Cabinet approval has been granted, and signing is imminent for the Memorandum of Understanding between the government of Belize and Norwegian Cruise Lines for a US$50 million cruise ship port on Harvest Caye just offshore south of Placencia, but the conditions of the MOU do not sit well with many in the tourism industry.
The Belize Tourism Industry Association has raised many of the same objections it had against Norwegian’s previous proposal for a port on Crawl Caye, which Cabinet killed because the island was a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. This time the Ministry of Tourism & Culture and the Belize Tourism Board are defending the new proposal in a press release issued Thursday, August 1, the same day it was rumored that pen would be put to paper on the MOU.
The BTIA’s protests cited the 2012 National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan which had recommended no mass tourism for southern Belize, and only allowing pocket cruises, defining pocket cruises as ships with no more than 250 passengers. They cited the BTB’s own numbers of 10 percent growth in overnight visitors for the first quarter of this year, as the best argument not to change the formula which has worked so well for Belize tourism: miles of deserted beaches, pristine, unspoilt, beautifully colorful flora and fauna and ancient archaeological sites where visitors don’t have to compete with throngs of other tourists.
The tourism ministry and the BTB said that “the overnight sector continues to be the mainstay of our tourism industry and that cruise tourism is considered incremental business.”
The BTB release labels the B.T.I.A. protests as “ill-informed, irresponsible”, and decided to clear the air by stating a number of facts.
Cruise tourism is only one of the six tourism products to be developed under the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, which also “calls for the decentralization of cruise tourism in Belize to reduce overcrowding, provide better management of our tourism sites, enhance safety and security conditions for cruise visitors and increase local participation within this sub-sector.”
The Plan recommends two approaches to achieving sustainable growth in the cruise sector: conventional cruise tourism and pocket cruises; and also “establishes that the future economic viability of this sector rests on the ability of the country to provide an onshore cruise port.”
The BTB makes much of the fact that Norwegian would be investing US$50 million initially to create proper berthing facility for an island destination which would guarantee at least 130 ship calls per year in the first instance and generate 800 to 1000 direct jobs. While the company will be allowed to import up to 25 per cent foreign labor during the first five years of the project, the MOU calls for a minimum of 75 per cent of the workers to be Belizean. After five years, the entire work force is expected to be 100 per cent Belizean.
An advance copy of the MOU leaked to the media had indicated Norwegian would be getting a kick-back of US$4.00 of the $7.00 head tax collected on each cruise passenger who steps ashore.
Since the head tax collected on present cruise ship arrival is shared between PACT and other conservation agencies working on mitigating the effects of mass tourism, this new proposed formula did not sit well with conservationists. The BTB release is ambiguous in this regard, saying, “The cruise ship head tax of US$7.00 will remain the same with a revenue sharing agreement between the relevant parties.”
The BTB release cites statistics in defense of the cruise passenger spending, which the BTIA had argued was nowhere as much as the amount spent by overnight visitors. The BTB says the current average cruise ship passenger spend US$73.00 per day, while crew spending averages US$103.00 per person per day.
As to possible violations of Belize’s environmental laws, the BTB says “the proposed development will have to abide by all applicable Laws and Regulations of Belize,” and “will not be exempted from either General Sales Tax or Business Tax”, nor will it “receive any incentives over or above what is currently being offered under the Fiscal Incentives Act.”
The proposed development, and all its undertakings, is still subject to a positive outcome of the Amended Environmental Impact Assessment, the BTB argues. The new port should also have no impact on artisans, handicraft vendors and tour operators in Belize City, as no cruise ships currently scheduled to call in Belize City will be diverted to the new port.
The BTB further states that the new port would “in effect ensure the distribution of passengers in accordance with the pocket cruise model as outlined in the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan.”
The BTB noted that present growth in the cruise tourism sector has not affected the growth or performance of the overnight tourism sector in any way.
The BTB release chided the B.T.I.A is remaining the only hold-out National Tourism Association which has not formally endorsed the National Tourism Master Plan. The release called on the BTIA to respect the many tourism professionals that are earning an honest living from cruise tourism sector and to refrain from any derogative campaign messages.