How Public Participation in Belize Changed the Course of Cruising

Belizeans Say No to Southern Cruise Ship Port Development

By Rich Wilson

Internationally recognized as "Mother Nature's Best Kept Secret," the Central American country of Belize-slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts-has long been promoted as an ecotourism destination renowned for its lush rainforests, ancient Mayan ruins, beautiful mangroves and beaches, and the famous Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. Since achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, tourism has become the dominant sector of the Belizean economy, particularly in an era of increasingly available means for global communication and travel. According to the Belize Tourism Board Action Plan 2010-2012, "tourism expenditures now represent 22% of GDP and one in every seven jobs is related to or driven by tourism."

In recent years cruise tourism has emerged as a significant and growing component of the industry. Since 1998 cruise lines have regularly included Belize as part of their western Caribbean itinerary. In 2009 Belize received the third highest annual number of cruise visitors to its shores at 705,000, and the global trend of growth in the cruise sector continues to be explosive. (By comparison, the current population of the entire country is approximately 320,000). Statistics kept by the Belize Tourism Board indicate that approximately 85% of cruise passengers disembark while in Belize. Of this number, some 45% to 50% participate in organized tours, while remaining passengers commonly explore the streets of Belize City, currently the only cruise port of call in the country.

In late 2009 a private development group, with apparent links to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, submitted a proposal directly to the Prime Minister of Belize and the Ministry of Tourism that called for the establishment of a new cruise port of call in the small southern village of Placencia (estimated population 1,700). The proposal-described by the developers as small scale or "niche" cruise tourism, in contrast to "mass tourism"-catalyzed much discussion and debate on the benefits and drawbacks of this sector in Belize. Although an official government cruise policy provides guidelines for the management and development of cruise visitation in Belize City, to date there has been limited capacity or political will to enforce some of its core provisions. Therefore the industry has been driven and managed almost entirely by private sector interests during a period of rapid growth. In this setting, the Belize City port has seen minimal government planning and oversight-until recent stepped-up efforts by the Belize Tourism Board-to ensure orderly development and mitigate the social, infrastructural, and environmental impacts brought by large numbers of cruise visitors.

In response to growing public concern over the very quietly introduced proposal, the Belize Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism commissioned an independent consultancy to assess, from a broad social perspective, the viability of a second cruise ship port located in Placencia. The consultancy consisted of an assessment that focused on the hopes, concerns and viewpoints of the citizens and residents of southern Belize. The central aim was to identify stakeholder considerations that government needed to factor into decision-making as it evaluated the proposed development scenario.

In September 2010 the Belize Tourism Board contracted Seatone Consultants to serve as a neutral facilitator and conduct A Social Viability Assessment of Cruise Tourism in Southern Belize. Following internal planning meetings, each party agreed that the consultancy would be comprised of two components: 1) an on-the-ground situation assessment of public attitudes, perceptions and viewpoints regarding potential expansion of cruise tourism to southern Belize; and 2) facilitation of structured public consultation meetings in Placencia and nearby villages that afforded local citizens an opportunity to express their sentiments and concerns to the private developer and senior officials from the Belize Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism.

In October 2010 Seatone Consultants conducted situation assessment interviews with nearly thirty stakeholder interest groups in southern Belize, including hoteliers, restaurateurs, tour operators, village council chairmen and representatives, industry association presidents, tour guide association presidents and guides, protected area managers, non-governmental organizations, and representatives of indigenous culture. The confidential interview format encouraged candid responses and proved critical to gain insight and understanding on key issues from a range of viewpoints. Key findings of the situation assessment included the following:

  • The natural and cultural resources of southern Belize are considered the most valuable tourism assets of the region;
  • There is widespread skepticism and resistance to development of a mass tourism cruise model in southern Belize;
  • Stakeholders believe key officials were not transparent and forthcoming regarding government interest in southern Belize as a potential cruise tourism destination;
  • Stakeholders on all sides of the issue did not have enough information from the private developer to properly evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of expanding cruise tourism to southern Belize;
  • Among stakeholders who expressed an interest to learn more and possibly cultivate small scale cruise tourism in the south, there are many conditions required to meet that interest;
  • There is widespread interest among stakeholders throughout the south to engage in collaborative planning with the Belize Tourism Board, Ministry of Tourism and other government agencies that aims to solve the most pressing tourism development challenges of the region.

