Water Vessel SI sparks controversy

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 25            June 28, 2001

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A recent meeting involving stakeholders in the boating industry of San Pedro left several people dissatisfied. Belize Tourism Board's Director of Product Development Anthony Mahler was invited to the meeting for the purpose of clarifying the Local Water Passengers and Water Sports Vessels regulations. The government's contention was that no monitoring was previously in place for these vessels and with the growth of the industry, the time had come to begin implementing standards. Designed to improve service and safety for passengers of water vessels in Belize, the Statutory Instrument was signed in August, 2000. In the SI, local water passenger vessels means cruise tenders, shuttles, sail boats, water taxis, pontoon boats, party boats, tour boats and skiffs which are used by local water passenger vessel providers for cruising purposes within the territorial waters of Belize, who receive payment of any fee or some other form of reward by a passenger. Local water sports vessels are defined as any vessel used by local water sports vessel providers to provide water sports services to the public, who receive payment of a fee or some other form of reward and includes vessels used for board sailing, parasailing, scuba diving, canoeing, rafting, sunfish sailing, paddle boating, waters skiing, kayaking, jet skiing and aqua biking.

    Many concerns were raised at the meeting and have been investigated since then. The new licensing fee appears to some as another "new tax." Questioning Mr. Mahler it was learned that only one license will be issued (on the boat of the highest value) regardless of the number of vessels per owner and licensed tour operators need not pay this fee. He added these fees will be circulated directly back into the industry in the form of training, equipment, etc. Mr. Mahler reiterated that permanent residents requesting licenses must have lived in Belize no less than five years. A previous article printed in the San Pedro Sun stated there is a clause for "existing owners," who have been operating for at least one year before the SI was signed. They may obtain a license provided they meet all the other licensing criteria specified and submit to the committee: a) proof of continuous local water passenger or water sports vessel operation in Belize for at least the previous one year in the form of receipts, evidence of income tax and business tax returns or previous trade license or any other evidence of a similar nature, b) proof that they are competent to conduct the business of local water passenger or water sports vessel operations and c) any other requirements which the committee stipulates as condition precedent to the issuance of the license. It further states that "foreign owners" may only operate in the territorial waters of Belize under special licenses granted by the committee with approval of the Minister after consultation with persons in the area where the operator will operate.

    Regarding the committee, Mr. Mahler explained there was some confusion as to the committee being appointed by the Minister of Tourism. He clarified that only one member, Joe Marin, was chosen by the Minister as the SI states "in his own discretion from suitably qualified persons with adequate knowledge of the tourism industry." Other members include: Geraldo Pacheco, Ramon Cervantes and Lois Marin representing the Local Water Taxi Association; Mike Heusner representing the local Tour Operators Association; David Heredia of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), Kent Sylvester of the Belize Tourism Police and Anthony Mahler appointed by the BTB, and because of the resignation of Captain Watson, a designated representative of the Belize Port Authority.

    Some allegations were made as to the amount of consultation done with stakeholders to which Mr. Mahler replied that this particular piece of legislation was discussed for six years before its signing. He confirmed that, in fact, since the SI was signed last August, fees for licensing have been amended based on consultations with stakeholders and their concern for the small tour operator. Only one fee per owner is charged regardless of the amount of boats owned and is now based on size rather than type. The following fees per size of vessel are in effect or being considered: a) Over 25 feet - $200, b) Under 25 feet - $75. A third fee schedule to include water sport vessels is still being considered and the amount of these license fees charged may reflect whether the vessel is operated manually or mechanically.

    Another issue of liability insurance was investigated and although it can create a financial hardship on some, it was put in place for the same reasons as it applies to vehicles. In addition, it was revealed that licensed tour operators are already required by law to carry this type of coverage. After interviewing several insurance agencies, it was understood that this is "legal liability" insurance similar to "Third Party Risk Insurance" which covers passengers and vehicle in case of an accident. Fees vary widely in "Passenger/Third Party Liability" boat insurance depending on the amount of coverage requested and the amount of passengers the vessel carries. For example, a small tour operator owns a boat with a five-person capacity. A "25-100-25 Plan" will pay $25,000 per person for injuries up to a maximum $100,000 with $25,000 for property damage. This particular coverage would cost an annual fee of $140 plus $8 per passenger ($40 in this case) or $180 per year. The same example using a 25-300-75 plan with 30-person capacity would amount to costs of $170 annually plus $14 per passenger ($420 in this case) or a total of $590 per year. At this higher rate it would equal out to insurance costs of less than $50 per month.

    The next issue was regarding the Captain's license required by the SI. This particular part of the legislation was discovered to be based on a recommendation from the Belize Port Authority based on existing legislation. A controversy ensued over the fact that only one instruction manual was available at the meeting. One tour guide reported going to the Belize Port Authority the next day to obtain the Captain's license instruction book, only to be told they had none for sale. He was informed the book could be ordered from the States or he could attend a six-hour instructional class at the Port Authority. Questioning Anthony Mahler on this subject, he informed that if the Port Authority is not prepared as yet to provide the necessary educational material, the law would not be enforced. In the interim, however, he assured the BTB would consult with the Authority to set up an appropriate training schedule (evening classes) specifically for boat owners on the island, to alleviate the inconvenience of traveling to the city. He confirmed his confidence in the abilities of the boat operators of the island, but reiterated this was an existing law.

    Commenting on the grievances regarding appeals to decisions already made, Mr. Mahler stated that all legislation is subject to amendment. Recommendations may be stated in writing and sent to the Solicitor General or submitted in writing to the committee in care of the BTB.

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