A controversial US$50 million proposal by Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), which said it has been sending ships to Belize since 1998, is on the table, but the Barrow administration is faced with strong winds of opposition from key tourism interests who are calling on the government to promptly reject the project for a new cruise port at Crawl Caye, on the claim that it will devastate part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, without bringing the needed socio-economic benefits to Belize.

Colin Murphy, NCL’s Vice President, Destination & Strategic Development, is in Belize this week, and Amandala had an exclusive interview with him to get NCL’s side of the story.

In last weekend’s edition of our newspaper, we also reported on Government’s stance: Prime Minister Dean Barrow had said, “Government must have the conversation it is having with Norwegian.” Barrow explained that “you simply don’t turn away the potentially huge investment without making absolutely sure that this cannot happen, in the larger scheme of things.”

In elaborating on their impetus for the project, Murphy told Amandala: “…the 30% of the passengers who come off the ship have a great time, but the other 70% don’t have a good time.” He said that the proposal is really an NCL solution for Norwegian passengers.

The Economic Contribution of Cruise Tourism to the Destination Economies: A Survey-based Analysis of the Impacts of Passenger, Crew and Cruise Line Spending, Volume II; Destination Reports, prepared by Business Research & Economic Advisors for Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association in September 2012 indicates a customer satisfaction rating of 7.4 out of a possible 10.

“Our ships will be going somewhere else, unless we can figure out a way to make the experience better…” he added.

“We think that if we can develop a destination that is Belizean, where the workers and the people that they meet are Belizean, and where the atmosphere and the vibe and the culture is Belizean, in a high quality, international standard, destination, we think we will do much better – and introducing them to a part of the country – in a sensitive way – that is gorgeous!” he told our newspaper.

Murphy said that Belize can be a better destination, and NCL is looking at what can be done to give their passengers a better experience here. That is why, he said, their company has proposed a US$50 million project, which would mean turning Crawl Caye into an eco-resort style cruise port.

The concept diagram shows an 11.2-mile journey from Crawl Caye to Placencia, and another 3.8 mile journey to Malacate, which Murphy said is a good location, being very close to the highway.

(Malacate is a location from which tourists can reportedly access tours to Mayan ruins, the Blue Creek Cave, the Jaguar Preserve, Monkey River Village, as well as fishing/snorkeling/diving adventures.)

NCL currently brings 100,000 passengers to Belize, and if they can get the Crawl Caye project up and running, that could quadruple – to 400,000 a year, 130 days a year – not 365 days, Murphy said.

The NCL rep also told us that the project could also bring 1,000 jobs, as many as 400 of those being direct employment at the port. The new port would be operational, at the earliest, by fall 2015.

Murphy said that the NCL team has met several times with the Cabinet subcommittee headed by Minister of Labour, Local Government, Rural Development and National Emergency Management and Immigration and Nationality Godwin Hulse.

Last week, Hulse told Amandala that the NCL project would have to meet five parameters which cover the gamut of concerns there could be about the proposed development: (1) Any investment must be socially and economically viable and acceptable, and legally doable; (2) it must bring some revenue to Government; (3) it must also bring meaningful jobs to the country, not basic minimum wage jobs, but jobs for persons such as accountants and managers; (4) it must bring in foreign exchange; and (5) it must maintain the environment—but preferably enhance it.

Murphy said the 5 parameters are good, and what NCL proposes meets those 5 rules for development in Belize, he told us.

“Clearly, if we are producing 1,000 jobs and providing business for many, many, many small businesses in southern Belize, this is going to be good for the economy of the south,” said Murphy.

“When I talk to people, they want opportunity to do better—not just to take low-paying jobs in the banana fields or wherever,” he added.

He also said that there will be revenue to Government.

“We’ll pay head taxes and so on. Also, all the people that will work with us, local entrepreneurs and their employees, all their staff, all the people that work in the restaurants and gift shops, they will be paying taxes and spending money,” the NCL VP added.

There will be management level jobs, and the project will bring in foreign exchange for Belize, he added. As for the claims that the project will wreck a priceless part of Belize, contained in what has been internationally renowned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Murphy said: “Does it make any sense for us to bring passengers to an area – and we are doing that because the area is beautiful – does it make any sense at all for us to bring passengers there and then destroy it?”

He told our newspaper that Norwegian Cruise Lines has ships that operate in “environmental sensitive” areas, and they maintain world-class environmental practices and processes. He also said they would employ the “best science” in preparing the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project.

The project does not include plans for big stores and they intend to have a light footprint, he told us.

He showed us several berthing models that depict different options for how the cruise ship (minimum 2,500 passengers) would dock in the south, including a plan to dock outside the reef line, while having passengers take a pedestrian path onto the island.

Murphy said that the plan calls for “basic infrastructure which will be as light as possible…” and there is a “remote possibility that anything will be substantially damaged.”

He said that consultations with Placencia residents as well as tour guides have indicated wide support for the project; however, he does acknowledge that there is opposition from certain interests in Belize – including the very prominent Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA).

“This is something for the country to decide—not me and not for expat hotel owners, either,” Murphy said.

Ideally, said Murphy, overnight tourism should benefit from the exposure given to cruise tourists. Cruise tours, he said, are like “a big ‘fam’ trip…” (a familiarization trip) that could bring return visitors for longer stays. If they see “the real Belize,” he said, they may want to invest and tell people about how beautiful Belize is.

“Usually, once the hotel owners see… the economic benefit that our passengers will bring, they turn around. Now some will never be satisfied; they will always think the worst of everything, but usually in most of the destinations we go to, hoteliers learn over a period of time that we are actually good for business,” Murphy said.

The people of Placencia will decide if they want to be touched by this or not, he indicated.

“If people from Placencia don’t want our guests, we don’t bring them… If people don’t want us here, we won’t come here. It’s as clear as that. You know personally, you don’t want to go somewhere where you are not wanted,” Murphy told Amandala.

Murphy is here this week “…talking to folks in [the] south and that is going very well…” he said.

He also informed us that environmental officials had made suggestions on the project, and NCL has returned with revisions to the proposal. This, he said, is an ongoing dialogue “to see if this thing can work.”

“If the economics don’t make sense, then we go somewhere else,” said the NCL VP.

He told us that NCL would like to have some comfort from Cabinet before it starts to invest millions in the cruise port.

Laura Esquivel-Frampton, BTB’s Director of Tourism, confirmed to Amandala that a recent survey has shown that indeed cruise tourists who don’t go off on tours have a very different experience than those who do.

She said that this is mainly because of the “harassment” they receive from persons outside the gate of the Fort Street Tourism Village who are pushing their products and services. She said that the BTB is addressing the problem with continued training.

According to Frampton, Belize is a tour port and it is not known for shopping. The country, she said, has some of the best available tours in this region, and that is what keeps bringing the cruise lines back.

Asked if a Crawl Caye port could significantly increase the customer satisfaction rating, the Director of Tourism told us she would refrain from commenting, since the matter is in the hands of Cabinet for consideration. BTB would officially get involved, she said, if government says it would entertain the proposal.