We spoke to the president of the Belize Hotel Association:
Tourism stakeholders affected by COVID-19
Stakeholders in the tourism industry are already feeling the pressure as the Novel Coronavirus continues to spread. Worldwide, travel bans, and cruise ships cancellations are affecting the economy of many countries. Reporter Courtney Menzies visited the Tourist Village in Belize City to find out how our local tour guides are faring in the wake of the pandemic.
Courtney Menzies, Love FM News: The Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 has yet to reach Belize but that does not mean it is not already affecting Belizeans; one of our largest industries, tourism, is at risk. As the virus spreads cruise ship arrivals into the country will see a decline. As it is on a cruise ship day like today the tourist village was practically empty. For persons who rely heavily on cruise ship arrivals to put food on the table this may be worrisome. Tour operator Laurencio Bol and a vendor known as ‘New York’ told us how surprised they were at the lack of tourists coming off the ships.
Lawrencio Bol, Tour Operator: “Right now we had two ships cancel today, there should be four ships today but with the two ships that arrived today still right now I just sent out two jobs which it could be much better than that if there was nothing about virus. I have a piece of land in Punta Gorda because I originally came from there so I have a customary land that my father left me and I am now preparing to go work on my land. I am preparing now to do farming.”
New York, Vendor: “I was very surprised today to see the people they are not here. Usually I come eight o’clock in the morning but this morning I came after nine and there was nobody here I was very surprised to know that two Carnival ships that nobody is around. It was frightening for me as a store manager because this is how I make my money. I think the Corona has a big impact with the people not coming off today because there is nobody here, you can show the camera there is nobody here today and that’s very frightening for us. Well if this continues like this our number one industry is going to be broken because then if right now we can’t see anybody and it’s not impacting as yet what do you think if we start to hear that different cases in Belize with this corona epidemic. I don’t think it will last.
Courtney Menzies, Love FM News: Many tourists tend to book city or sea tours from on board the cruise ships and thus they don’t necessarily have to exit the tourist village. Companies like Chukka and Calypso Tours tend to facilitate these. As explained by tour guide Wayne Humes this allows them to get the bulk of the tourists that arrive via the cruise ships thus tour operators and tour guides receive very limited jobs. That’s why for Humes the lack of cruise ship arrivals are not affecting him. He stated that even before COVID-19 was an issue he was struggling as a tour guide.
Wayne Humes, Tour Guide:“The corona hasn’t really entered Belize as yet so the cruise ships are still coming but I think it’s something that is like before now whereby you would find as a tour guide we come out here everyday, try to solicit a job and there are obstacles, ways that actually prevent us from acquiring that job. Well my plan B as ever since I started in tourism before I became a tour guide I was a taxi driver, I’m still a taxi driver but I do tours whenever the cruise ship comes in so that is my fall back as a regular taxi.”
And, while cruise tourism is seeing reduced arrivals, overnight tourism is witnessing cancellations. We spoke to the president of the Belize Hotel Association:
Ted Tejada - President BHA "The cancellation rate for Belize went up from normal cancellation for this time of the year is around 18%. As of today the cancellation rate is at 26%, so definitely we are already seeing the impact of North Americans saying what happens if I come to Belize, I'm already with the virus and they do not allow me to go back home. It's not much of a cancellation that we're seeing; it's more of postponement of their trips. The concern from the European market has been huge, the North American market just got alerted recently, I would say as of Friday we started to see cancellations. As you know Belize gets a lot of its reservations from the United States and the second largest market would Canada. These markets, Canada, has a very low impact at this moment, 97 cases, the United States has about 1,000 but as you know the population is huge. I think it has been blown out of proportion in terms of the virus itself. The death rate of the virus is very minimal. We shouldn't panic with this situation, we should exercise preventative maintenance, every hotel should look and design a plan. What would I do if a case would to present itself, we are working with the Ministry of Health in designing what does a hotel do in case a guests comes in and report that he is not feeling well. The Biltmore hotel for example have designed a plan that we will be sharing with the entire members of the hotel association so that they can realise that each hotel has to have its own plan and protect its employees first of all and their guests as well because as you Belize depends on tourism. So we're asking all of our hoteliers do not panic, work on a plan, prepare yourself, the cleanliness is the most important."
Concerns are also mounting in the tourism industry as we have reported an increase in hotel cancellations. Prime Minister addressed this concern referencing a recent report given to him by the Director of the Belize Tourism Board, Karen Bevans.
