|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
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
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.