Ships' passengers swamp Belize, giving purists pause
By Marla Dickerson
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
Published April 9, 2006
BELIZE CITY, Belize -- For years, tour organizer Lascelle Tillett had been leading nature lovers to see rare Morelet's crocodiles, stately storks and other wonders in this tiny Caribbean nation.
So it came as something of a shock when he ferried a small party to a spot near Belize's coral reef two years ago and encountered a floating mob.
"There must have been 600 people in the water, and the boats were lined up like cars," said Tillett, director of S&L Travel & Tours. "We didn't see a single ray or shark."
Such aquatic traffic jams are becoming more frequent--and contentious--in laid-back Belize since the arrival of a new species of visitor: the cruise ship passenger. The number of big boats stopping here has increased nearly fivefold since 2000, making Belize the fastest-growing Caribbean cruise stop.
Last year, more than 800,000 cruise ship visitors disembarked in this gritty seafront city, the local tourist board said. That's nearly triple the nation's population of 280,000.
The surge has been a boon to taxi drivers, hair braiders and other entrepreneurs who flock to the waterfront when passengers come ashore. Ship visitors poured an estimated $65million into the local economy in 2004.
Casino and crocodile farm
Investors are taking aim at these sightseers, whose itineraries leave them little more than a half-day to see Belize. Entertainment is proliferating, including airboat rides, a casino and a crocodile farm. Tour operators have purchased fleets of vans and buses that burn rubber to the nearest Mayan ruins.
But longtime operators say the herd mentality clashes with Belize's carefully crafted niche as an eco-tourism paradise. Overnight guests, many of whom spend weeks scuba diving, kayaking and exploring the archeological sites of this nation about the size of Massachusetts, provide most of Belize's tourism revenue.
The fear is that big-spending adventure travelers no longer will come if Belize is too welcoming of mass tourism, particularly if it draws more cruise ship visitors, who have gained a reputation here as skinflints.
The average cruise passenger spends about $45 in Belize, according to the Belize Tourism Board.
Some experts say that's largely because Belize lacks modern docking facilities that would allow passengers to spend more time ashore. At present, ships must anchor offshore and "tender" passengers into Belize City on smaller vessels, a costly and time-consuming process.
But some hoteliers say that many cruises are priced for bargain hunters.
Maria Otero, chief executive director of the Radisson Ft. George Hotel and Marina near the cruise ship village, said passengers routinely stroll into her facility to use the bathroom and take a dip in the pool, then complain about the cost of refreshments. She said she had to draw the line at their bringing in their own drinks and snacks.
Others are worried about the environmental effect. Although cruise travelers each pay a $7 visitor's tax, $1.40 of which is earmarked for conservation, the nation's coral reefs and wilderness areas are showing signs of wear and tear from the increased visitation, said Anna Dominguez-Hoare, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society.
"It's not compensating for the damage," she said of the tax. "And a lot of damage could be irreversible so quickly."
Experts point to a variety of factors driving the business, including the ease and comfort of cruises for aging Baby Boomers and the fallout from Sept. 11, which prompted cruise lines to put more vessels into the region to mollify jittery Americans looking to stay closer to home.
Belize opened a cruise ship village with shops and better docking facilities in 2002 to capitalize on the trend. Passenger traffic jumped 600 percent that year, and developers see plenty of room for growth--to well above 1 million passengers. With that in mind, two groups are working on plans to upgrade the docks.
The biggest stems from a partnership between Carnival Cruise Lines and a local businessman to construct a $50 million terminal. The project, however, has generated significant controversy here.
Signed by Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa and cloaked in secrecy, the terminal contract was leaked to the media in late 2004. The transaction generated a swift outcry from the tourism sector, which accused federal officials of trying to evade policies aimed at regulating the industry.
Slated to open next year, the cruise passenger terminal will feature high-end shopping, restaurants and other mall-like diversions. Luke Espat, the Belizean developer, said the goal was to make passengers feel comfortable.
"This is 1850 California. It's a gold rush," Espat said. "If our people aren't prepared to be a part of it, they will lose their stake in the future."