LATE NEWS OF BELIZE AND THE CARIBBEAN COAST

By Lan Sluder

UPDATED 16 MARCH 2004

NOVELO’S BUS LINE GOES BUST Smothered in debt and unable to pay its bills, the only national bus line in Belize has been put into receivership. Novelo’s was unable to pay its monthly mortgage payment of about US$250,000. Facing a debt load reportedly as high as US$24 million, the Novelo family business, which dates back 45 years, has been taken over by its creditors, the Development Finance Corporation, operated by the Belize government, and Atlantic Bank, one of five banks operating in Belize. The DFC had made a loan of about US$15 million to Novelo’s in late 2001. With part of that money, Novelo’s acquired Z-Line, then the major bus line in the south of the country. In 2002, Novelo’s received an exclusive license from the government to operate the nationwide bus system. The future of Novelo’s and bus service in Belize is unclear, but the receivers say that for the present bus routes will remain the same.

AMERICAN WOMAN KILLED IN GALES POINT The badly decomposed body of a New Mexico woman was found March 2 floating in the Southern Lagoon near Gales Point village. Her nude body was wrapped in a bed sheet and tied to a cement block. The Belize police are treating the case as a homicide. Jovonna Poe, 57, who operated a computer training business near Taos, owned property at Soldier’s Creek near Gales Point. She had visited Belize on a number of occasions over the past several years, most recently arriving in mid-February. Poe, last seen kayaking in the lagoon February 26, had been scheduled to return to New Mexico at the end of February. A friend and office mate in Taos said Poe had been concerned about a local man in Gales Point, according to media reports in New Mexico. Poe had taken karate lessons to protect herself, the friend said. The police spokesman says the man is the “primary suspect” but no arrests have yet been made.

MULE AN’ CART MAN PASSES Gilbert Wellington “Power” Ramsey, widely known in Belize City for singing spirituals while riding his mule and cart, died March 7 in Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital of complications of liver disease. Ramsey, 57, was a link to an earlier age. Like his father, Ramsey transported goods around the city by mule cart, always happy and singing religious songs. A born-again Christian, he became known around Belize when he went on a hitchhiking tour of the country in the early 70s. Several years ago, the D-Revelation Band dedicated the popular song “Power” to Ramsey. Ramsey’s casket was transported by “mule an cart” to St. John's Cathedral, where his funeral was attended by an overflow crowd, including a number of government dignitaries.

BLISS CENTER REOPENS The Bliss Center for the Performing Arts in Belize City reopened in mid-March, after being closed for a year for US$4 million construction and upgrading project. The Center, which originally opened in 1955, was named for Baron Bliss, the English nobleman who donated his fortune to Belize despite having never set foot in Belize. The Bliss Center has a theater which seats more than 600.

BELIZE ECONOMY GREW AT 5% RATE LAST YEAR Driven by increased activities in tourism, shrimp farming and agriculture, estimates are that the Belize economy grew by almost 5% in 2003, one of the fastest rates in the region. Belize’s Gross Domestic Product is now about US$2 billion, according to the Government of Belize.

BELIZE TOURISM CONTINUES TO HIT RECORDS Bucking the general slowdown in international travel, Belize tourism continues to turn in record performance. Every month in 2003 except September saw record increases in international arrivals to Belize. Tourist arrivals at the international airport in 2003 were up more than 17% over 2002., to about 152,000. Arrivals by land and sea were up more than 11% in 2003 over the previous year, to almost 78,000. Cruise arrivals were up by more than 80%, rising to over 575,000. Still except for cruise ship tourist, Belize’s total tourism figures are small compared to those of its Central America competitor, Costa Rica, which received an estimated 800,000 overnight tourist arrivals in 2003. However, tourism in Belize is growing while tourism in Costa Rica has remain stagnant or has declined for much of the last three years. The Belize government projects that overnight arrivals in 2004 will increase by 4 to 6% and that cruise ship passengers will increase to 30% (despite the limitation of no more than 8,000 cruise passengers will be permitted on any one day).

DUTIES DROPPED ON STAPLES AND SOME HOUSEHOLD GOODS As part of an ongoing program to reduce or eliminate import duties on staples and other goods used by ordinary Belizeans, the Belize government has said it has removed or soon will remove import duties on food staples including tea, salt, toothpaste and baking powder. It also is removing duties on diapers, telephones, small scooters with engines under 50 cc, recorded music and videos including CDs and DVDs, musical instruments and floor fans. The sales tax will be removed (the duty was previously eliminated) on refrigerators of less than 15 cu. ft. and gas stoves. Most basic food and home items are now duty-free or at most have only the 8% sales tax levied.

