Belizean and American business men and women came together Saturday morning to meet with the American Chamber of Commerce of Belize. The purpose of the meeting was to provide San Pedro businesses with background information on the value of membership in the American Chamber of Commerce of Belize. Mr. Michael Plowey, Chamber President, welcomed everyone attending and briefly explained the Chamber. He stated there are 84 Chambers worldwide in 70 countries. These are organized into five regional groups: Europe, Africa, Far East countries, Gulf countries and the Latin America Association of the Chamber of Commerce, of which Belize is a member. As an official member of the Latin America region, the Belize Chapter is organized to promote and enhance business development in San Pedro as well as other cities in Belize. AmCham of Belize has already used their affiliation and lobbying influences to amend tax laws for U.S. citizens, and for the Caribbean Basin Initiative Enhancement Bill which deals with laws of the textile and Free Trade Zone industry. They have also established a Caribbean/Central American Disaster Relief Fund whereby other Chambers may donate to American Chambers in affected countries. He also mentioned the work they have done regionally with other Latin American chambers, such as Guatemala, who is quite interested in meeting to exchange tourism ideas. The numerous business contacts that can be exchanged was another benefit he listed as being a part of this organization. He then introduced the guest speaker for the meeting, Honorable Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism.
Minister Espat spoke of the recent meeting of the Prime Minister's delegation to Mexico and the encouraging results. An agreement was reached to provide a National Museum of Belize and funding for Houses of Culture here and in other parts of the country for Belizeans as well as visitors. He then reviewed the Marketing plan that the Belize Tourism Board has undertaken. Although this seems to be generating increased interest, their major goal is to increase hotel occupancy rates. To attain this, Belize has lately been featured in major magazines, the regional press of Mexico and on Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) in the United States, their primary market.
He continued speaking of the efforts of the BTB, Central Government, Product Development Committees and local government to 1) establishing training to improve skills of Belizeans, 2) improving borders, and 3) developing our natural resources. He realized challenges of infrastructure such as streets, airports and access roads to name a few. He added that 1.5 million dollars has been allocated to Product Development to improve destination attraction. He then introduced Steve Schulte, Tropic Air CEO and Board Member of the Chamber, who assisted in organizing the event.
Mr. Schulte explained this meeting was held to provide interested businesses in San Pedro an opportunity to hear from various government and industry leaders as to the value of the organization. American Chambers of Commerce are the means through which business men and women's mutual interests are promoted by effective government lobbying and through affiliation with other Chambers. The meeting was then turned over for open discussion.
Leading off the assault of questions was the age old question of what was being done to correct the problems of infrastructure, electricity and phone problems. One business woman mentioned that it was nice to market our country, but "when the woman with the $500 Gucci shoes steps into the muck and has no electricity for a whole day," it undoes all the good intentions. It was mentioned that one business had been waiting ten months for a phone line. Numerous people objected to the huge increase in their electricity bills during slow season. The Minister explained that Belize Electricity Limited was "supposedly" working on that problem and there was "no good excuse" for Belize Telecommunications. He mentioned the fact that BTL has a monopoly and all the government can do is continue to pressure them.
One business person commented that while they admired the steps taken in training, they wondered if government had trained personnel at the port of entry, namely Customs and Immigration employees. Minister Espat assured them that the heads of both departments had been in committee meetings regarding that very subject and are training personnel. He added that BTB does spot checks at airports and now has a booth at the International airport to oversee customer service related problems and to take complaints from visitors.
Local resort owners questioned the problems encountered receiving visas or extensions for visitors and the work permit issue. This brought up the question as to why a passport is required for entry into Belize. The Minister answered that the U.S. Embassy had been in discussions with the Ministry and requirements for expiring passports had already been changed. In regards to work permits, he is working with National Security to reduce the bureaucracy involved and that continued training was making Belizean workers available for previously unattainable positions. On the other hand, he stated he also sees the need and benefit of expatriate training and has spoken with Minister Fonseca in regards to this.
At this point Steve Schulte reiterated the need for membership in American Chamber of Commerce of Belize to form committees to address these issues. It was noted that collectively we could make more of a statement to government, as opposed to individual voices to make a change. The outrage of sky-high airline prices, both international and inter-country, was next to be addressed. The Minister confirmed meetings with most of the major airlines, but that Belize is not a fair comparison to Mexico, when there are 3.9 million people flying into one of their destinations. He stated supply and demand regulate prices. Mr. Schulte agreed with this saying airlines needed to make money too and suggested an idea of starting a Belizean airline.
Another main concern was the ability of the local police department to effectively handle the island's problems. Suggested was additional training to educate them not only in the standard police areas but in public relations skills. There was mention that constables need to be more responsive to local citizens needs. Minister Espat assured the group that he would speak to Minister Jorge Espat regarding this matter.
The meeting was summed up with information on how to join the American Chamber of Commerce of Belize. Much interest was displayed in starting committees for each of the concerns mentioned in the meeting. It was suggested that these committees have a representative report to the Board of Directors of AmCham who would then lead them to beneficial contacts or would lobby government on their behalf. It was stressed that members need NOT be Americans, it is just the name of their organization. Minister Espat thanked everyone for attending this worthwhile get together.
All business men and women of San Pedro are welcome to join the Chamber and can do so by contacting Board member D. Michael Fox at 026-2622.
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