Buoyant Belize Cruise Trade May Sink Paradise, LA Times, 03/13/06
By Marla Dickerson
Source: Los Angeles Times
BELIZE CITY — For years, tour organizer Lascelle Tillett has been leading nature lovers to see rare Morelet's crocodiles, stately Jabiru storks and other wonders in this tiny Caribbean nation.
So it came as something of a shock when he ferried a small party to a spot near Belize's coral reef two years ago and encountered a floating mob.
"There must have been 600 people in the water, and the boats were lined up like cars," said Tillett, director of S&L Travel & Tours. "We didn't see a single [sting] ray or shark."
Such aquatic traffic jams are becoming more frequent — and contentious — in laid-back Belize since the arrival of a new species of visitor: the cruise-ship passenger. The number of big boats stopping here has increased nearly fivefold since 2000, making Belize the fastest-growing tourist port in the Caribbean.
Last year, more than 800,000 cruise ship visitors disembarked in this gritty seafront city, according to the local tourist board. That's nearly triple the nation's population of 280,000.
The surge has been a boon to taxi drivers, hair braiders and other bootstraps entrepreneurs who, like seagulls behind a tuna boat, flock to the waterfront when passengers come ashore. Ship visitors poured an estimated $65 million into the local economy in 2004. That's nearly one-fifth of all tourist dollars spent in Belize, up from virtually nothing five years ago.
Investors are taking aim at these sightseers, whose tight itineraries leave them little more than half a day to see Belize. Entertainment is proliferating, including air-boat rides, a casino and a crocodile farm. Tour operators have purchased fleets of vans and buses that burn rubber to the nearest Mayan ruins.
"When I see an opportunity, I grasp it," said David Gegg, who has formed a tour company called Cruise Solutions Belize Ltd. "You have to adapt."
But other longtime operators say the herd mentality is at odds with Belize's carefully crafted niche as an eco-tourism paradise. Overnight guests, many of whom spend weeks scuba diving, kayaking and exploring the archeological sites of this nation the size of Massachusetts, provide the lion's share of Belize's tourism revenue. Hoteliers say those visitors want solitude and unspoiled wilderness, not hordes of Disneyland-style day trippers swarming the pyramids and scaring the wildlife.
The fear is that big-spending adventure travelers will no longer come if Belize is too welcoming of mass tourism, particularly if it draws more and more cruise ship visitors, who have gained a reputation here as skinflints.
The average cruise passenger spends about $45 in Belize, less than half the Caribbean average, according to the Belize Tourism Board. Some experts say that's largely because Belize lacks modern docking facilities that would allow passengers to spend more time ashore. At present, ships must anchor offshore and "tender" passengers into Belize City on smaller vessels, a costly and time-consuming process for these floating cities of 3,000 to 4,000 people.
But some hoteliers say that many cruises are priced for bargain hunters looking for freebies. Maria Otero, chief executive director of the Radisson Fort George Hotel and Marina near the cruise ship village, said passengers routinely stroll into her facility to use the bathroom and take a dip in the pool, then complain about the cost of refreshments. She said she had to draw the line at their bringing in their own booze and snacks.
Others are worried about the environmental impact. Although cruise travelers each pay a $7 visitor's tax, $1.40 of which is earmarked for conservation, the nation's coral reefs and more heavily trafficked wilderness areas are showing signs of wear and tear from the increased visitation, said Anna Dominguez-Hoare, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society.
"It's not compensating for the damage," she said of the tax. "And a lot of damage could be irreversible so quickly."
Belize isn't the only place feeling the strain. Three of the Caribbean's most popular ports, Cozumel, Mexico; the Cayman Islands and St. Maarten, have seen cruise visitor counts surge more than 70% over the last five years. Locals and overnight visitors around the region complain of traffic snarls, jammed restaurants and booked-up attractions when the ships blow into town.
The gridlock is likely to get worse. More and bigger ships are in the pipeline, including some capable of carrying 6,000 passengers.
Experts point to a variety of factors driving the business, including the ease and comfort of cruises for aging baby boomers and the fallout from Sept. 11, which prompted cruise lines to put more vessels into the region to mollify jittery Americans looking to stay closer to home.
Belize opened a cruise ship village with shops and better docking facilities in 2002 to capitalize on the trend. Passenger traffic skyrocketed that year, jumping 600%. Though such a torrid pace can't and didn't continue, developers see plenty of room for growth — to well above 1 million passengers. With that in mind, two groups are working on plans to upgrade the docks.
The biggest stems from a partnership between Carnival Cruise Lines and a local businessman to construct a $50-million terminal. The project, however, has generated significant controversy here.
Signed by Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa and cloaked in secrecy, the terminal contract was leaked to the media in late 2004. The transaction generated a swift outcry from the tourism sector, which accused federal officials of trying to evade existing policies aimed at regulating the industry and limiting its growth.
The Belize Tourism Industry Assn. in November 2004 asked the Supreme Court to review the contract, challenging the prime minister's right to approve the deal without public consultation. That proceeding is still tied up in court. But the association's demand for an injunction on construction was denied, so the project has moved forward.
Slated to open in 2007, the cruise passenger terminal will feature high-end shopping, restaurants and other mall-like diversions for a largely middle-class clientele unaccustomed to the rough edges and sparse amenities of Belize City, according to Luke Espat, the Belizean developer. He said the goal was to make passengers feel comfortable, give them more time ashore to spend money and lure them back for a longer stay.
"This is 1850 California. It's a gold rush," Espat said. "If our people aren't prepared to be a part of it, they will lose their stake in the future."
Entrepreneurs such as Adelma Broaster agree. The 33-year-old mother of two sells watercolor artwork, handmade dolls, cashew wine and other products of local artisans at a stall in the cruise village. She said she can take in $1,000 on a good day, a fourfold increase that she credits to passengers.
"They're rude sometimes, but I don't mind," Broaster said. "The bottom line is that I'm making money, and so is everyone else out here."
But others fear that Belize is killing its golden goose.
Tillett of S&L Travel, a bird lover who can identify many of the 600 native and migrating species he says can be found in Belize, shakes his head at the memory of hundreds of snorkeling cruise tourists standing on the coral and frightening the fish.
"We are destroying the very things that people are coming to see," Tillett said. "Money and greed are powerful forces."