The private sector Belize Tourism Industry Association is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, and today members and stakeholders converged on the Ramada Princess for the organization’s thirtieth AGM. As the largest industry in the nation, tourism has grown by leaps and bounds, but while success can be measured by the numbers, there are also significant challenges. Mike Rudon was at the session today where achievements were celebrated and obstacles highlighted. Here’s the story.
Mike Rudon, Reporting
The Queen’s Room of the Ramada Princess was packed with tourism stakeholders from all across the country, many who have been in the business for decades. The industry has grown tremendously, and so has the association. But the challenges facing the tourism industry are many, and while the industry is lucrative, it is highly vulnerable.
Osmany Salas, President, BTIA
“There are security concerns, limited Police presence, bad street lighting, streets and roads in deplorable condition, the infrastructure needs some major upgrading…you know case in point, like in Hopkins, there has been a spate of robberies recently, the robbers are getting more aggressive and nothing is done. Our members there know that they have a lot that they can lose, so along with our secretariat we have been working with the relevant authorities to implement the solutions and we have come forward with some ways that we can help, but it’s taking a little too long in coming and we are concerned that someone can get hurt and things will really get worse. Caracol Road is another good example. The road, as I mentioned earlier is in one of the worst conditions ever. Some of our longstanding tour guides are saying they prefer going elsewhere, even to Tikal, rather than going to Caracol. You know, wear and tear is just horrible for them.”
Minister of Tourism Manuel Heredia was present at the AGM, and says that those concerns have been duly noted and are being addressed.
Manuel Heredia, Minister of Tourism
“I can assure you that our government is aware of the situation and particularly the Minister of National Security has promised that they will be looking at the overall structure as to what is happening with the force over there – the Tourism Police and the regular Police. BTB has been doing its part by providing the transportation with additional vehicles donated to them, and it will play its role with the Ministry. But I believe that in the next month or so, you will see that the Ministry of National Security will be looking forward to addressing that area. Caracol Road is a long stretch and I know that a part of the Petrocaribe funds will be used for a portion of the road, and the other part will be sponsored by external agencies. Definitely monies will be there to complete the entire stretch of the Caracol Road, and that is supposed to start early in the New Year.”
The relationship between the BTIA and Government has been rocky at times, but Salas says that the private sector tourism body is prepared to do whatever it can, along with government to make the industry work for all concerned. All across the Caribbean and Central America, the success of the industry depends on collaboration between Government and private sector tourism associations.
“We have had some disagreements in the past but that does not mean that we should not and cannot work with them. The new leadership of the Belize Tourism Board and the Ministry of Tourism have reached out to us, and we have reached out to them and we’re ready to work. We’re willing to work and that’s the only way forward. We in the private sector know that we have to work hard for our businesses to succeed and we’ve told them that we’re willing to work hard as well to make this thing work.”
Hugh Riley, CEO, Caribbean Tourism Organization
“Everyone is in the tourism business all around the world, and it’s very important for the Caribbean and the Central American group to get together and to pool our resources. Some country overseas is always going to have a bigger budget than we do. Somebody’s going to have a taller waterfall and more rooms. That’s okay, but nobody has a better product and if we pool our resources we can make the kind of impact that we need to be the most desirable destination in the tourism business.”
To round off the AGM, elections were held which saw Pedro Perez returned as Treasurer, Stewart Krohn as second Vice President and Mike Green as Secretary. Mike Rudon for News Five.
Association Requests Financial Assistance from GOB
The B.T.I.A. is asking government to look at some of the concerns facing the industry where infrastructure and security are concerned, but there is also the cry for more meaningful collaboration – like the kind you put in a bank account. The suggestion is for some sort of instrument which would see B.T.I.A. getting a share of tourism revenues collected through taxes.
Osmany Salas, President, BTIA
“I know across the border in Mexico, I understand that the private sector tourism association based in Cancun, in that area of Mexico…they receive – I don’t remember the exact percentage – but they receive a small percentage of the tourism-related taxes to support the work of the association. And for that association it represents a significant amount of money. I think something like that can be tried here in Belize. As BTIA we have shown that we can do a lot with few resources. As private sector we know how to stretch that dollar and make it work and we have our contacts, our connections, and I feel that we need to find ways to secure some of the tourism tax dollars to put it to work to address our challenges in the industry.”
