BTB and Fisheries address SPTGA

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 48            December 28, 2000

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A general meeting of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association (SPTGA) was held Thursday, December 21st. Invited guests included Mr. James Azueta of Fisheries who presented the new marine protected areas zoning  proposal and Mr. Anthony Mahler, Deputy Director of Product Development for the Belize Tourism Board, who spoke about the Tour Operators' Statutory Instrument.

    Mr. Azueta took the floor first, explaining that the proposed Fisheries' initiative is to basically divide the marine protected areas of Belize into three zones: North, Central and South Belize. Bacalar Chico National Park/Marine Reserve, Hol Chan Marine Reserve (with Shark Ray Alley) and Caye Caulker Marine Reserve would all be included in the Northern Zone. This proposal would eliminate individual management and advisory committees for each reserve and instead create one management team/advisory board for all. The suggested board for the Northern Zone would include representation from Sarteneja Village Council, San Pedro Town Council, Caye Caulker Village Council, Forest and Marine Reserve Association/Caye Caulker (FAMR-ACC), Green Reef, San Pedro Tour Guide Association, Caribeña Cooperative, Northern Cooperative and two appointees of the Area Representative. All zones would be under the main management of the Fisheries Department.

    Further proposed was that MPA entrance fees encompass all reserves in the zone, so that several attractions can be enjoyed by tourists for one ticket price. Concerns over the price of the new zoning fees was the main issue among the over 20 tour guides attending the meeting. Fees for Hol Chan are currently set at $5BZ and Shark Ray Alley at $7BZ. The proposal suggests the Northern Zone's three MPAs all be available for one booklet price of $25US. The amount of this fee brought many comments such as "tourists would refuse to pay that much" and "we will lose the ones we already have." One example mentioned a tourist who will only snorkel one time on vacation, and why would they pay a fee to see all three. Some suggested that partial payments be allowed. Several tour guides pointed out their doubts as to whether clients would pay this large amount, especially the ones with large families. There was concern that if tourists were not interested in the other MPAs, they may not visit any of them. Mr. Azueta addressed these concerns saying the fees will be heavily marketed as being used for "protection of the environment" and stated the possibility of trading remaining tickets in the booklets with other zones. He reiterated this was just a draft proposal and therefore everything is flexible at this point.

    Other questions concerned grant funding and if it would be made available with a government ministry overseeing the management of these "nodes".  Mr. Azueta said the solution to this would be co-management with other non-government organizations such as FAMRACC, Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), Friends of Laughing Bird Caye and other agencies. Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute will also have funds earmarked for the marine protected areas as well. There was mention of a possible amalgamation between this organization and Fisheries in the future. The amount of "total visitors" in the proposal was questioned because individual figures for Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, each listed as 40,000, were added together. It was agreed that some could possibly be the same people, and therefore coordinating figures for income would not be accurate, but that was said to be accounted for in another calculation. More questions focused on the division of the funds. Mr. Azueta explained that the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) would receive 20% of the gross revenue. The remainder would go into the Marine Protected Areas Trust Fund to be shared by all the nodes based on expenditures needed for infrastructure. Mr. Azueta concluded that this initiative will not be implemented anytime soon and that at least two more public forums will be conducted in San Pedro to gather input on the proposal.

    Mr. Anthony Mahler then spoke to the gathering concerning the Tour Operators' Statutory Instrument (SI). He began by stating that this particular SI was put into place to protect local investors. He explained the definition of tour operators as a Belizean citizen or permanent resident whose occupation states so on his work permit; or a company whose majority of shareholders are Belizean citizens or permanent residents; who fall into one of a variety of categories. Categories consist of an individual, company or entity that: 1) "operates and markets tour packages internationally, and also executes complete tour packages within Belize-," 2) "executes countrywide tour packages-," 3) "executes localized tour packages-," 4) "(including without limitation all types of hotels and tourist accommodations as defined in the Hotels and Tourist Accommodation Act) which is involved in executing ground handling operation tour services-". Mr. Mahler stated that basically if a person books a tour, they are considered a tour operator, are taxable and must have a license.

    Many questions arose from the group including the time limit for permanent residents to apply for a license and whether new residents could "buy" licenses, bypassing other requirements. Mr. Mahler answered that many restrictions are already in place and the applicant must meet the list of requirements first. Acceptance for a license is also based on recommendations from a variety of agencies such as Belize Tourism Board (BTB), Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), Village Chairman, Mayor, etc. 

    Some other comments focused on the older sport fishermen and the smaller operation tour guides being taken advantage of by bigger companies or hotels. Also questioned was why government did not enforce some standards and regulations on commissions charged, which can span from 10 - 25%. Mr. Mahler reminded those attending that such incidents are examples of free enterprise. He advised that collectively, groups have more power; changes can be made and laws amended. Mr. Mahler continued that associations such as the San Pedro Tour Guides can document incidences and write letters of recommendations to agencies like BTIA and BTB who can represent them and lobby government on their behalf. Additionally, there was mention of street vendors selling tours and taxi drivers as well, who were suspected to not have licenses. Mr. Mahler assured that once Tourism Police are stationed on the island, they will monitor situations on the street and water for illegal operators. Another guide asked about hotels who also act as tour operators and if they required both licenses. Mr. Mahler responded yes, they must carry both licenses.

    Having no time left to speak on his second subject, Mr. Mahler quickly informed the group that tourism statistics were already up 20%. He ended by encouraging those gathered to "maintain their high-quality standards of service" and wished them all a successful and prosperous new year.
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