The Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) and the Belize Institute of Environmental Law & Policy (BELPO) have both called on Minister of Tourism Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr. and the other ministers of Cabinet to utterly reject the US$50 million proposal from Norwegian Cruise Line to establish a major cruise port on Crawl Caye, located some eight and a half miles from Maya Beach on the Placencia peninsula or 11 miles north east of Placencia Village.
BTIA declared it is alarmed that Cabinet is even entertaining the proposal, saying Belize has little to gain from such a proposal and much to lose. It raises so many objections that it seems that the only person who would benefit from the project is the private owner of Crawl Caye, if he were to close a deal with Norwegian Cruise line.
The BTIA highlights that the government would be going back on its own position taken less than a year ago when it approved a Sustainable Tourism Master Plan for 2030, prepared by consultants financed by the Inter-American Development Bank.
Three years ago, the government, through the BTB, contracted Europraxis Consulting to develop a National Sustainable Master Tourism Plan for Belize 2030, which was released in June 2010.
“Pocket cruise tourism is the only acceptable form of cruise tourism on the south eastern coast of Belize”, the plan stated, indicating that southern Belize should be preserved as an eco-friendly low impact destination.
The report defined “pocket” cruise ships as carrying less than 250 passengers. In comparison, NCL’s cruise ships bring over 2,000 passengers, while some of Carnival cruises ships bring as many as 3,500 passengers.
Since the proposed port would allow passengers to simply walk down a gangplank on to shore instead of using cruise tenders, the other lines would probably shift to using Norwegian’s port, if it is ever built.
The BTIA says this would open the south to mass cruise tourism which is totally at odds with the BTB’s own 2012 Master Plan.
But what has drawn overnight tourists to southern Belize is its pristine charm of being unspoilt, and untouched.
This policy offering an authentic eco-cultural experience to visitors has worked well so far for Belize and suffered only minimal disruption during the global recession.
In fact, it has been so successful that the BTB reported an impressive 10 percent growth in the number of visitors and a record-breaking number of visitor arrivals, continuing into the first quarter of 2013 and projected to continue.
Neither the Belize City Council nor tour operators, artisans and souvenir vendors have objected to the proposal thus far, but the City Council presently collects a pretty sum in the head tax on each visitor who arrives at the Fort Street Tourism Village, and this income would dry up, if the cruise lines were to shift to a new port down south as their principal port of call in Belize.
The artisans, tour operators and guides, bus and taxi drivers, taxis and other service providers would see a reduction in their income, unless they were allowed to relocate to the new port.
The cruise tender owners, who have invested millions in larger boats to meet Carnival’s criteria for a minimum 150-pasenger capacity, would also lose income if their services were no longer needed if cruise is diverted to a port down south.
The BTIA also points to the BTB’s $6 million investment in the Sustainable Tourism Management Project for the upgrade of Memorial Park and the Fort George Tourism Zone in Belize City, financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, which would now be a superfluous.
Threat to the
The BTIA reiterated the criticism of environmentalists who cite the fact that the island is within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, which UNESCO has designated a World Heritage site because it hosts sea life found nowhere else in the Caribbean.
Crawl Caye is near the heart of some of Belize’s most pristine patch reefs and shallow coral/mangrove reef complex, and some of the most biologically diverse marine areas in Belize. Any large development would cause us to lose World Heritage classification.
The island is surrounded by corals, but the company proposes to cut down almost 50 acres of mangrove which cover the caye and dredge the sea bed to fill in and create an additional 20 acres of land.
BTIA’s other objection is that it is unclear how much Belizean participation in the project would be allowed. Belizeans have worked well with smaller development, but our experience has been that we have less control and less involvement in large projects dominated by foreign investors.
The BTIA expressed the fear that if our environmental laws can’t effectively be policed and enforced, Belize’s natural assets could suffer irreversible damage as a result.
This is a real concern as we are talking about mega ships, not pocket cruisers; they carry at least 2,000 – 2,500 passengers with another 1000 crew members, and the larger ones will bring up to 4000 or more passengers and crew.
The ships would enter Belizean waters at English Caye and cruise down the inner channel to Crawl Caye, exiting either the same way or south of Hunting Caye. In the last five years of cruise ship tourism, Belize has already encountered incidents of pollution, navigational errors, loss of power, oil spills and dumping, and the likelihood of more such incidents would only increase with an increase in volume,
Environmentalists shudder to imagine the impact on the reefs and marine life from the divers, snorkelers, swimmers, fishers, wave runners and water skiers from two ships with 4,000 passengers.
Archaeologist are equally concerned about the trampling effect of hundreds of day-trippers at the small inland sites such as Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, as conservationist are alarmed by a similar invasion at Monkey River and very pristine sites like the Cockscomb basin. No only would Mother Nature’s secret be out, it would be Jewel no more.
Who will benefit?
The BTIA notes also that Belize would have no guarantee on benefits, while internationally, there has been a decline in public confidence in the safety of cruise ships, such as the loss of life when one ship capsized in the Mediterranean and when thousands of passengers endured almost a week of foul conditions when a cruise ship lost all power in the Gulf of Mexico and had to be towed to port.
These and other incidents have spawned rumors of unemployment and uncertainty in the cruise industry. There is also an overwhelming body of evidence of cruise lines’ disregard and lack of concern for the ports they visit.
The local industry is particularly alarmed by rumors that the port agreement is almost a done deal, as there has been no official word of what concession Belize would be offering Norwegian Cruises.
The deal itself
Unofficial word is that Norwegian Cruises would get exemptions from stamp taxes, customs duties and general tax holidays/waivers for a period of 30 years. The company would also have the option to extend this tax-holiday a further 15 years twice, an additional 30 years!
It was also reported that an exclusive 30-year concession as a cruise port of entry at multiple locations in the Stann Creek District is also being discussed.
Norwegian would also allegedly get the option to extend this concession at its sole discretion – no permission from GOB needed.
The development concession would also include all port fees for the calls of all cruise ships in southern Belize, regardless of which cruise line pays the port fees;
Furthermore, the company would have the right to hire up to 25 percent non-Belizeans to work in their cruise operations.
There would be no requirement on what sort of jobs Belizeans must be hired for, nor any requirement for Belizeans to be hired for management positions.
For its part, the Government of Belize would be obliged to build all roads and other infrastructure for the cruise tours, such as buildings, restrooms, garbage disposal and sewage treatment.
Unofficial sources say the Ministry of Economic Development and BELTRAIDE would also help the company get all necessary licenses, permits and permissions.
Those documents include licenses for mining and dredging, environmental approvals, trade licenses, building permits, Central Bank foreign investor permits, foreign exchange dealer permits, tour guide and tendering ferry permits, port related permits, hotel licenses, labor/immigration permits, liquor license and casino license.
All cruise lines using this southern cruise port of entry would also be allowed to keep casinos and shops open while in port, which presently they are not allowed to do.
One would imagine that GOB would negotiate to include that the foreign investor would transfer technical expertise, knowledge and training opportunities to Belizean employees. But local tourism professionals fear that the company might easily exclude all independent tour operators, and thus control every aspect of its operations in southern Belize, including food, tours, entertainment and transportation.