Norwegian Cruise Line's Harvest Caye project has been the source of controversy ever since talks emerged last year between the company and the Government to open the south cruise tourism. Opponents, principally from the Belize Tourism Industry Association say that cruise tourism undermines and devalues their big ticket item, which is overnight tourism.
So, to try to change the perception of cruise tourists as cheapos, Norwegian invited the media unto one of its cruise ships on a tour to show the public a little of what happens behind the golden curtain. Daniel Ortiz attended today, and he was duly impressed:
Daniel Ortiz Reporting
The Norwegian Jewel - this behemoth of a cruise ship, launched in 2005, is pretty much a floating world-class hotel and resort with 15 decks, 1,100 crew members from 60 different countries to manage it, and enough space to comfortably accommodate about 2,500 passengers.
When it was launched 9 years ago, this vessel was state-of-the-art, and today it still meets some of the strictest international standards in terms of service, technology, and its environmental footprint.
The inside is designed to be an escape, where those who can afford such a cruise, can enjoy months on the world's oceans and seas. Almost every single feature of this vessel oozes luxury, a feast for the senses, with a crew waiting to tend of every single need. It's an investment of $1.4 billion Belizean dollars you're looking at.
Kenneth Harstrom - Captain, Norwegian Jewel
"It's a lot of equipment here as you see, but this ship was built in 2005, and at that time, she was definitely the state- of-the-art. We had a lot of things which were new in the industry."
And with 12 more ships of this quality and standard, and 2 more being built with plans for full operations by 2017, NCL says they want to add something to the country's cruise tourism product.
Colin Murphy - VP, Destination & Strategic Development, NCL
"You notice that the ships all leave USA on a Saturday or Sunday, and they all arrive in the area around about the same time. So, time, speed, distance, Belize worked for us. We also thought that it was a fantastic destination, and a destination that was increasingly popular, and a brand of Belize that is becoming very well known in relation to eco-tourism. We felt that it was a destination where we can add something."
For, the BTB, what they see in this partnership with NCL and other Cruise Companies, is an increase in the country's revenue, thus a growth in GDP.
Valdemar Andrade - Director, Cruise and Regional Initiatives, BTB
"This tour is also bigger than just looking at the Norwegian investment, but at cruise tourism as a whole, and as incremental tourism for Belize. This year, we'll be getting about a million passengers passing through Belize City. On a whole, we get about 1.3 million visitors to Belize every year. We look at it as incremental tourism. We have a high and a low season, and we look at cruise tourism to bolster the whole economy of Belize. Of course, when you look at 83% disembarkation rate for the Belize City Port, that's about 800,000 people that we will probably be seeing this year, going through the village, going on tours, into the City, into the restaurants, and buying from the vendors. So, it really affect who needs it most. In Belize, we get an average spending from a cruise passenger of about $75 US - $150 Bze - a day, and each crew spends about $103 US - $206 Bze - a day. Now again, multiple that by 800,000 passengers, you can see the economic impact. In total, the economic impact is about $120 million Bze in 2013. This year we predict about $150 million."
One testimonial from a Belizean employee working with NCL for 6 years comes from Neal Hall
Neil Hall - Director of Gallery, NCL
"Every day, you wake up to a new challenge, most of the time, you wake up in a completely different country. You get to experience different foods, cultures, peoples and different ways of interact, and that's off the ship. On the ship, you have in excess of sometimes 60 different nationalities on board, and get to integrate yourself into their culture through their special events, through their way of speaking and interact with you as a person. So, it is a truly fantastic opportunity to work on a ship."
Colin Murphy - VP, Destination & Strategic Development, NCL.
"We've been calling in Belize since when, Valdemar? 1998, so we've been here a long time already. All we're doing is reinforcing our presence here. We're making an investment in Belize because we believe in Belize. We believe in the experience; really, what we're doing is locking ourselves into Belize. We're going to be around for a long time because we're investing here. We're putting our money where our mouth is, and we're going to make a fantastic destination that's really going to showcase the country beautifully."
Should it get all clearances, Norwegian's project would see the start of the construction of the cruise port on Harvest Caye as early as next year.