A round-up of news and information prepared by Lan Sluder, BELIZE FIRST Magazine
Updated October 5, 2000

HURRICANE KEITH SLAMS AMBERGRIS CAYE AND CAYE CAULKER, LEAVES MUCH OF MAINLAND UNSCATHED A tropical depression appeared suddenly September 29 off the coast of Belize and quickly grew into Hurricane Keith. On Saturday morning, September 30, it was a weak tropical depression, and by late in the same day it had become a Category 3 to 4 hurricane. It all happened so fast that there was little time to prepare and almost no time to evacuate from the cayes and coastal areas. Hurricane Keith is worst storm to hit Belize directly since Hurricane Hattie in 1961 (see below for information on Belize’s hurricane history). Belize officials say that the total toll of both known dead and presently missing is under 10 and estimate that damage from the storm will reach US$200 million.

Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, Belize’s two main resort islands, were hit hard by the storm. Winds of 120 mph + pounded the islands for many hours. Water rose rapidly, especially on the back sides of the island and may have reached 5 feet or more in height. However, only one person, an American woman on a catamaran, is known to have been killed and fewer than 10 people are missing. Rumors, so far unsubstantiated, put the number of dead and missing higher. Scores of homes and some hotels were damaged on these two resort islands. Several hundred island residents are homeless. Clean-up and repairs are already under way, and the British Army and Belize Defence Forces are on the islands. Boat and air services between Belize City and Ambergris and Caulker are resuming. Although non-essential travelers to the islands are for now being warned away, the cayes could welcome visitors again beginning in about two weeks. Further news on the hurricane and hotel damage reports are included in the special Hurricane Keith report on this Web site. Most hotels on the resort islands expect to have roof and other repairs completed within two to four weeks, easily in time for the high season; a few badly damaged hotels may take longer to rebuild.

Most of mainland Belize saw minimal impact from storm. There was significant flooding in Belize City and on the Western and Northern highways. No deaths were reported as a direct result of the storm, but a Venus bus accident on a flooded highway north of Belize City resulted in the death of three Belizeans and another road accident in Cayo District claimed the life of an Irish volunteer. Placencia, Punta Gorda, Cayo, the Mountain Pine Ridge, Orange Walk and Corozal had little if any damage and should be back to normal within days. No serious damage was reported to any hotels or other tourist site or facility in these areas or in Belize City. Airports including the international airport are now open and international and domestic airlines are flying again. Most roads are open and passable. After this week, visitors should experience few if any difficulties traveling in mainland Belize. Remote cayes report no deaths or serious injuries and only moderate to light damage to facilities. Most resorts report no significant damage and expect to reopen for business soon.

PRIME HURRICANE SEASON ARRIVES WITH A VENGEANCE September through early November is prime time for hurricanes in the Western Caribbean, but, until Keith, Belize had dodged the windy bullets this year. Belize has been hit by just three serious hurricanes in the past 70 years, far fewer than any of the major hurricane alleys of the U.S. -- Florida, the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. On September 10, 1931, an unnamed storm with winds over 130 mph literally decimated Belize City, killing 1,500 of the then 15,000 or so people in the port city. Hurricane Janet on September 27, 1955, nearly leveled Corozal Town and much of northern Belize and Chetumal, Mexico. Janet left 17 dead and 20,000 homeless. In 1961, on Halloween eve, Hattie hit Belize City with winds to 200 mph, killed more than 300 people and destroyed much of the city. Hurricane Fifi in mid-September 1974 created heavy rains, but most of the loss of life and damage were in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America. Hurricane Greta blew through on September 22, 1978, causing flooding but minimal other damage. Gilbert, in September 1988, sideswiped Belize slightly on its way to landfall in Mexico, after doing much damage in Jamaica. In 1998, Mitch gave Belize a scare but did almost no damage. Most storms which threaten Belize originate in the far Southern Caribbean off the coast of South America and then track northwestward across to Belize and the Yucatán, or else they originate off the southern part of Central America and move north, hooking back to the west to smash into Belize.

BELIZE STARS IN THE OLYMPICS One of the most famous athletes in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney is Belizean. One-half Belizean anyway. Marion Jones, the track and field gold medals winner who is billed as “the world’s fastest woman,” ran for the U.S. Olympic team, but she holds dual Belizean-U.S. citizenship and her mother is Belizean. After winning her first gold Medal in the 100-meter dash, the Los Angeles resident did a victory parade carrying both the Belize and American flags. Following another gold in the 200 meters, Jones faced disappointment in her quest for five top medals, failing to win in the broad jump and one relay. Overcoming bad publicity about the alleged use of performance-enhacing drugs by her husband and coach, B.J. Hunter, Jones ended by winning a total of three gold and two bronze medals. Two other less well known Belizeans also went to Sydney, officially representing Belize. Jayson Jones (no relation to Marion), who recently graduated from Florida State University, competed in the 200-meter dash. Emma Wade ran the 100-meter dash. Neither participant won a medal.

