After over eighteen long months, the wait for cruise ships is about to end. On Wednesday, the first ship from the Carnival Cruise Lines docks in Belize City. Today, Duane Moody headed out to the Fort Street Tourism Village to find out about the preparations being made to get everything ready and approved for the restart of the industry.
Noriko Gamero, Director of Cruise Tourism, B.T.B.
"Since cruise reopened in the U.S., the first ship that set sail was the Celebrity Edge and they sail from Fort Lauderdale with ninety-nine percent vaccinated. Just this weekend that past, we had the Royal Caribbean Freedom and then the following day, the Carnival Vista. So today, they are actually in Roatan, tomorrow they are with us and the day after, they are in Cozumel."
With the Carnival Vista calling to port in Belize City on July seventh, final preparations are in full swing at the Fort Street Tourism Village to ensure that personnel inside the gates are vaccinated and businesses are gold standard certified in time to receive tourists from the two thousand eight hundred and ten passengers on board the ship who plan to disembark at the port.
"It feels so unreal after being shut down for so long, the preparations that have come into place just to make tomorrow a reality. Just seeing the excitement in all the operators, the vendorsï¿½it just goes across the board to say that all eyes are on us to make sure we do it safely, but at the same time very excited to be making some money again. We've done our gold standards across the board when we started the reopening for the airport. So we implemented the same protocols, a nine-point checklist for all the operators, all the vendors, all the gift shops within the port, the port itself, the tender operators. So at any point of contact throughout the cruise experience, we have implemented gold standards."
"I'm standing just outside the gates of the Fort Street Tourism Village as the country prepares to welcome back cruise ships in less than twenty-four hours. While there are preparations being made inside these gates for COVID-19 protocols, just outside there are vendors who are also preparing their boots in anticipation of cruise ship tourists."
Glenford Stamp, Vendor
"Since COVID, the business gone pan halt, everything lock down; no money noh make. So that is the situation right there."
"Cruise tourism di come back; effective tomorrow a first ship di come. What do you expect? Your anticipation?"
"Well whatever fi be wah be. I noh expect nothing much and like I say, whatever fi be wah be. If I get wah dollar wah two dollars, I'd appreciate that. I come out today come try clean out the place because one year and change we noh come out yah. So I come out today come try prepare - see weh gwen on tomorrow."
"Yo think yo wah ready in time for tomorrow?"
"Well if yo no even ready yo hafto get ready."
Like Glenford Stamp, Cynthia Myvett has been working in the tourism industry for ten to fifteen years. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the business, but she and her husband since May of this year have been setting up behind the former Mirab building in Fort George earning their keep by selling their products to Belizean Americans and other tourists staying at nearby hotels. Wearing their masks and sanitizing regularly, they are ready to welcome back cruise ship tourists.
Cynthia Myvett, Vendor
"Yes I wah see more traffic and people around, but I noh really believe we might get sale from the people dehn because the inside lock in the people dehn. Yes one or two ah dehn is come out cause dehn want know what happening on the outside, plus we more cheaper than the inside cause we make most ah we own things dehn. So yes, I will see people around."
The B.T.B. met with the vendors as well as tour operators outside the gates of the village to ensure that they are gold standard approved. But Myvett says that there are some concerns.
"We mi expect dehn wah come and give us wah lee help fi clean up the place and buy weh lee discilin and thing fu we work for tomorrow that tourist di come. Dehn come and say they wah give we lee hand washing thing and one or two masks, but no paint fi clean up the place. The place really want a clean. No toilet - the most important thing, we need wah toilet and this dah noh only now, this dah before we di beg dehn fi a toilet and no help."
Director of Cruise Tourism, Noriko Gamero says that the team has been working with all stakeholders in the cruise tourism industry to ensure that everyone is safe while economic activity resumes.