Following the one-on-one stakeholder interviews, Seatone Consultants collaborated with the Belize Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism to facilitate a total of three public consultation meetings on the proposed cruise development. The collective results of the well-attended meetings (500 people in Placencia alone) confirmed key findings of the situation assessment and revealed significant concerns on a host of issues related to the potential introduction of cruise tourism in the south.

In Placencia-the center of the proposed development scheme-the meeting dynamic was dominated by negative perceptions of the cruise industry and mistrust of government actions leading up to the public consultation. Meetings in Punta Gorda and Dangriga realized similar sentiments about the cruise industry, but also experienced more in depth discussion between the public, government officials and private developer which emphasized the need to promote economic growth that ensures direct benefits for local Belizeans. Of note, many individuals and groups throughout the region demonstrated outright opposition to cruise ships in the south, and articulated numerous reasons to support their skepticism and resistance.

Across the board, citizens and residents of the south repudiated the proposed development concept of a "cruise tourist village" within the village of Placencia. The proposal, in the view of many, typified the exclusive and consolidated nature of the cruise industry-what many consider a problematic element of mass tourism models of development now seen in many parts of the world. Some showed interest in cultivating a market for small ships (e.g. <500 passengers) but emphasized the need to spread economic benefits, ensure local operational control and improve management of the sector in Belize City prior to considering geographic expansion or new port designations in the south. Finally, several meeting attendees expressed frustration at the limited amount of information provided by the private developer, and thus felt ill prepared to offer an informed evaluation or recommendations on the issue to government officials.

Based on the exchange of ideas, concerns and viewpoints expressed during both the situation assessment interviews and public meetings, Seatone Consultants – in a summary report to the Belize Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism (Download PDF here) – recommended that the government of Belize should not approve a new port of call (port designation), contract or agreement with cruise lines, developers or their affiliates for operations in the Placencia Peninsula. Not only is there widespread resistance to the establishment of cruise tourism in Placencia, the stakeholder consultations revealed abundant and compelling evidence that communities and popular visitor attractions in the surrounding area, including several marine and terrestrial parks, are ill prepared for cruise ship arrivals. Moreover, the Belize City model still represents, in the eyes of many, a poor precedent for effective management and control of the cruise sector in Belize.

The results of the public consultation process further demonstrated that expansion of cruise tourism to ecologically fragile areas such as Placencia is highly problematic, risky and may result in irreversible negative impacts to the existing overnight tourism sector, the ridge to reef resources of the south, and the safety and security of local communities. And yet tourism-including the cruise industry-remains a critical and growing sector of the Belize economy. For example, the Belize City cruise port now employs more than 2,000 Belizeans, many from the lowest economic strata of society. However, evidence from other destinations suggests that negative impacts may outweigh benefits when cruise tourism overlaps in the same geographic region as an established overnight sector.

Within the context of an expanding tourism sector in Belize, the proposed alternative recommendations in the government report acknowledged potential future growth of cruise tourism, and focused on collaborative processes that involve a broad cross section of stakeholders working to achieve their economic self-interests through shared responsibility, trust and mutual gain. The alternatives linked public and private sector interests, and recommended the following:

  • Implement the goals and strategies in the Belize Tourism Board Action Plan 2010-2012 and the recently published National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan;
  • Facilitate a collaborative Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) social study to determine the type and scale of tourism development most appropriate for the south;
  • Align development and resource conservation priorities across ministries, departments and civil society groups;
  • Review and refine the Belize Tour Guide Training Program and launch peer exchange opportunities focused on effective management of cruise visitors.

It is important to note that collaboration can come in many forms and contexts. Since the time of the cruise consultations the Belize Tourism Board has made notable progress to revamp and strengthen existing tour guide training requirements, building upon what is already one of the most robust sustainable tourism training programs in the Wider Caribbean. Moreover, the government and private sector are collaborating to launch a tour operator quality assurance training program in 2012, with a strong focus on adoption of environmentally and culturally sensitive business standards.