CENSUS: BELIZE POP PEGGED AT 240,000 The official population of Belize was 240,204 on Belize’s Census Day, May 12, 2000, according to preliminary figures released by the Central Statistical Office. This is an increase of about 27% since 1991, when the Census showed 189,292 people. Observers note that Belize’s actual population may be higher, as it’s likely some immigrants from Guatemala and Honduras living in remote rural areas were missed. Orange Walk Town remains the country’s largest urban area outside of Belize City, but San Ignacio is the fastest-growing town and likely will pass Orange Walk soon. Corozal Town and Belize City both appear to be losing population. Belize is about evenly split between rural and urban populations. A final report should be released late this year.

TOURISM ON A ROLL THOUGH KEITH MAY SLOW THINGS DOWN; NEW PROJECTS AHEAD Fueled by a whopperized economy in the U.S. and an improved marketing strategy on the part of the Belize Tourist Board, tourism to Belize continued to grow through the summer of 2000. The impact of Hurricane Keith is as yet unknown, but it clearly will hurt tourism for the balance of the year, especially since it did so much damage to Belize’s number one tourism destination, Ambergris Caye. Belize has notched gains in tourist arrivals every month for the past 10 months. For the first six months of 2000, nearly 82,000 tourists arrived at the international airport compared to about 64,000 during the same period of 1999, a strong 27% increase. Cruise ship arrivals also have increased dramatically, and if trends continue the year 2000 will see arrivals of some 75,000, more than double the number in 1999. Carnival cruise lines, one of the largest operators, has announced one of its ships will stop in Belize City beginning in early 2001. The BTB has announced plans, using revenues from a new US$10 border exit fee, to upgrade border facilities at Santa Elena near Corozal in the north and at Benque Viejo in the west. It also plans a US$14 million upgrade of facilities at the nation’s Maya sites including Caracol, Altun Ha and Xunantunich. A tourism village and cruise ship facility in the Fort George area of Belize City is supposed to open in 2001.

MEGA RESORT PLANNED FOR NORTH AMBERGRIS Ambergris Caye, already Belize’s top tourist destination, may get 500 more hotel rooms. Two luxury hotels, at least one of which may be managed by Hyatt, have been announced for Punta Azul on North Ambergris Caye. One hotel would have about 300 rooms and would target the meeting and conventions market; the other, at around 200 rooms, would be a luxury property targeting individual travelers. Some equity funding for the project reportedly would come from developer Rochamel Development Company Ltd., a British firm. Hyatt already operates several resorts in the Caribbean, including ones in Aruba, Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman, St. Kitts and St. Lucia. Rochamel Construction built the 300-room Hyatt Regency St. Lucia. The Belize government says it will float an international bond issue to finance part of the development costs. Critics expressed surprise, noting that the era of government-financed hotels ended with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. They also say the Belize government’s track record in hotels isn’t too good; it lost its investment in the Ramada/Fiesta Inn in Belize City when that hotel, now the Princess Hotel & Casino, went belly up. Opening date for the Ambergris Caye hotels and other details, such as how guests would get to the hotels on the north end of the island, are as yet unknown. Ambergris Caye currently has about 65 hotels. Currently the island’s largest hotel is Journey’s End, with 90 rooms, and most properties have fewer than 25 rooms. If the mega resort had been open when Hurricane Keith hit the island, it likely would have suffered significant damage, as did a number of existing properties on North Ambergris.

THREE LUXURY RESORTS TO OPEN NEAR HOPKINS Three small upscale resorts are set to open near Hopkins around the end of this year and the first of next. Hamanasi, a 20-room beachside resort and dive operation, is scheduled for a “soft opening” in fall 2000, with official opening in late 2000. The resort, on about 17 acres with 400 feet of beach frontage, is south of Hopkins village, about 500 feet north of Jaguar Reef Lodge. Rates for suites will be about US$210 double Dec. 15-May 14 and US$150 off-season; beachfront rooms and “tree houses,” US$160 in-season, US$100 off. Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort, a 25-room resort on 300 acres with 1,300 feet of beach south of Hopkins, expects to open in early 2001. The resort is in a remote area, and the developer had to put in a 4-mile road and 10 miles of power line. Accommodations are in thatch-style air-conditioned cabañas. The resort will operate on the all-inclusive plan, with accommodations, meals, tax, local beer and rum, tours, scuba diving and beach boating included in the price. All-inclusive rates are expected to be in the US$300 per person range, among the highest in Belize. Pleasure Cove Lodge is a small resort between Jaguar Reef and Beaches and Dreams inn, with rates around US$150 double.