"Our team has even worked with the vendors and the artisans at the NICH sites, the vendors and the artisans outside of the port in efforts to get them gold standard. We've worked with even printing and laminating some of the signage for them and then they put their masks and necessary P.P.E.s. So it really has been a lot of the ground work just to get them prepared. All of the tenants, all the employees have also been vaccinated. And yesterday, I really just want to thank the Ministry of Health because they engaged in a full swab on experience of everybody that is going to be operating tomorrow and I am happy to report we are a hundred percent negative."
Please be advised that the IA has resumed ticket sales at the IA Office in the Fort Street Tourism Village. All tour guides and tour operators are required to purchase admissions tickets for Cruise Passengers PRIOR to arrival at archaeological reserves.
IA reserves designated to receive Cruise Passengers are Lamanai, Altun Ha, Xunantunich and Nohoch Che'en.
Belize welcomed Wednesday the Carnival Vista, with 2800 passengers, its first cruise ship after over a year of no-sailing due to the pandemic. We congratulate all the agencies, partners and tourism workers that have made the reopening a safe and successful milestone. The Government of Belize continues to successfully reopen the tourism industry in Belize.
March 13th, 2020 - that's when the last cruise ship made a port call in Belize, just before the emerging COVID-19 pandemic caused a total shutdown of all international travel.
For those who make their living in this industry, the ensuing 17 months have been an economic famine - thousands lost their income, and many had to sell their tour buses and water ferries just to keep food on the table.
This morning, they all breathed a sigh of relief when the Carnival Vista became the first ship to bring cruise tourists to Belizean shores. It's an important step for a slow return to normalcy in the industry, and 7News was at the Fort Street Tourism Village when those guests disembarked. Daniel Ortiz reports:
This morning, for the first time in well over a year, Belize City's coastline was bustling cruise tourism commerce. Carnival Cruise Line arrived today with a little over 2,800 guests who wanted to explore Belize's tourism product.
And of course, stakeholders in the industry were eager to provide the best possible experience, even in these pandemic times.
Noriko Gamero - Director, Cruise & Destination Planning, BTB "We're super excited today to receive the Carnival Vista. It's been 15 long months, where everybody has anticipated this day."
John Pollard - Owner, Big John Tours & Taxi Transfers "We have been off for the past 16 months thereabouts. We're back today to see exactly what is going to happen, and what will happen."
William "New York" Bradley - Artisan/Vendor "Today has been a blessed day for me because it's almost 2 years that we haven't worked. We haven't done anything in tourism. This is a passion for me. I love tourism so much because I can express myself, share the quality of my country, and at the same time, get paid."
Noriko Gamero "We have 2,810 total passengers on the Carnal Vista, so you know that's not a hundred percent capacity. And over 97% of them are vaccinated. So, the remainders are the children or people of religious beliefs. So, those people were put into what we call a bubble tour, and then they were taken on tours with additional, enhanced safety measures. All the vaccinated people, are here to enjoy Belize. Vendors and restaurants are opened to receive them. We have tours going to Altun Ha, Xunantunich, Lamanai, Hol Chan."
According to the tourism officials, all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that the return to tourism in Belize is as safe as possible.
Noriko Gamero "The cruise lines have had to retrofit their entire ship meeting the same gold standards that we have demanded of our tour operators and all our local stakeholders. And then, just to get them here, they've been vaccinated. They've been tested, PCR, rapid test, you name it. These guys have gone above and beyond the protocols necessary."
"I want to emphasize that every individual and employee who is working here today have had at least their first vaccination, and on Monday, we did a swabbing of a hundred percent of every tour operator, tour guide, Tennant. Everybody was swabbed, and I am happy to report that we have a hundred percent negative."
While these frontline tourism stakeholders were COVID free as of Monday, how do they remain that way? To ensure that the influx of persons visiting Belize doesn't become the source of a super spread perhaps of a new strain, there are strict attempts to manage crowds, and create social distance:
Noriko Gamero "Once they arrive here, as you can see behind me, they're offloading. We're doing them in smaller groups. They're coming off in a controlled amount so that we don't have overcrowding on the port."
