endorsed by the Belize Tourism Board, also clearly states that southern Belize does not want and is not ready for, mass cruise ship tourism, either economically, socially or culturally.

By the Terms of Reference for this EIA, the EIA preparer was obligated to conduct studies to determine the potential impacts of mass cruise tourism in southern Belize, and to consult with stakeholders, NGOs, public interest groups and others on the issues associated with cruise ship tourism.

Both The Master Tourism Plan and the Seatone Report were written after hundreds of interviews, meetings and consultations with local governments, business owners, village leaders, tour guides, tour operators, hotel owners, hotel employees and other stakeholders throughout southern Belize. Their rigorous examinations of the pros and cons of different forms of tourism in the area, including cruise ship tourism, are certainly in far greater compliance with the requirements of the Harvest Caye EIA than the EIA itself, which provides no information on the methodology used in selecting who were interviewed, what information was provided to them about the proposed project, and what questions were asked of them.

The laws and regulations of Belize, and the specific terms of reference for the NCL EIA, require socio-economic and cultural impacts of proposed developments to be extensively researched and analyzed – and for impacts to be factored into the decision on whether a proposed development is sound for Belize. The Master Plan and the Seatone Report have exhaustively studied and analyzed those questions – and both have returned a resounding NO!to mass cruise ship tourism in southern Belize.

So whose idea was this project in the first place? A mass cruise port for southern Belize was not in the electoral manifesto of any political party and for the first five years of the present government you never heard a peep about it. The Minister of Tourism never said a word and neither did the Minister of Investment or any other cabinet minister. No citizens group ever asked for a cruise port in the south, no NGO, not the Chamber of Commerce or the labor unions. One would think that if a cruise port in the South was such a good idea and there were so many studies and consultants running around the country surely someone would have proposed the idea before now. But they didn’t. Why not?

Safe, clean drinking water is a basic human right. The NCL cruise port at Harvest Caye could jeopardize the basic human right to clean drinking water for the fast growing areas of Independence, Placencia, Seine Bight and the entire Placencia Peninsula, who now enjoy the blessing of some the purest water in the world. But will it stay that way if NCL is sucking hundreds of thousands of gallons per day from the same precious aquifer? The Harvest Caye EIA contradicts itself about where fresh water for cruise ship passengers will come from. Will it be piped to the caye directly from our aquifer on the mainland? Converted from seawater? Taken from a well? The EIA doesn’t say. Not only does the EIA contradict itself, but all three methods could deplete our fresh water aquifer or contaminate it with saltwater by puncturing it through deep dredging for NCL’s channel, driving huge pilings for NCL’s pier, or by injecting the waste products from desalination directly into the aquifer. Why? Because the EIA completely ignores the issues of where our freshwater aquifer is located in relation to Harvest Caye, how much water our aquifer holds, and how much water we can take from it before we start experiencing drought – or turning on our taps and saltwater coming out. The EIA also fails to guarantee that our limited water supply will not be used to fill the cavernous tanks of the ships docked at the caye. Remember that each ship is actually a floating city of 5000 people—people who take 30 minute showers and flush toilets ten times each day-- and they come largely in the dry season when our water is most scarce. So what is more important: water for cruise passengers or water for Belizeans?

Massive dredging and resulting siltation will destroy manatee, dolphin, fish and other marine animal habitats, as well as corals, seagrass beds and mangroves. Based on the EIA, almost 2 million cubic meters (2.7 million cubic yards) will be dredged from the sea bed to create the marina, lagoon, channel, and a turning bay for the development on Harvest Caye. That’s an awful lot of digging for a “nature park”. In contrast, the channel expansion for the Big Creek port only dredged 1.4 million cubic meters, and, the NCL EIA doesn’t even discuss, much less evaluate and quantify, the amount and type of dredging that will be needed for underground pipelines for electricity and possibly water. Further, according to NCL’s own geotechnical report, the channel to be dredged (974,962 cubic meters) is mostly soft soils that will collapse back in on themselves, requiring continuous maintenance dredging – a matter which is also not mentioned in the EIA. In addition, the EIA admits that massive amounts of silt will be generated by dredging operations. It is well documented that siltation destroys the habitats of a wide range of marine life, thus affecting fishing grounds as well as tourist attractions. Given the massive amounts of dredging and spoils disposal that will occur if the project is approved, and the resulting effects on the manatee, dolphins, fish, coral and other sea life – and humans - that use the Harvest Caye mangrove and littoral forest habitat, the EIA could have been expected to include an in-depth analysis of these issues. It does not.

In fact, many, if not most, of these issues are simply ignored. For instance, the NCL EIA proposes to dump much of the dredged soils back into the Caribbean, but does not include ANY type of assessment of the area where the spoils are to be dumped, instead, stating that this assessment will be done AFTER the dumping is approved by the Department of the Environment! Currents in the area are generally to the south, but the EIA does not include any details on what is to the south of the Caye that may be imperiled by siltation – sea grass beds, corals, fish nurseries? We don’t know because the EIA simply ignores many issues related to this massive dredging – as it ignored the effect of siltation plumes that will be caused by the ship itself every time it travels to the Caye and every time it turns in its turning bay. Surely the people of Belize deserve to be accurately informed about exactly how much of our natural heritage we are being asked to sacrifice in exchange for a small number of low paying part-time seasonal jobs.

