The future of cruise tourism took a surprise turn last week when Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced his intention to greenlight a cruise port to be located at the Port of Belize facility, currently owned by Lord Michael Ashcroft.
The news caught the tourism industry off-guard and none more than Michael Feinstein, who for ten years, has been lobbying government for support of a cruise port at Stake Bank.
Since then, the news has prompted strong responses from Feinstein and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA).
Feinstein, the man behind the mega-million dollar Stake Bank Tourism Project, has stated he will place his US$100 million project on hold indefinitely. Sources in the Feinstein camp told the Reporter that unless the Stake Bank Project has the assurance that G.O.B. will give exclusive support to this venture, the project would remain on hold.
The Ashcroft project looks at resuscitating earlier plans made by Luke Espat, to convert the facility into a cruise port terminal. The Port of Belize, now in receivership over some $140 million in debt charges against its former owner, currently functions as a goods port for Belize City.
Espat’s 2004 plan looked at utilizing the southeast end of Port Loyola to create a docking facility. That project was abandoned after a feasibility and environmental impact assessment study and tests done by the Jan de Mul Group in 2003 showed the project to be unfeasible and a hazard to residents of the Port Loyola area.
This is so because construction would result in further flooding of the low-lying residential area.
At that time (2004), smaller cruise ships were in use. Since then, larger cruiseships of the Oasis class have been arriving.
This week COLA voiced its concerns via a press release, which openly questions the government’s motive for the sudden change of heart.
It also takes issue with the environmental studies done at the time, then pointedly asks: “If this project was so vile then, what has made it so right now?”
The Feinstein development project at Stake Bank has been plagued from the start with legal disputes arising from a claim by Fort Street Tourism Village Limited, wanting exclusivity when managing cruiseship tourists who come to Belize City. Under this arrangement. the Belize Tourism Village earns a commission on the revenues which the Government of Belize collects as a head tax.
This case was reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2015. The court found the exclusive arrangement, authorized by former Prime Minister Said Musa to be illegal. The win was a notch in Feinstein’s belt, as the ruling would allow his project to collect on the head tax as well.
In 2014 the Feinstein project received bipartisan support in the form of a Bill, granting it exemptions on the payment of taxes and duties. But today hope is fading for this ambitious and progressive plan as Lord Ashcroft rides in to play the role of spoiler.
“All the Prime Minister had to do was to sign a Statutory Instrument and we would be set to go,” Feinstein told the media this week.
To the casual eye, any cruiseship port is worth having. Belize City needs a cruiseship port, so if Mr.Ashcroft can produce a cruiseship port in record time, why not give him the chance to do so?
The simple answer is that not all tourship ports are created equal.
Stake Bank provides natural deep water which is not available anywhere else in Belize. Stake Bank can offer much more than a cruise ship port. It can offer safe anchorage. It can offer berthing for up to three cruiseships at a time.
The land-development infrastructure accompanying the project will be an asset for cruise tourism because there is land for shops and infrastructure; and for living space, something which is a scarce commodity in Belize City, and land for refueling and replenishment of ocean-going vessels.
Yabra has none of this protection. To get to deeper water will involve extending the land far out into the sea, where there is no safe anchorage and where high winds will make those multi-deck cruiseships vulnerable.
At Yarbra, tourists won’t find any attractive places to shop as they come off the ship.
The location of a tourship port for Belize City is not one to be made lightly. It is not, or it should not be, a political decision because much more than politics is at stake here.
Belize has an unbelievable opportunity to get it right the first time by paying careful attention to the lay of the land and by consulting with knowledgable planners who have had experience with this kind of development. Belize needs a tourship port that we can build on.
We need a port that will not be outgrown by time and events. We need a tourship port that will serve Belize for the next 100 years and beyond, taking into account the loss of coastland due to global warming.
The least, the very least the government can do is, before it decides to act unilaterallly, is to see if there is the possibility for a joint development project, using the best science, and the best marine resources available to make it happen.
Over the long haul, this will be a multi-billion dollar investment, and there should be room for all who want to make a bone fide contribution.