The tourism industry is a major player of the economy, driving job creation and foreign exchange.  But COVID-19 has severely affected the industry, causing massive layoffs. As a first step to restart the industry, domestic tourism is heavily promoted, but that sector contributes in the range of five percent to the overall sector and there is still uncertainty as to when and how the industry will look post COVID-19.  Last week, Tropic Air sent home two hundred and twenty persons. Hotels and resorts also sent home droves of employees. Cruise tourism has also been hard hit with cruise ships showing large number of infections.  At Harvest Caye, some three hundred persons have been laid off home hiking the joblessness numbers way up. Here is News Five’s Isani Cayetano with a report.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Another massive layoff is being reported in the cruise tourism sector where Norwegian Cruise Line has sent home close to three hundred employees from its Harvest Caye destination in southern Belize.  Despite raising 2.2 billion dollars to stay afloat by pledging a pair of vessels and the privately owned island as collateral, NCL has been forced to temporarily shut down its operations in Belize.  The dismissal of employees comes amid the coronavirus pandemic which has seen a collapse of bookings and a demand for refunds on cancelled cruises.  The Florida-based company, whose ships have been prevented from sailing due to the COVID-19 contagion, had recently announced that it was planning a one point six billion dollar debt and equity fundraising which as eventually raised to one point eight billion on the back of strong investor demand.  Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dean Barrow spoke briefly on NCL’s financial woes and the fact that the company did not reach out to government concerning its transaction.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“We did have somebody from the Financial Times reach out to us.  Norwegian, as you know, floated some bond to try to raise financing so that they would be in a position to continue once cruise lines begin to operate again.  The question was, did we have any concern because they put up Harvest Caye as collateral for, or as part of the collateral to underpin the offer, the solicitation that they made for people to purchase their bond.  We were asked; well did they consult with the Government of Belize.  The answer was, they didn’t, and what is our position in terms of what the reporter described as a national asset being possibly on the chopping block.  We made the point that while it is and has been for some time now the policy of the government not to have any cayes alienated into private ownership, local or foreign, that private ownership of Harvest Caye predated even Norwegian’s purchase of the property.  So there was nothing we could do to stop one private owner from selling Harvest Caye which he owned to Norwegian.  Norwegian having bought the caye free and clear certainly and legal was entitled as they have done to put it up as part of the collateral for the loan or the bond that they were floating.  I saw where in fact their bond issue was successful.  I think they raised in excess of two billion dollars.  So the answer to your particular and pointed question is that with that kind of money one would expect that they will continue to operate once the cruise industry opens up and my best sense of that, I believe, they’ve actually put out schedules that see proposed a start date of August.”

The company has suspended all voyages until June thirtieth, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a no-sail order for cruise ships that lasts until July twenty-fourth or until COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency.  In the absence of arrivals, many who were employed by NCL in Harvest Caye have been left jobless and it remains unclear whether they will be rehired when those ships are allowed to leave harbor. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

A list of questions was submitted to the Public Relations Department for NCL in Miami. At news time, there has not been any response.

Channel 5