Manuel Heredia, Minister of Tourism
“Let me be very frank and very honest. There is a good working relationship between BTB, the Ministry of Tourism and BTIA. And I will say that indeed they are still getting a substantial amount of assistance not only for them but also for the BHA. We need to sit down again, look carefully at what really is needed between the three bodies and if we can do that, probably I believe that there might be need to approach government for some funding. BTB also, even though they generate their own income, at times they need support from government, but it is just a matter that if we want this industry to move forward, all bodies have to come together, forgetting about differences and forgetting about who is better or bigger than the other. I personally as the Minister responsible believe that there is no one bigger than the other. We all need one another and we all need to sit down at the table and iron out our differences and then I believe that we can come with a concrete plan as to where the industry needs to go.”
BTIA president urges GOB to tackle tourism challenges
Like any other tourism destination in the world, Belize has its share of obstacles hampering the delivery of the best tourism product that can be offered, and today, on the occasion of the annual general meeting held at the 30th anniversary of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), BTIA president Osmany Salas highlighted the many challenges and needs which need to be forthrightly addressed.
“There has been a spate of robberies in Hopkins recently, partly as a result of poor police presence, inadequate street lighting, and bad streets… We feel that the authorities have taken too long to address the situation. We are concerned that if we don’t act very soon, the industry in Hopkins may suffer greatly and people will feel an economic pinch,” Salas warned.
He asked for the Government to urgently address the problems being faced in Hopkins.
Secondly, he pointed to the terrible condition of the road to Caracol – one of the country’s major tourist attractions.
“The road is in one of the worst conditions that I have ever seen and Belizean tour operators now prefer to take tours to Tikal [Guatemala] rather than our very own Caracol, and in a way, who can blame them?” Salas conveyed.
He said they are willing to work with the Government to find ways to upgrade the Caracol Road “to a quality commensurate with the tremendous importance of that destination.”
There are several other users of the area, such as the military and timber operators, and the Caracol Road, he said, is important to Belize’s national security, given the repeated incursions by Guatemalans into the area—poachers, looters and farmers from the neighboring country.
Salas said that the solutions often seem too long in coming, and he pledged the association’s support to work hand in hand with Government to resolve the challenges.
He said that BTIA members have also been clamoring, as they work together, to seeks ways to combat the adverse effects of the sargassum (seaweed) invasion on the tourism industry. Salas pointed out that across the region, there has been extreme economic loss due to hotel and tour cancellations.
“The private sector will not be able to tackle this problem alone. Regional governments have stepped in to assist the private sector in designing and implementing solutions to find ways to respond to the sargassum problem,” he said. On Thursday afternoon, the BTIA hosted a forum to look at practical solutions.
Salas also noted that by the time the BTIA meets next year, they will have developed their 2020 strategic plan and the new Destination Belize publication is due to be launched in 2016 with new features.
Tanya McNab of McNab Publishing said that to mark the 20th year since the magazine was first published, there will not only be the 16,500 standard letter-sized glossy-paged publication, but also 25,000 pocket versions, an e-book and an app, which will allow users to make calls and reservations from within the app.
Today’s guest speaker, Hugh Riley, the Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), painted a picture of where Belize could be 30 years from now, in 2045. Going back 30 years, to the founding of the BTIA under its first president Jean Shaw, the successes being celebrated today would have been unimaginable; and so what seems unattainable today, actually is, he posited.
“If we are to get to where we want to be in another 30 years, we really must start now… We must recognize that border security and economic security go hand in hand,” Riley said.
He urged the region to make their destinations tourism satellite account (TSA) ready, so as to multiply the impact of the travel and tourism sector.
Riley also said that in the months ahead, the region will be seen to move forward in other areas as well, such as expanding the customer base of members. He assured the BTIA of the CTO’s continuing support in building Belize’s tourism sector.