CONTROVERSIAL CHALILLO DAM OKAYED BY PRIVY COUNCIL The Privy Council in London, the highest court in the British Commonwealth, in late January ruled that work on the controversial Chalillo Dam could proceed. Environmentalists have long objected to the dam, being built by the Canadian company, Fortis, due to potential damage to wildlife habitat and to its impact on the Macal River. Fortis owns Belize Electricity Ltd., the Belizean energy company.

BELIZE BANK ATMs NOW ACCEPT FOREIGN ATM CARDS Automatic Teller Machines at Belize Bank locations around the country now accept both Belize and foreign-issued ATM cards on the PLUS and CIRRUS networks. They also accept Visa and MasterCard cards for cash advances. Belize Bank has 12 ATMs around the country, including San Pedro, the most popular tourism destination in the country. Until this change by Belize Bank, most ATM machines in Belize, except some at First Caribbean International Bank (formerly Barclay's) would not accept ATM cards issued outside the country. Visa and MasterCard holders can, however, get a cash advance from their cards at most ATM machines in Belize.

CHANGES LIKELY IN PROPERTY TAX LAWS Property taxes in Belize long have been very low. Even an expensive home on many acres of land usually has property taxes of only a few hundred dollars at most, and in many cases even these taxes have gone uncollected. This may be changing for those with larger holdings. Prime Minister Said Musa has said the government will introduce new legislation to assure that the annual speculation tax of 5% of value on land holdings of 300 acres and more is collected promptly. Also, new efforts will be made to put the burden on the owner to pay property taxes, and that valuations for holdings of 30 acres or more may be increased. However, the property tax rates will not increase, and those owning 30 acres or less will only pay a “token tax.”

NEW ROAD PLANNED TO CARACOL A new all-weather road to Caracol, the largest and most important archeological site in Belize, is expected to be completed by late 2004. The project begun in early January involves the upgrading of 6 miles of road and the paving of about 9 miles, at a cost of around US$2.5 million.

NEW HOTELS IN COROZAL Corozal Town has increased its stock of quality lodging with the opening of Copa Banana, a new 5-unit upscale guesthouse at 409 Corozal Bay Road, and the expansion of Corozal Bay Inn. Coco Banana (www.copabanana.bz) is operated by Connie Mietchen and Gregg Turrentine. Turrentine also operates Belize North Real Estate. Copa Banana rooms have en suite bathrooms, air-conditioning and cable TV and share a common kitchen, dining room and living room. Rates are US$55 to $60 a day or US$390 weekly. They also offer car rentals (US$70 daily.) Corozal Bay Inn (www.corozalbayinn.com) next to Tony’s, is operated by Doug and Maria Podzun, has opened 10 thatch cabañas with color TV, near a “human assisted” beach on Corozal Bay. There’s also a restaurant and swimming pool. Rates are US$80 double. Scooters are available for rent.

TOURISM CHANGES IN BELIZE Luba Hati in Placencia is under new ownership. Clifton and Carrie Logie purchased the stylish beach hotel in July 2003 and have since made improvements. Also in Placencia, Kitty’s Place has a new swimming pool. An upscale condo development, Zeboz, has opened at the north end of the peninsula, next to Calico Jack's. On Ambergris Caye, Capricorn restaurant and resort has new owners. Salamander (www.salamanderbelize.com), an eco-oriented resort on far North Ambergris Caye, with five cabañas on the beach and three back in the island bush, has opened. Costa Maya, a timeshare, also opened way up north, to decidedly mixed reviews, at the site of the former Avalon timeshare. Several new restaurants also opened in 2003 in San Pedro, including the Stained Glass Pub, Taste of Thai and Caramba, all getting rave reviews. On Caye Caulker, the Seaside Cabañas are being rebuilt after the fire, Caye Caulker Condos have opened at the site of the former Tina’s Backpacker Hostel, which has relocated. Chan’s has new apartments available for weekly rental. The ever-popular Treetops has added a third floor with two honeymoon suites. Ragamuffin Tours has opened and is offering two-day trips to Placencia from Caulker. The new public pier has opened, replacing the old one. Near Orange Walk Town, the New River Lodge was partly destroyed in a fire in December 2003.

WAL-MART OPENING SOON IN CHETUMAL, MEXICO Belizean shoppers will soon be able to get their Wal-Mart fix. A new Wal-Mart store is set to open in Chetumal, just across the border from Corozal, Belize. There is already a Wal-mart Supercenter in Cancun, along with a Costco and other discount stores. Wal-Mart operates more than 600 stores in Mexico.
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Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com