Tourism Minister Mark Espat visits "La Isla Bonita"

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 13, No. 46            December 11, 2003

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Representatives of local government and tourism industry with Hon. Mark Espat

Ambergris Caye was honored last week with a visit from Belize's Minister of Tourism, Honorable Mark Espat, as a part of the scheduled activities celebrating Tourism Awareness Week 2003.

    Minister Espat greeted an enthusiastic crowd of more than 50 members of the business community at a gathering held in the lobby of The Villas at Banyan Bay. Mr. Luis Romero of Reef Radio introduced all of the invited guests, which included Area Representative Manuel Heredia Jr. who expressed his appreciation for the "Minister in Charge" of this very vital industry that is the "bread and butter" of our island.

    Mayor Elsa Paz then welcomed the minister, stating her hope for a positive outcome from this forum. She reminded those assembled that "we have reaped the rewards" of the many investments in tourism, but this fortune would only last as long as "we protect what we have."

    Minister Mark Espat then addressed the audience, acknowledging the many important stakeholders in the industry who had chosen to attend, including Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) National President Steve Schulte. The Minister began with an announcement that he was already somewhat aware of the "challenges" being faced by local businesses as a result of his "solo tour" of the island (via golf cart) earlier that day.

    The Minister next described San Pedro as "the principle engine that drives tourism in Belize." He announced that $5.5 million dollars had been budgeted for advertising our "jewel," explaining the theory that: marketing=arrivals=investment=economic growth and health for our nation. The minister next focused on the current major Product Development concern - the cruise ship industry. He admitted a real conflict between those marketing cruise ship "stopovers" and those who offered the traditional "overnight stay" vacations to visitors. Minister Espat assured all those attending that the Belize Tourism Board and the Government of Belize were doing their very best to achieve a balance, by working with a number of non-governmental organizations to establish carrying capacity data to determine what the industry could handle.

    Minister Espat next addressed a number of San Pedro challenges he determined to be key priorities such as the condition of municipal streets. He promised to contact the Ministries of Finance and Works regarding the situation. The minister admitted that it was "unacceptable to spend tens of millions of dollars so that tourists could wallow in the mud."

    Other island concerns and solutions the Minister observed were: Safety and Crime Control - more Tourism Police will be assigned from the next graduating class; Market Competitiveness - investments in Belize's human resources, i.e., additional Tourism Training Unit certifications in all sectors (taxi drivers, vendors, service personnel, etc.) and Conservation - make "a concerted effort to work even harder on conserving our natural and cultural treasures for our next generation."

    The minister's next subject touched on finances, taxes and revenue generation. The tourism minister reviewed GOB's efforts to examine park fees and monies collected to determine each entity's ability to sustain and maintain themselves. He assured, "any new taxes will be carefully reviewed for justifiability and to prevent any harm to the industry."

    Minister Espat ended his message by encouraging everyone involved in the tourism industry to practice "political maturity." He urged more dialogue with all groups and to "underscore the partnerships that are the success of the tourism industry."

    An open forum followed and several members of the island community relayed their concerns to Minister Espat. Among those mentioned were: shortage of product to meet the demands of tourism growth; repeat offenders being allowed to return to or remain on the island; few concessions for small businesses; unjust Customs fees; ill effects of the cruise ship industry; crime, especially the lack of police officers on the north and south ends of the island; increasing demand for electrical power not being met; carrying capacity at local marine parks; emergency medical care; limiting certain fishing permits, and the lack of law enforcement.

    The main issue of those gathered focused on the island getting a fair return from government on their investment in Belize's economy. It was noted that although Ambergris Caye provides a large share of the country's revenue, the San Pedro Town Council receives an annual stipend from GOB of less than 4% of their ministry's budget, or approximately $69,000 per annum for municipal expenses. This amount was stated to be grossly unfair when compared to a reported $300,000 stipend that one of the smaller towns in the Cayo District receives.

    The Minister of Tourism ended the discussion by thanking all those attending, especially the many representatives of local organizations. Minister Espat promised to pass the information gathered at this meeting on to the appropriate ministries and vowed to visit "La Isla Bonita" more frequently in the future.

    San Pedro Town Administrator Alberto Villanueva Jr. concluded the affair by expressing his appreciation to Honorable Mark Espat and those gathered for attending this important meeting.
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