Indeed, the prognosis is dire for the airline operations and for hotel bookings. Yesterday, the Prime Minister shared the bad news about rapid hotel cancellations:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow- Prime Minister "Regarding the cancellations that the hotels are already experiencing, 33% of all hotel bookings in this country is done through Expedia. Just today Expedia told the BTB that they are seeing a 35% cancellation for Belize hotels. That is a big enough sample to give an indication of the kind of impact that this thing is already having. That's why I said we were in no rush to talk about cancellation of flights. Already the industry is taking a pounding. If this continues, as I've said, there will be no need to cancel flights because nobody will be coming."
That was yesterday, and with US President Donald Trump declaring a national emergency n the US today - those cancellations are sure to climb very sharply.
Leisure in A Time Of Corona
So with cruise tourism shut down, now, the country's most earnest hopes turn to overnight tourism as a life support system, both for the thousands of employees of that sector and for the economy, which depends on the hard currency earnings.
So far, flights keep coming in - and that is the only very faint silver lining on a looming black could that's about to cover Belize's number one foreign exchange earner.
We went to the airport today where arriving tourists were practical about the situation and doing Sherri best not to panic:
This was the scene at the Philip Goldson International airport today as visitors streamed out of the arrivals lounge.
Some of them were well prepared with industrial grade masks. We asked some travellers and tourist industry workers how the global pandemic is affecting them
Person 1 "I think the place should lockdown for like two weeks or so and after that apparently to the Prime Minister you are not in Belize yet. So if you are not here yet, we should do some take some precautions by locking out, no mek nobody comes in right now. I think, when the virus could be in here already, it takes like 2 weeks or something like that before it really realise that it's full blown."
Person 2 "Currently we're on vacation, we're cautious but we still got to live and hopefully stat alive."
Reporter "How do you feel about the global situation?"
Person 2 "Quite terrified. Like not a lot of people are taking this seriously so."
Reporter "What about the economic impact?"
Person 2 "I think we're going to be feeling it for like 20 years."
Person 3 "I just think we have to monitor it, that's about it. People are aware of it, so just a heighten awareness. I were at a conference people were not shaking hands, they were doing fist bumps and washing our hands more often but that's about it. Right now I'm going to stay away from my parents who are a bit older, so we know that the virus is more susceptible to people who are older. So trying to stay away from them, trying to quarantine myself a little bit and just wash your hands regularly as they say."
Person 4 "We've continued on our travel plans and we are just proceeding with our lives as normal. I do worry about the global impact of everything shutting down but I think it's very over worried about and I think things are being shutdown unnecessarily."
Person 5 "When it reaches it reach but we just have to be prepared you know. Make sure we have all of our sanitisers and preparations in place. I think the Prime Minister just the be reasonable and he is trying his very best to make sure we do the right thing."
Person 6 "You can't just jump to haste because everyone is shutting down. Like he said, the people they are screened before they reach here, all we can do is hope and pray we do out screening here as well."
Person 7 "I think it's okay with us, we're prepared, we are doing our best to keep our sanitisers and keep out cars sprayed every day, every trip like something like that. I think we expect it and we expect maybe one day the airport will close and we don't have anywhere to work so we just take a long holiday."
Person 8 "I think people are going crazy, they are buying all the toilet paper and clearing the shelves of Clorox whips and we're on vacation and I'm not watching the news. I'm going to enjoy myself and I'm a teacher in Florida and I'm going to have another two week vacation after my vacation because they won't let me go back to work."
Person 9 "I'm not gonna overreact, I mean I guess I'm worried about it but I'm going to take care, take precaution and that's it."
Reporter "How about the economic crisis that this cause?"
Person 9 "I mean that's the real deal, that's going to be a huge deal for me and every country."
Person 10 "We just got word that our city had a first 2 confirmed cases this morning in Austin Texas and we're flying back today. So they closed schools today and we have a spring break next week in our school district so, yeah I'm just going to be - not isolating but we are planning to get away in that area for spring break we're going out to the hill country but that was already planned, so we're not changing those plans and I had groups I was meeting with that we've cancelled. I know my kids their birthday parties are getting cancelled and so I think people are just being cautious and trying to prevent the spread of the virus."