PRINCESS HOTEL TO GET BIGGER The Princess Hotel & Casino, already Belize’s biggest hotel at 119 rooms, is getting bigger. The government has approved a tax concession for an additional 66 rooms. The hotel recently opened a movie theater, Belize’s only first-run house.

HOTELS AND CASINOS PLANNED FOR COROZAL FREE ZONE Upmarket hotels and gambling casinos, targeting affluent Mexicans, are being proposed for the Corozal Free Zone just south of the Belize-Mexico border at Santa Elena. Casinos here might siphon off some of the business of casinos in Belize City, most notably the Princess Hotel & Casino.

OTHER TOURISM INDUSTRY NEWS The Caye Resort at Mata Grande on North Ambergris Caye has been sold and is now operating as the 12-room Sundiver Beach Resort. It has a pool and air conditioning. The hotel received some damage during Hurricane Keith. In Placencia, the Bahia Laguna hotel has closed, Lagoon Saloon has been sold, with owners Mike and Bonnie Kline leaving to live on a sailboat, and Turtle Inn, which has been offered for sale off-and-on since the early 1990s, reportedly has been sold.

BTL CRACKS DOWN ON INTERNET PHONES Fed up with the high prices for international long distance charged by Belize’s phone monopoly -- a call to the U.S. costs US$1.60 a minute -- Belizeans have turned to Internet calling. They’re using Dialpad, IP Star and other Internet systems to make low-cost calls. Now, Belize Telecommunications is cracking down on these bargains, claiming that Internet calls violate the monopoly’s right to control all types of telecommunications in Belize until at least 2002. “It does contravene ... the Telecommunications Act as well as ... our license,” says Ediberto Tesucum, CEO of BTL. However, in early October the Belize Supreme Court temporarily blocked BTL from enforcing its IP Star ban.

FOX NETWORK SURVIVOR-CLONE SHOW TAPED ON AMBERGRIS CAYE; CREW GETS MORE REALITY THAN THEY BARGAINED FOR "Temptations,” a reality-based show seeking to cash in on the popularity of CBS’ "Survivor," was shot in late September at Journey's End, Captain Morgan's, Sundiver, Mata Chica and elsewhere on Ambergris Caye. The show is said to focus on the relationship of four unmarried couples visiting a tropical island. Ironically for a show that got its impetus from the highly rated “Survivor” series, much of the crew of the show was still on Ambergris Caye when Hurricane Keith hit. The crew hunkered down in hotels on North Ambergris until the fierce storm blew over. All of the crew were reported unharmed and most have now returned to the U.S. “Temptations” will air on Fox in January 2001.

GAS NOW US$2.90 A GALLON As in most other parts of the world, Belize’s gas prices continue to increase due to higher prices for petroleum. Premium unleaded gas is now about US$2.90 a gallon, while diesel is around US$2.15. Prices vary only slightly from station to station around the country. Venezuela has said it will provide some petroleum to Central America at lower prices than it gets elsewhere.

BELIZE ELECTRICITY PRICES HIGHEST IN REGION Belize has by far the highest electric charges in the region, at about 21 U.S. cents per kilowatt. That’s more than four times higher than costs in Mexico, and nearly three times higher than charges in Costa Rica and Guatemala, and about twice as high as in Panama, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

PRINCE WILLIAM VISITS BELIZE Britain’s Prince William, 18, came to Belize in August. It wasn’t a vacation, though. The son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana motored from Mexico through the border at Corozal and then went to the Mountain Pine Ridge, where he took part in survival training exercises with the Welsh Guards, a British regiment in which is father is a colonel. Fresh from Eton, Prince William is taking a year off before going down to university at St. Andrews near Edinburgh, Scotland.

PRISON BREAK-OUTS CONTINUE: KILLER RUNS BUT CAN’T HIDE The epidemic of break-outs from the notorious Hattieville prison continues. The latest occurred in early September when Estevan Sho, 22, escaped by climbing over a fence. Sho was serving 25 years for manslaughter in the stabbing death of Anna Lightfoot, a Raleigh International volunteer. Police recaptured Sho in his home village of Red Bank.

