Since yesterday, cruise sector interests have been taking notice of the decision from tourism and health authorities to allow the Celebrity Apex cruise ship to make a port call in Belize. That's because on January 7th, a little over 2 weeks ago, this cruise ship was prevented from making its scheduled call in Nassau, Bahamas.

That's because earlier in the month, a number of persons on board the vessel had tested positive for COVID-19 - so many that the ship was turned back from the Bahamas. But the best information to 7News is that this morning, there were only 3 active cases on the ship.

This afternoon, we spoke with Abil Castaneda, the BTB Director of Quality Management and Capacity Development in the Cruise industry, about the decision to allow the ship to make a call in Belize. He told us that the boarding party, which consisted of officials from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Immigration visited the ship and confirmed that their list of crew and passengers is not a threat to Belize's public health:

Abil Castaneda - BTB Director, Quality Management, Capacity Development, Cruise
"Earlier this year, early January, the Apex was denied over in the Bahamas, for instance, but that is because at that time they had a lot of cases on board, COVID cases. At this point, in view, it is not our concern. I can't say that they are less than a handful of cases within the crew on the ship. That is well managed and the Minister of Health, what does the clearance of these ships are very well satisfied that everything is under control. There's a standard protocol for clearing of any ship that comes to Belize there be a cruise line or it'd be a cargo ship. And so there is a boarding party that goes on. The Minister of Health leads that along with Immigration and Customs, [and] BAHA. And what they do is they do their checks to see that everything is on, on schedule, and on par with what the reports are that they submit 24 hours before. So in the case of - currently, what the Minister of Health is doing, leaning case of COVID, the ships that are about to call to Belize, they actually send a medical declaration, by protocol, to them, so that they can determine what the situation is on board. They can look at the epidemiological information, and then they make a decision on what could happen, whether they are allowed to come in or if they are allowed to come in. Maybe they need some extra public health measures. And then, that's what they refer about for the ship."

"So what was the decision in this particular instance? Was there a need for additional public health measures? Or did you feel that the public health safety risks weren't that high?"

Abil Castaneda
"To be honest with you, it's a better question to ask the Public Health Ministry, but I can't say that I, as I mentioned earlier, there is no concern when it relates to this particular ship. I know that it was of concern before earlier this month."

"But, just like how COVID progresses here in the mainland with peaks and highs, we are seeing the same things within the cruise ship industry."

Some of the ship's 12 hundred passengers were allowed to disembark in Belize for pre-booked tours. Others were allowed to approach the independent tour operators to make their last-minute arrangements. But, when the ship first arrived, they were only allowing guests who had pre-booked tours through the cruise company to leave. Of course, the independent tour operators were up in arms about that decision.

They brought their concerns to the BTB, who interceded on their behalf. Castaneda explained to us that they informed the management of Celebrity Cruise Line of Belize's strict COVID management under the Gold Standard Certification program:

Abil Castaneda - BTB Director, Quality Management, Capacity Development, Cruise
"So, what happened with this particular ship is because of what happened at the beginning of January, this particular cruise line began to undertake some more stringent measures onboard all of their ships. Specifically, in particular, destinations that the U.S. State Department also have them at Level four, so Belize is one of them. Now, what happened is that it's we understood very late last week that Belize was included within a set of countries where only tours that are sold on the ship can disembark. Now, we've got some rumblings from our stakeholders, and we, yesterday, had a call with that particular cruise line to clarify what the situation was. So, they didn't mention to us, look, it is an extra measure that we're putting in place because we need to manage the risk. What they were finding is that because they were they were seeing an escalation of cases at that time, many of the ports around that they were calling or denying them. And so they, as a way to manage that, put in more strict measures. Now, what we were able to share with them - and they agreed with us - is that Belize has done a lot of investments in making sure that when we reopen cruise tourism, we did so in a very safe and considerate way, visa vis the gold standard program, that we had at the BTB, and we continue to have all our tour operators are gold standard certified. And so all of them have the measures and protocols in place to manage whatever scenario you can think about where it relates to COVID. We have had a very good partnership with the cruise lines as we recover. You know, we're in our seventh month of recovery now, and we are learning as we go. But we also mentioned to them that decisions like these, you have to take into consideration what the impact is on the ground. And so anyways, after all this discussion, we are glad to say that we were able to get a response back from the cruise line to say that they will reverse the policy for Belize. And so that decision was made yesterday."

This morning, we spoke via telephone with Tom Greenwood, the former leader and President Emeritus of FECTAB, who told us that the independent tour operators were pleased that this issue could be resolved without them being forced to miss out on potential earnings from this port call.

Channel 7