And while that's the good news, the bad news is that US Carriers are starting to cancel flights to Belize. We are reliably informed that American's Dallas Forth Worth to Belize and LAX to Belize flights are being suspended. And, American's daily flight to Miami is being cut back to one per day, while Southwest expects to also suspend its Fort Lauderdale flight, and other carriers are expected to trim the number of weekly flights to Belize. The losses in earnings, hard currency and jobs resulting from this is expected to be devastating to the economy and to the livelihoods of many in the sector.
COVID-19’s Devastating Effects on the Tourism Industry
Tourism industries across the world continue to crumble due to the devastating effects of COVID-19. While Belize remains without a confirmed case, the tourism industry here is still feeling the fallout. There are significant cut backs in employees, and losses are in the millions of dollars. With the closure of the Philip Goldson International Airport and northern border, the figures are expected to increase in the coming days. Hoteliers across the country are suffering mass cancelations and hotel rooms have become empty. President of the Belize Hotels Association, Ted Tejada describes it as a tsunami of cancellations through the nine hundred and fifty registered hotels in the country. According to Tejada, hotels might not see a booking until July.
Ted Tejada, President, Belize Hotels Association
“It has been a week that we have been seeing a tsunami of cancellations and I am a hundred percent that many of the hotels though that they would be able to keep a ten percent of their guests at their hotels. You got to realize that this is the high season. This was the peak of the high season. Easter was coming. Every single hotel in Belize was sold out. March was suppose to be one of the best months and April that Belize had ever seen. Unfortunately last week we realized that there was a tsunami of cancellation coming in. As of today hotels had had ten percent of their guest still in the hotel. Yesterday, the U.S. issued a travel advisor that it is recalling all its citizens’ to the United States by Sunday.”
Employees in Tourism Industry Feeling the COVID-19 Effects
Tens of thousands of persons rely on the tourism industry and with COVID-19 negatively affecting the industry many businesses are left to lay off employees. Hotels across the country are empty and employees are left wondering what will happen to their employment. It is some that in some cases, employees are being sent home and others they are taking a cut back in salaries while others placed on unpaid leave. The Belize Tourism Board informed employees on Thursday that cuts will be paid given the COVID-19 threat and its effects to the industry. No one from B.T.B. would provide comment today, but News Five has learned that employees were told that some of them would become non-function since B.T.B. will not be collecting taxes since different sectors of the industry are closing down. News Five has learned that a number of staff members were chosen and given two options. They were offered an attractive package to leave the B.T.B. or remain. Those who remain will take a salary cut and when a re-evaluation is done in June that attractive package will not be available. Tejada says that businesses should carefully consider all options before laying off staff members.
Ted Tejada, President, Belize Hotels Association
“The economic impact that it is going to have is massive. For example I had a call yesterday with a hotelier that employs one hundred and sixty employees. His hotel is solely tourism. Due to this crisis he had no guest at his hotel. We are all looking at our employees and we are very conscious that everyone needs a job and we are trying our very best to try maintain them. But if you have one hundred and sixty employees not one guest at the hotel the biggest problem we have in this particular case we do not see the terms when there will be a solution. There is virus out there that nobody seems to be able to control. We are hoping that this epidemic will have some type of solution by the end of April, stating in May but the numbers are showing that there are no booking coming in from March, April, May and up to June.”
How Can G.O.B. Assist Hotels and Employees?
According to Tejada, the Belize Hotel Association is working with the COVID-19 National Oversight Committee to mitigate the effects of the deadly disease. A survey is being carried out and the data collected will be passed to the government which in turn will provide assistance to hoteliers.
Ted Tejada, President, Belize Hotels Association
“They have asked us to collect what is the magnitude of employees that the hotel section employs. So at this moment we have a group and I will be showing you we have members of the Belize Hotel Association that are physically calling every owner of the hotel in Belize. We are asking questions like are you open for business. Two, how many employees do you employ. And we are asking them to at least maintain these employees to be at eight hours per week to be employed at your facility because if you do not have these employees working eight hours minimum per week what that does is that they are not entitled to any benefits with Social Security. We are encouraged and because the government has stepped in and says we will be helping you with a percentage of their salary. What we do is that we use these employees to do work at the hotel. We still have preventative maintenance, deep cleaning programs. The beaches need to be cleaned. Utilize the time and training, we need to take this opportunity and train our employees how to rebound back from this crisis.”