News of Belize from Belize First:

CURRENCY CRISIS WORSENS: Belize's currency crisis appears to be getting worse. The demand for U.S. dollars in Belize exceeds the supply, resulting in a weakening Belize dollar and concern among business owners that they will not be able to get U.S. currency to pay for imported items or for freight costs. There is renewed talk of devaluation of the Belize dollar which has been pegged to the U.S. dollar at 2 to 1 for many years.

In the last week of January, reportedly Continental Airlines and four shipping companies have complained to the Belize government that the shortage of U.S. dollars is hurting business. Some freight and shipping companies will now accept payment only in U.S. dollars. Belize businesses face difficulty in finding Belize dollars, however. Recently at least some branches of Atlantic Bank, one of five banks in Belize, stopped selling U.S. dollars.

On the gray market in Belize and border areas, currency traders are giving up to 2.40 Belize dollars for 1 U.S. dollar. Unconfirmed reports are that wealthier Belizeans who cannot convert their Belize dollars to hard currency are buying real estate, believing that the value of Belize property will track the value of the U.S. dollars, regardless of any declines in the value of the Belize dollar.

The Belize government seemingly has no clear plan to resolve the crisis. It has announced only that it will license casas de cambio, or currency exchange offices, to control the currency flows. Representatives of Belize's Central Bank, who occupy one of the fanciest new buildings in all of Belize, say that not all sectors of the Belize economy will have equal access to U.S. dollars. Those businesses involved in earning hard foreign currency may find it easier to legally get U.S. dollars than those more involved in "mere consumption," in the words of Central Bank Governor Keith Arnold.

The government also has asked hotel operators, a major source of hard currency receipts in Belize, to report monthly on foreign currency income.

So far, the currency exchange problem has not affected tourists directly. Hotels, tour operators and others in the tourist industry continue to do business at the 2 to 1 rate. Thanks to imported products already in the pipeline, the shelves at most retail shops are well-stocked. Most visitors to Belize are unaware of the crisis.

CONFUSION REIGNS OVER PLANNED CHANGE IN TELEPHONE NUMBERS: If a hurricane, a currency crisis, a crime wave and a tourism slow-down in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. weren't enough, now Belize is facing a tempest in a telephone. In late January, Belize Telecommunications Ltd., the Belize telephone monopoly, sent letters to business customers. The letters indicated that, effective May 1, 2002, Belize would go to 7-digit dialing nationwide -- currently when dialing locally it is usually only necessary to dial the last four or five digits of a number -- and that the local area codes would change. For example, the local exchange area code for Ambergris Caye would change 026 to 226. from In some cases, the new numbering system would result in the telephone number changing, and in others, the last five digits would remain the same with only the first two digits changing.

With the coming deregulation of the telephone business in Belize, the Telecommunications Act appears to require BTL to implement a plan to designate one digit of Belize phone numbers for provider the customer chooses. Eliminating the area codes currently used by consumers, the new plan will soon replace the existing area code and five-digit telephone number with a uniform seven-digit number.

Though the change is only about two months away, BTL's public relations department has not provided the public or media with clear information about the changes. International directories, travel guidebooks and other publications published outside of Belize have not been advised of the changes or even what the new area codes will be. It is as yet unclear what impact this will have on calling to Belize, or to the businesses in Belize, such as hotels and tour operators, which depend on easy telecommunications.

Lan Sluder/Belize First