The alternative to conduct a LAC study in the southern Belize acknowledges, integrates and builds upon the ongoing work of the Belize Tourism Board Action Plan and the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan (alternative 1 above). Specifically, this alternative seeks to maximize public participation in tourism planning and development by determining, from a broad social perspective, the "Limits of Acceptable Change" for the most valuable tourism assets of southern Belize-namely the rich diversity of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and cultural sites that form the bedrock of the industry. The urgent need to balance economic development with resource conservation necessitates an inclusive process involving all affected stakeholders in government, civil society, the NGO community and the wider public.

Effective visitor management and environmental protection in this case requires significant pre-development planning that incorporates the knowledge, expertise and economic interests of local citizens and residents. The LAC is a well-tested model for dealing with issues of recreational carrying capacity at sensitive natural sites and tourist attractions. Conducting a comprehensive LAC study in southern Belize will shed light on the type and scale of tourism visitation that is most appropriate for the region. Moreover, implementation may be integrated within the legal authority of government resource management agencies and linked to ongoing sustainable tourism programs. In this context, study outcomes will inform the renewed effort for effective coastal zone management planning in Belize and balance what oftentimes appear to be conflicting goals of economic development and resource protection-the current dilemma facing the residents of southern Belize.

So what has come from the aforementioned public consultation process? Following submission of the cruise report in March 2011, the government of Belize invited Seatone Consultants to share the findings and recommendations at another series of public meetings. During these meetings, government officials stated that they would respect the recommendations and forward the report to the Cabinet of Ministers. The desire by many to not have cruise tourism in the area was openly acknowledged. In addition, officials stressed that the public call for government policies that catalyze job opportunities-that "make rain" as it is said in Belize-had not fallen on deaf ears. The government promised to redouble its efforts to stimulate economic growth in a way that is consistent with sustainability principles and spreads economic benefits to the largest number of Belizeans possible.

If there is a lesson that can be drawn from this story, it is that the power for decision-making in a democratic society can still reside in the public sphere. In looking back, the Belize government should be credited for convening a genuine consultation process that, in the end, gave deference to the greater public interest. On the other side of the social spectrum, Placencia residents have since worked diligently on a local plan for sustained yet sustainable economic growth that creates widespread opportunities in the community. And while the private developers of the proposed cruise port were arguably scared off from this recent act of civic engagement, it is important to note that the issue of cruise industry growth has not gone away. Recent rumors suggest that the industrial port at Independence or offshore gems like the Sapodilla Cayes in the far south are now being considered for visitation by cruise ships. If these rumors show any signs of truth, stakeholders would do well to reference the report-a direct outgrowth of their own hopes, concerns and viewpoints on the issue-to evaluate whether or not cruise tourism on any scale is appropriate for the south.

In the end, the social viability assessment of cruise tourism in southern Belize revealed an earnest desire by multiple stakeholder groups to work closely with government on tourism planning and development issues. In pivoting away from cruise expansion in Placencia, the Belize Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism have created an opportunity to build stakeholder trust and facilitate cooperation on a host of issues outlined in the Action Plan and National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, and at a scale and level of civic engagement not previously seen in the region. On the other hand, private sector interests and the wider public may bring a proactive approach to future collaboration based on rational dialogue, openness, mutual respect and shared responsibility. The past development and implementation of whale shark guidelines and environmental performance standards for the marine recreation sector in the area demonstrates strong precedent for precisely this type of effective collaboration. This, in time, has led to economically beneficial outcomes while maintaining the health and resiliency of the region's natural and cultural assets. It is in this context that the recommendations born of the cruise consultations may provide a pathway to sustainable economic prosperity that grows from the expertise and interests of all public and private sector players throughout southern Belize.


Rich Wilson is Founder and Principal of Seatone Consultants. He is an international consultant, trainer and certified professional facilitator based in San Francisco, California. He brings a collaborative approach to his work that explores human interests, creates working alliances among diverse stakeholder groups, and forges durable solutions to pressing environmental challenges.