Minister of Tourism, Hon. Mark Espat and Director of Tourism, Valerie Woods visited San Pedro last Wednesday evening hosting a public forum at Town Hall. Members of various organizations and the community came out to hear and speak about the latest developments in the Tourism Industry.
His Worship, Mayor Alberto Nuñez greeted everyone and thanked the Minister, Director and the community for attending this very important meeting. Minister Espat then introduced himself and the Director and gave a brief overview of the Belize Tourism Board's accomplishments and goals for the future. He described tourism as the most important industry, having the most potential for creating economic growth. He noted that in the last 8 months, BTB has worked at streamlining the budget aiming at reversing the previous priorities. Marketing will now be more than 50% of the budget, with product development (training, improving infrastructure) rising to 20%, and lowering administrative costs to under 30%.
Valerie Woods' address to the gathering focused on the marketing and public relations campaigns currently underway to promote all destinations and the diversity of Belize. She highlighted the new image and logo, magazine ads, the 800 number, the website (with 3000 hits per week) and the information booth now operating at the Phillip Goldson International Airport as being key factors in their awareness strategy.
The meeting was then given over to comments and concerns of the crowd. The discussions started with the statement, "that since tourism is the number one industry, it should be given equal office accommodations just as other government agencies are, such as agriculture, forestry and lands". She stressed the need for a tourist information center and tourism police in San Pedro since this was the number one tourist destination. The Minister agreed with her concerns and assured her that the Board will be working towards additional allocations for these areas for next season.
Infrastructure problems were brought up by another member in the group, who stated that to be able to accommodate the growing tourism we must have adequate utilities. He targeted the lack of quality service from Belize Electricity Limited, the problems with phone lines at Belize Telecommunications and a lack of a Health Clinic. This concern was backed by another who stated that while San Pedro was "beauty blessed", it meant nothing to tourists without electricity. He mentioned that people take a chance on Belize and when these outages happen, they leave early. Mito Paz of Green Reef also questioned plans for infrastructure (dredging, piers, seawalls) in order to conserve our natural resources. Minister Espat noted that it is always a challenge to balance eco-tourism with development and that government was looking into several plans, including a marina for San Pedro financed by World Development Bank. He acknowledged his awareness of these issues through the media and letters he has received. He promised to bring up these issues at Cabinet Meetings and reaffirmed his need to be informed of these matters to be able to address them properly.
Challenges to the local people by foreign investors was the next matter discussed. Incidents were sited where proper procedures were not followed when obtaining licenses and permits. Allegations of certain individuals getting preferential treatment for one reason or another were also mentioned. A lack of consultation with the proper organizations and agencies in regards to development and planning as well as a demand for enforcement were agreed on by many. There was a complaint of a land owner not giving the right of way to the public on his area of beach. The Minister stated his concern in these areas and said he would look into certain complaints, but needed more information and legal proof to be able to investigate others.
Another topic of interest was the relation of the increase in tourist arrivals to occupancy figures. Minister Espat answered that the BTB has invested in a new system to gather this information, that they are building the data base for it, and will release it as soon as possible. He mentioned a new Embarkation card for tourists that will gather much needed data. At this point, Valerie Woods urged that Hotel Taxes need to be paid on time to gather statistical information on occupancy rates. If taxes aren't paid by the required date, that information is not included in monthly statistics, therefore accuracy becomes a problem.
Other subjects included challenges to hotels including capital assets, discrimination against hotels without restaurants and sales tax exemptions. Noted by the Minister was credit and small business loans now available through the Small Business and Farmer's Bank and also Development Finance Corp. He also vowed to lobby for the reform of unfair legislation, and confirmed the need for the Product Development Committee to bring these concerns forward to the BTB.
A representative of the local Taxi Association expressed a need for a proper parking area at the airstrip for the taxi drivers to load tourists, especially during rainy season. He also stated a bulldozer was seen on a local Mayan site to which Mr. Espat assured he would notify the proper authorities.
One local man, who is currently seeking to further his education, asked for assistance from the tourism industry. Minister Espat explained that money was already budgeted for a modest Hospitality Training School for Belize.
A final remark from Kenny Cherrington of the area Belize Tourism Industry Association was that the Board should take a trip around Ambergris Caye to get a "hands on" idea of what goes on here. He urged that they visit in rainy season as well as the nice weather to get a more complete view.
Hon. Mark Espat then ended the meeting, thanking everyone for attending and providing valuable insight. He stated that the BTB have been and will continue to make visits like these in an effort to improve our common goal - Tourism.
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