Even if I agree that mass cruise tourism is bad for southern Belize what is the alternative? How do we develop the economy of the South? Old timers from Toledo and Stann Creek can tell you that over the last 40 years dozens of grand government and internationally funded “development” projects have been initiated to help the “poor people of the South”…and just as many have failed. Usually the only folks who benefitted were the well paid outside consultants and the Belize City car agencies who sell them those fancy new SUVs.

But steadily and quietly—below the radar of city-based media—life has been improving in the south. Aquaculture is once again on the rise, cacao and chocolate making is becoming an increasingly valuable industry, but it is tourism that is showing the most promise. Not the low value/high impact type of tourism represented by NCL but the high value/low impact type of tourism inherent in overnight eco-cultural tourism. Every day hundreds of workers commute to the Placencia Peninsula to work in the overnight tourism industry. They come by boat across the lagoon from Independence and by bus from as far away as Bella Vista and every village in between. Santa Cruz on the Southern highway may be the fastest growing village in the country.

And what do they do? Everything from construction to guiding to accounting. It is worth noting that a single 25 room luxury hotel—Turtle Inn—employs 125 Belizeans. That is at least half the number of workers that NCL plans to hire…and that’s just one small hotel! And the jobs are not part-time low paying seasonal ones; they are full time high paying jobs with room for advancement and additional income from tips and service charge. They are secure jobs that enable Belizeans to raise families in dignity, educate our children and plan for the future. In short, they are jobs that build a nation. Can the same be said for the part-time jobs at Harvest Caye?

Of course not every place in the south has the attractions of Placencia but then again neither does Cayo and that district is booming from tourism. How did it happen? Thirty years ago there was no tourism in Cayo. Nothing was happening except a bit of cattle and logging. Then in 1976 a Belizean named Escander Bedran built the San Ignacio Hotel. Everyone said he was crazy. Immigrants like Mick and Lucy Fleming built the first cabana of Chaa Creek. Pioneers like Lascelle and Sarita Tillett starting transporting visitors up and down the dirt road called the Western Highway. Things changed—gradually of course—but today Cayo is the nation’s second largest tourism destination and thousands of Cayo residents benefit from it.

And the same thing can and will happen in Toledo and Stann Creek if we focus our efforts and not be led astray by the fool’s gold promised by mass cruise tourism. And by the way, if you think that mass cruise tourism and eco-tourism can both prosper in the same place, think again. They are mutually exclusive. High value eco-tourists who spend $5,000 dollars for a week’s holiday in a jungle lodge do not come to the same places where cruise tourists pay $399 for a week in the sunny Caribbean. If you don’t believe it just ask them.

News Flash! Government approves new cruise port in Belize City. So why do we need Harvest Caye? In today’s special sitting of the House of Representatives legislation was introduced paving the way for the creation of a new cruise port in Belize City. The project on Stake Bank, an island a few miles out in the harbor to be connected to the mainland by a causeway, will have berths for four large ships. It is in full compliance with the Master Plan which calls for exactly this type of modernization to provide for not only an increase in the number of cruise visitors but a much improved level of visitor satisfaction. The project is owned by a Belizean, will increase employment in the hard pressed old capital and enable the cruise industry to maximize efficiency and economies of scale by focusing the industry in one part of the country. The developer has even pledged publicly to accommodate independent tour operators.

So if Stake Bank is the answer, what is the question? Why do we need Harvest Caye when NCL can make use of the fine facilities of Stake Bank? Of course it’s all about the sweet deal NCL has at Harvest Caye where they get to own the island, cater to a captive audience, keep all the profits for themselves and have Belizean taxpayers reimburse them for their entire investment.

In the end it’s all about who controls our destiny. In the final analysis Belizeans are being asked to decide who they want to control the future of our nation. Recent experience with the Ashcroft Group, Fortis and most recently the sugar company ASR demonstrates that at the very least we must be extremely careful when dealing with large foreign corporations. The Barrow administration nationalized BTL and BEL and no less than the Leader of the Opposition threatened to nationalize ASR if it did not live up to its agreements with cane farmers. In view of these problems in the past do we really need to climb into bed with NCL? Especially when the cruise companies are well known to be the most aggressive, demanding and difficult investors on the planet.

Mr. Murphy and his local and foreign associates will tell you that NCL is a different kind of cruise line. Kinder, gentler, more sensitive, more conscious. And if you believe that, then there’s a bridge at Kendal that we’d love to sell you. Yes, NCL is different from Carnival and Royal Caribbean the way a Doberman is different from a Pit Bull.

In conclusion, we ask the DOE, NEAC and people of Belize to reject the Harvest Caye cruise port in its entirety as the minor benefits of the project are far outweighed by the costs to the environment, economy and future welfare of the nation of Belize.

Stewart Krohn, Chairman, PBTIA