GEORGE PRICE HONORED George Price, 81, considered the father of independent Belize, has been awarded the country’s highest honor, the Order of National Hero of Belize. Price, who helped found the People’s United Party, became the country’s first prime minister and served in that post longer than anyone else. He holds the title of Senior Minister in the current PUP government. PM Said Musa presented the award, saying that “George Price had the vision and the mission to move Belize from colonial backwardness to independent promise.”

TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS TOP CAUSE OF DEATH IN BELIZE Traffic accidents are now the leading cause of death in Belize, accounting for about one-fourth of all deaths in the past two years, according to the Ministry of Health. Homicide and AIDS are the next two leading causes of deaths.

BRITISH CITIZEN KILLED IN CAYO In early September, David Butner, a British national and owner of El Cenote bar and restaurant in San Ignacio, was found dead in his bed at his home near Cahal Pech. He had been stabbed many times. Police are investigating.

BELIZE HAS HIGHEST HIV INFECTION RATE IN REGION AIDS has become a serious epidemic in Belize, say local health officials. AIDS workers estimate that more than 7,000 people in Belize are HIV positive. Given Belize’s small population of 240,000, this means that one in 34 Belizeans is HIV positive, thought to be the highest infection rate in Central America. Worldwide, about one in 120 persons is believed to be HIV positive. In Belize, nearly three-fourths of HIV infection is spread by heterosexual contact. The highest number of reported AIDS cases are in Belize and Stann Creek districts.

BELIZE ECONOMY EITHER DOING GREAT OR IN TROUBLE: IT DEPENDS The economy is either good or bad, depending on whom you ask. PUP PM Said Musa says the Belize economy is growing at a healthy 6.4% rate without inflation and that investment in key areas such as tourism, agriculture and aquaculture are at record or near-record levels. However, UDP opposition leader Dean Barrow, quoting a leaked Belize Central Bank memo, claims that Belize faces a “foreign exchange crisis” due to a “huge decline in the country’s net official reserves.”

BAD WATER IN DANGRIGA Repeated spillages at a Del Oro company citrus peel dump site have contaminated North Stann Creek River, the main source of water for Dangriga and surrounding areas, creating a water crisis. Dangriga’s water authority has switched to using water from wells, but residents complain this water is brackish. Belize has about 67,000 acres in citrus production, mostly in Stann Creek and Cayo districts.

FIRST GUIDE TO MAINLAND BELIZE PUBLISHED The first full-fledged guidebook to concentrate only on Belize’s mainland has been published. Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize by Lan Sluder, editor and publisher of Belize First Magazine, has been published by Equator Publications. The 288-page guide, with more than 75 photos and maps, covers Cayo, Placencia, Corozal, Belize City, Punta Gorda and all other areas of mainland Belize. The book, which sells for US$14.95, is available from and other books, as well as directly from Equator at 270 Beaverdam Road, Candler, NC 28715, e-mail [email protected] Subscribers to Belize First will get the book as a double issue. A companion guide, Belize First Guide to the Cayes and Coast, is set for publication in early 2001. Lan Sluder also revised and updated the Belize sections of Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala Guide and UpClose Central America, both due to be published by Random House in late 2000. He’s at work on Live Well in Belize, a guide to retirement and relocation in Belize, to be released by Avalon in Spring 2001. Sluder’s articles on Belize and other travel destinations have appeared in magazine and newspapers around the world, including Caribbean Travel & Life, Canada’s Globe and Mail, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Bangkok Post, Honduras This Week, St. Petersburg Times and others.

BORDER TAX INTRODUCED, EXIT TAX INCREASED Non-Belizeans departing Belize by land at the Benque Viejo and Corozal borders are now assessed a US$10 per adult border fee. Students with valid student ID pay US$5. Children under 12 accompanied by parents are exempt. This new fee was imposed beginning August 1, 2000, and may increase to US$15 after January 1, 2001. The total of exit taxes and fees payable by non-Belizeans departing Belize by air have been increased to US$18.75.

THOUSAND FOOT FALLS RETURNED TO BELIZE Belize’s best-known waterfalls are now back in public hands. In a land swap with the Bull Headley, the owner of Hidden Valley Inn and a huge tract of Mountain Pine Ridge land, the Belize government got Thousand Foot Falls and 1,300 acres surrounding them in the Mountain Pine Ridge, in exchange for 5,000 less-spectacular acres Pine Ridge acres. Headley, U.S.-born, now also holds Belizean citizenship.

Lan Sluder/Belize First