Posted on Wed, Sep. 15, 2004
I M A G E S
A man pulls a ferry carrying Belizeans and their bicycles across the San Pedro River in Belize last month. Opponets say a bridge connecting the island to seaside resorts would destroy the island's identity. KERYN BROMBERG/FOR THE HERALD
Foes say San Pedro bridge will only lead to trouble
To city planners, a planned bridge linking an island with tourist resorts in Belize is a needed step forward. But hoteliers and natives say `it's going to ruin everything.'
BY BENJAMIN GEDAN
Special to The Herald
SAN PEDRO, Belize - For the tourists, scuba divers and honeymooners, Ambergris Island is still a placid getaway for swimming with stingrays and napping on Caribbean beaches protected by the hemisphere's largest barrier reef.
But to many Belizeans it is the source of a dispute over a tiny piece of urban infrastructure, a planned 120-foot bridge linking San Pedro, the island's only city, with miles of seaside resorts to the north.
The project is favored by locals who want to expand the city but has angered hoteliers, mostly foreign investors who say the bridge will yield increased traffic and crime and hamper Belize's fastest growing tourist site.
''It's going to ruin everything,'' said Rose Crawford, 33, a chef at Rendezvous, a pricey Thai restaurant near the Journey's End resort. ``All kinds of people will come over.''
There is much at stake. Belize, just a two-hour flight from Miami, relies heavily on tourism, particularly scuba divers and nature lovers lured by its protected wildlife. Caye Ambergris, a 25-mile-long island in northern Belize, played host to the first Temptation Island two years ago.
Nearly all 12,000 native Belizeans here live in San Pedro, a mile-wide, seven-mile-long city. They can travel north only by crossing the San Pedro River on a small barge that carries people, bicycles and golf carts, or a small ferry. At rush hour, both are filled, a difficulty that has discouraged residents from moving north despite worsening congestion in San Pedro.
''We were born here and we need to move north to think about the future,'' said the city's mayor, Elsa Paz. ``We have no property for our children. The biggest part of the island is in the north . . . There is a demand.''
Local supporters, including former town council member Abel Guerrero, 44, argue that the Boca del Rio Bridge will permit passage only for souped-up golf carts, with thick tires to travel the single dirt road on the northern part of the island.
But the $227,000, nine-foot-high bridge will be wide enough for full-sized vehicles, leaving opponents fearful of future road improvements and traffic jams. They also fear crime, now nearly nonexistent on the northern part, even though it's cut off from the city's police force.
''It's peaceful,'' said Maylin Ordonez, 24, a receptionist at Journey's End. ``That's why we don't want to build it.''
Belize, the only English-speaking country in Central America, has been steadily building its tourist sector, in part by excavating Mayan ruins. The small country, with only 273,000 legal residents, is subject to frequent hurricanes. But tourism still attracts more money than sugar cane, citrus or banana exports.
Visitors to Ambergris Caye, along with the resort owners there, say that trend could be reversed if builders bridge the gap between San Pedro and the north.
Michelle Muller, 52, visited Belize last month from her horse ranch in Arizona and said the bridge project could undermine her plans to buy a house on Ambergris Caye.
''You come here because where else do you need to ride a little ferry to come home at night,'' she said.
Work has not begun on the bridge, and one stumbling block in its way might be its price tag.
The seven-member San Pedro town council has approved the proposal. But Paz said her first priority is installing cobblestones on the city's three sandy roads, a $1.6 million project for a city with an annual $1.1 million budget.
There are 1,800 registered vehicles in San Pedro, Paz said, and traffic is her top concern.
Paz, 41, said she is hesitant to frighten away tourists, who generate $20 million in national hotel taxes annually. The country has helped the island's development with lenient zoning laws and a lower income tax. And despite the destruction of nearly every dock by Hurricane Keith in 2000, a boom in commercial development is continuing.
The bridge would help extend fire, police and sanitation services to North Ambergris. And a police checkpoint could prevent thieves from plundering the resorts and luxury beach houses, Paz has told nervous property owners.
Still, Paz, whose family helped found San Pedro, said Belizeans cannot forever defer to the demands of investors and tourists, who flee after every hurricane and frequently sell their real estate.
''We have to stay and live here,'' she said. ``They have to understand that it's part of the island.''