Having followed the growth of cruise ship tourism in Belize since its inception, I am compelled to add my thoughts to hopefully contribute to the way forward from our present stalemate between the wishes of the huge corporate entity that is Carnival and the needs and legitimate concerns of a small developing country that is our home.
Like most people involved in Belize’s tourism industry, I do see a valid place for cruise ships in the tourism mix, but emphasize that it must be part of a mix, and not an entity and law onto its own that generates huge profits at the expense of all other players in the local tourism industry – and especially our home-grown tourism sector developed over the years by Belizeans for the benefit of their country and families.
Sometimes a quick review of the past helps to put current events in context. I remember that when cruise ship tourism was first being seriously discussed back in the year 2000, there was the usual mix of proponents and skeptics, and like most hoteliers and others involved in tourism, I had concerns about the effect of cruise ships not only on our bread and butter overnight tourism, but on the Belize image, or brand, if you will.
It was obvious that cruise ships were going to have a huge impact, and while many of us welcomed investments into Belize, we wanted to hear all of the facts about how it was to be implemented here.
And so began a long, arduous, and usually fruitless search to find out exactly what was being said, what was being signed, and what was going on. I always found the most disturbing characteristic of our dealings with Carnival to be the lack of transparency and accountability throughout the process.
Why, in this day and age, and in a new, vibrant democracy, do we need secret contracts, especially when so many Belizeans from all walks of life are affected? It is this lack of candour and honesty that is the rot at the root of the problems we now face.
In 2004, when I was elected president of the Belize Tourism and Industry Association, I was tasked with seeking a legal review on the secret document signed by Carnival and the then leader of the GOB [Said Musa].
Again, as an industry and destination association, we always recognized the cruise sector as a legitimate part of the tourism industry but our concerns were raised by the signing of the secret document that allowed Carnival to bypass certain laws of Belize and gave them extraordinary concessions such as no requirement to hire Belizeans (we worked with the BTB to get a clarification document that repealed that odious exemption) and non-payment of reasonable taxes, including the environmental tax.
My point here is that the deal was secret for a very good reason – Belizeans would be incensed, and rightfully so, if they knew what was being signed away behind their backs.
Six years down the track, and we are still feeling the negative effects of this clandestine wheeling and dealing. I firmly believe that had the facts been known at the onset of our relationship with Carnival, we would not be in the mess we are now.
How could we, as a nation, stand up to Carnival and demand a fair deal when we weren’t at all sure what had been agreed to from the outset?
And here it may be useful to refer to countries that took on cruise ship tourism, safeguarded their own playing fields and established their own rules.
Bermuda is one island nation who stood up for herself. She insisted on:
• the hiring and involvement of nationals
• $30 vouchers to be distributed to passengers to be spent ashore in local business
• no more than three ships in port at one time
• $60US per person head tax
• $1.5M education fund contributed annually by the cruise lines
These policies were designed to:
• lessen negative impacts of tourism on this small nation’s infrastructure
• give Bermudians a fair share in this profitable industry
• retain quality of life for Bermudians
• maintain Bermuda’s reputation as a quality destination
This arrangement, according to Prof Ross K Dowling in his highly regarded book, Cruise Ship Tourism, came about due to community involvement in the development of Bermuda’s cruise ship policy.
To quote Dr Dowling, “The cruise ship policy was derived from community participation in extensive discussions, especially in the media. The tourism community that consisted of residents, tourism stakeholders such as the hotel association, tourism merchants, travel agents, as well as those in the cruise ship industry played a significant role on the debate that contributed to government policy.”
If that had happened in Belize, we might all be enjoying the benefits of a healthy cruise ship sector, as our neighbours do.
There are other examples of other countries such as Mexico standing up to giant cruise ship companies and striking fair arrangements that benefit their people. I would suggest that that is because their citizens would not tolerate secret shenanigans and back-door dealing by their elected officials.
Our overnight tourism industry was home grown by Belizeans, and after four decades it continues to grow at a respectable average rate of 4% a year with 70% Belizean ownership of over 600 hotels and accommodations, as well as locally owned tour and transport companies, guiding services, restaurant and other service providers. This is something we can all be proud of.
Unfortunately, our exploitative, unfair cruise ship policy is not, and we are now feeling the pain.
Once again, I am not writing to merely complain or point fingers – I am hoping to contribute towards finding a way forward out of the Carnival mess. I do feel an important first step is to shine a light on exactly what is being negotiated and to encourage public participation in the process.
In a democracy such as ours, an informed public is essential for healthy growth that benefits all Belizeans, and if transparency is not forthcoming, I humbly suggest that we demand it.
It is every Belizean’s right, and is a much better course of action than fighting amongst ourselves over the scraps left by a global corporation that has been shown to put profits well before people.
Lucy Fleming AmandalaLucy Fleming is past President Belize Tourism Industry Association