One of the hardest-hit communities in the COVID-19 pandemic is San Pedro Town. The once-bustling tourist hotspot was the first part of the country to go into a lockdown in March of 2020. Then the borders were closed for the better part of the year. Even after reopening at the end of last year, businesses have been struggling to rebound and survive; thousands are still jobless and economic activity on the island is nowhere near where it used to be. News Five’s Duane Moody was on the island today to see the attempt at recovery first-hand.
Jana Gilbert, Tourist
“I choose Belize because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people and it is so welcoming and everyone is just so friendly and kind and this is where we want to be.”
Duane Moody, Reporting
….that is among the many reasons why tourists are still coming to the Jewel. But in what is traditionally the high season for the tourism industry, economic activity on Ambergris Caye remains sluggish.
Today, downtown San Pedro was busy– vehicular traffic along the main thoroughfares thick – but it was not tourists experiencing the wonders of the top tourism destination of the country, but instead local residents going about their way, trying to earn a living in these unprecedented economic times, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jose Quiroz, Tour Operator, San Pedro Town
“Honestly, it’s been really hard. I am a tour operator and it’s been almost a year you can say haven’t had any business. But with the local people, there is always a way. We find ways how to eat, pretty much and to pay the bills; that’s pretty much all we are doing right now.”
In the early stages of the outbreak in Belize, Ambergris Caye was locked off from the rest of the country for one month – it was a drastic measure deemed necessary at the time by the government to contain the virus. But almost a year later, that decision is still haunting employers, who are trying to keep staff hired and their businesses alive.
Fabiola Gongora, Co-Owner, Marina Superstore
“First the lockdowns, Sundays they were closing and allowing us only three hours to open. Now the lockdown at eight o’clock – our workers, they are only working part-time.”
“You guys have been losing money.”
“…losing a lot; our products being expired, some of them we have to throw away. So in big way.”
“Right now you see things picking up, or is it still being affected?”
“It is still being affected because no tourist because of the lockdown. Tourists don’t want to come to the island if the lockdown is eight o’clock.”
Quarantine regulations in place for months now restrict the opening of bars and have affected night time dining activities on the island. While hotels have transformed their restaurants into take out only and delivery to offset the loss of revenues from “dinner rush,” it is still not enough. David Jenkins of Sandbar Beachfront Hostel and Restaurant breaks down what’s been happening on his end.
David Jenkins, Co-Owner, Sandbar Beachfront Hostel & Restaurant
“At this time of the year, we are usually running about a ninety to ninety-five percent occupancy rate and right now we are lucky to have about twenty-five to thirty percent and that’s actually looking good comparing to last ten months since COVID really first started hitting. Obviously, we are in our traditional high season right now, so we are blessed with a handful of guests that are going out on tours and eating at the restaurant and stuff, but in terms of what it would normally be, it is a fraction of business. Since March, since COVID started, we knew the pinch was going to be bad and we focused and promised ourselves that we were going to make sure that every dime that comes in is gonna go to our staff. Hopefully June/July, we see maybe not a profitable month, but an uptick. Hopefully, there is enough vaccinations going around in the states and Canada that it gives a little more confidence to travels there to come down and obviously being handled here well. So we are hoping that maybe June/July we’ll see a nice influx. We’ve kinda chalked it up to maybe we could break even; definitely hope for profit, but not expecting it.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the data shows that economic activity for the island is down drastically, causing many businesses, including shops and hotels, to shutter leaving thousands unemployed. Minister of Blue Economy and Belize Rural South area rep Andre Perez says that there is no overnight fix, but hope is around the corner.
Andre Perez, Minister of Blue Economy
“To be honest, San Pedro and Caye Caulker were the first people to diversify because we were a fishing village once. So from there we diversified to tourism, embracing tourism. So now we are learning that placing your eggs in one basket is not a good idea. So two things are happening right now. We realise that in the future for tourism, we have to find something else, alternative to hold us. As Minister of Blue Economy, we are looking at developing fisheries in terms of back to the fishing industry; how best we can do that. And as a representative of Belize Rural South, we are also working on the B.P.O.s.”