As for the facility itself, the management of the Fort Street Tourism Village has retrofitted it to manage the common risks associated with large volumes of passengers expected to pass through the cruise port.
Just to get past the security area, there's an automated temperature-measuring device that detects if face masks aren't being worn.
Noriko Gamero "The port itself has done a phenomenal job, just to make sure that they've met all the gold standards."
You guys experience the technology which has been put in place that checks your temperature. The sanitizing stations. Even on the outside of the compound of the Fort Street Tourism Village, where there used to be jostling here and there, the independent tour operators were conducting business in an orderly fashion.
John Pollard "You came here, and you saw me and the sergeant engaging in a little conversation. These lines are placed here for a purpose. This yellow line, here, only personnel at the front will remain at those social distance lines, which is 4 or 5 operators up at a time. 2 personnel are allowed because only 6 of us, for now, has the Gold Standard [certification] out here at this present moment. So, we're doing 2, 2, and 2 in rotation."
And in the event that a guest coming off the ship suddenly starts to show signs of the COVID virus, strict protocols will be triggered.
Noriko Gamero "The importance of the Gold Standard was so everybody knows how to deal with the response plan. So, the response plan is one of the 9-point checklists, and it ensures that everybody, whether you're a vendor, a hair braider, a tenant, a tour operator, [or] tender operator. Everybody should know, and they've been trained on what the protocol is. And the protocol is any symptomatic passenger is isolated, and then, they'll return to ship for testing. They basically would go on a separate tender. They go back onboard. There are medical facilities. They become tested, and then should anybody test positive, then that's where the importance, again, the Gold Standard for contact tracing."
But, for everyone who depends on cruise tourism, today's reopening is its own major success.
Noriko Gamero "Just the fact that the ship is here, that first person who came off that ship was a success."
John Pollard "I would like that everyone who is here today takes home something to their families. That's what I would like to happen today. Some people might call it crumb-snatching, but most people, if not everyone out here, have a family that he or she needs to feed."
William "New York" Bradley "We are hoping that we can see other days like this because the pandemic has destroyed us, mein."
Policing The Tourists
And while this morning was definitely exciting for the tourism industry - many of whom had financially flatlined during the pandemic - caution cannot be thrown to the wind while chasing that dollar.
With a new variant in the country, the COVID protocols must still be maintained. But will tourists - especially those living in areas where masks and social distancing are not enforced - pay heed to local regulations? We asked the Minister of Home Affairs how they plan to police the pleasure-seeking tourists.
Hon. Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs "As you know we do have tourism police officers and they are of course informing tourists as they come off the ship - I am sure they are prepared on the ship of what our regulations are, but in the event of them are nor wearing their mask properly of course the tourism officers will advise them to do so and so it's something new that we are actually having cruise ships come back in a time of a pandemic, very exciting if you ask me so see so many people back at work, but we have to be safe and so that is why we have to police it at the same time, but we are going to learn as we go along how to deal with this pandemic."
It may have been just one ship, but today, after eighteen months of no visitors, the Fort Street Tourism Village was buzzing with activity. News Five's Duane Moody was back in the area, this time to capture the action.
After welcoming its first cruise ship for the first time after several months, Belize is off to a great cruise restart.
Last week's first cruises to set sail, returned to the US without a single case or suspected case of Covid-19 in guests or crew.
Yesterday, July 14, 2021, was the second port call from Carnival Vista, sailing out of Galveston.
Most of the cruise tours are currently operating, and 95% of the guests are fully vaccinated and free to book tours onboard or with independent operators with Gold Standard Certificates.
The 5% unvaccinated group on board, consists of mostly vaccinated parents traveling with children who are unable to take the vaccine as yet. These guests can book a few (3-4) "bubble tours" with separate tenders, transportation and, private facilities only. They also undergo antigen testing onboard each time they return from a tour in a port.
Visitors have been informed ahead and are exceptionally good about mandatory masks and social distancing requirements.
Based on the above report, it seems Belize is off to a great cruise restart!