BTB statistics say tourism in Belize is booming; Ambergris Caye says ‘not here.’
Friday, January 24th, 2020
Despite the Belize Tourism Board’s (BTB) announcement of a record half-million plus overnight visitors to Belize in 2019, Ambergris Caye’s tourism sector says it is struggling with an extended slow season. Over the last several weeks, island stakeholders have been reporting a decline in the tourism business, even resulting in the closure of some establishments. Many are speculating that this downturn is associated with the changes Ambergris Caye has been undergoing over the years. Massive developments are alleged to have overshadowed the once-charming island, coupled with the lack of proper infrastructure, and seemingly unplanned growth; some fear that Belize’s golden goose of tourism has lost her appeal.
In the BTB press release, on January 13th, Minister of Tourism and Area Representative Honourable Manuel Heredia Jr. was quoted, saying that tourism continues to increase year after year and that Belize is now meeting 90% the targeted 566,000 visitors of their 2030 vision. Heredia credited the increase in tourism to BTB’s strategic marketing initiatives in promoting Belize, the improvement in air connectivity, and cooperation with international partners.
However, many island businesses are claiming that a lot fewer tourists are making Ambergris Caye their choice of destination. Coupled with what is believed to be an over-saturation of similar companies, those in and outside the San Pedro Town area are reporting fluctuations. “One week we get a good amount of customers, and then the other week things get slow again. I don’t know why, because this is supposed to be high season,” said one restaurant owner. This instability has made its mark, as a few establishments have closed due to slow sales. One establishment postponed a few planned upgrades because the business is not there as expected.
Large hotel chains
Many believe that the size of some developments compared to the geography of Ambergris Caye is another factor in the current downturn of activity. The island is about 26 miles long from north to south, and its narrow width hardly extends beyond a mile in some places. Most development is within the southern end of the Caye, a ten-mile radius with San Pedro Town roughly in the middle.
Following the inauguration of Mahogany Bay Resort & Beach Club (Curio by Hilton Collection) south of San Pedro on December 6, 2017, reportedly featuring 205 cottage and Villa style rooms, other chains began to show interest. In December 2017, representatives from Wyndham visited Ambergris Caye and announced that the first phase of the completion of their resort in the northern part of the island was on course. The massive hotel was scheduled to open at the end of 2018 but is yet to be completed. The first phase of the project is expected to have 90 hotel rooms and counts with an international restaurant, a signature spa, among other five-star amenities.
Another world-class planned for Ambergris Caye is Marriott Hotels & Resorts. The project is an effort of ECI Development Group to bring the hotel brand to the island, which was officially presented to islanders in April 2018 as a 203-unit hotel, combined with as many as 70 branded residences. The beach area where the huge structure will be built has been cleared, and construction is anticipated to start soon. Another large hotel project is the Autograph Collection Hotels-Alaia south of town that is expected to open this year. When this beachfront boutique resort is complete, it will feature 35 units, 56 two-bedroom condominiums with a lock-off option, and eight oceanfront villas.
Further south on the island is the ongoing project of a luxury condominium paradise known as La Sirene, overlooking the Belize Barrier Reef. The project calls for eight buildings, 138 oceanfront, marine, and garden units. The complex will also count with five floors of one, two, and three-bedroom suites.
A distance north from La Sirene, is another vibrant project called Salt Life Village- Belize. The concept of this development seeks to provide all the comforts of home with a full-service resort and fly fishing lodge. According to the project’s plans, guests will enjoy an east side beach club, estate homes, restaurants, bars, and retail outlets throughout the village.
Another significant development on the further northern part of the island is a multi-million resort complex under the Margaritaville brand scheduled to open for business in December 2020. The project will see 71 units (one and two bedrooms), including a penthouse, two pools, four bars, two restaurants, and a 400-foot pier, complemented with the brand’s signature and beverage concepts. This Margaritaville hotel is taking place within an existing development formerly known as Sueño del Mar, which is undergoing a thorough refurbishment.
While these developments are deemed job opportunities on the island, this rapid growth also comes at a cost, as it is believed to be taking away from the rustic island vibe that many visitors seek on their holidays. Travelers’ styles have also changed. Nowadays, visitors are more aware of their global impact and choose environmentally-friendly destinations. With the large developments on Ambergris Caye, the clearing of mangroves, and the congested downtown area, some tourists are discouraged by what they find. This lack of balance between business growth and tourism is a growing problem that must be dealt with before it is too late.
Lack of infrastructure
Long-hailed as the Mecca of tourism in Belize, the island of Ambergris Caye has its limitations. As more large projects are built, there is a major need for adequate infrastructure. In recent years, during the high tourism season, water shortages have affected both residents and hoteliers. At times, even the supply of electricity has been compromised because of the high demand. These limitations are also extending beyond our shores. Caye Caulker, our neighboring island, and another tourism hotspot was plunged into darkness and left dry over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, after Belize Water Services Limited (BWSL) and Belize Electricity Limited found themselves unable to meet the demands and struggled to provide the utility services. A similar event on Ambergris Caye would be catastrophic for businesses that are already struggling. Currently, these issues seem to be under control, but when these massive developments across the island are complete, will the utility companies be prepared to handle the projected number of guests?
Health-wise, Ambergris Caye is also struggling with solid sewage disposal. Island resident, Chuck Rice, who designs and installs septic systems and provides drain services, said that the island is in dire need of facilities to treat sewage solid waste. According to him, this is the reason why some establishments engage in illegal dumping as there is nowhere to dispose of solid waste. BWSL counts with sewage ponds in southern Ambergris Caye; however, they do not accept solids. “They do not have the capacity to accept the solids because their ponds are not designed to break it down,” Rice said. The only solids they can accept are from the houses and businesses connected to their sewage system running from downtown to their ponds. This system is equipped with different substations, which breaks down waste. But most of the island is not connected to this system, leaving them with no options to treat their solids.
Rice suggests getting a proper vacuum truck to clean septic systems on the island and building a ‘Tip Bed’ next to the sewage ponds. He adds that this suggestion was made to BWSL in 2018. According to Rice, the tip bed would be designed to treat solids and could be built in a short time to a cost around $250, 000BZ. BWSL appeared interested at the beginning, but up to today, they have not indicated if they will make such investment. The San Pedro Sun contacted the company, but no one could comment. Phone calls and emails went unanswered.
With all these limitations present and potentially worsening in the future, if the right decisions are not made, the future of tourism on the Cayes is unpredictable. The government may continue to announce a constant increase in overnight arrivals, but the reality shared by many islanders is different and for some, the situation is critical.
Other factors: Crime, Corruption and Natural Phenomenon
Crime and corruption have also taken a toll on the island, and the influx of Sargassum seaweed on the beach has hurt island tourism as well. Sargassum affected many countries in the Caribbean Region, parts of Mexico and Belize, choking the coastal communities’ beaches and making the destinations unattractive for months. The seaweed slowly went away in December 2019, but will inevitably return.
Perhaps the most tragic event that might have also caused a dent in tourism on the island was the shocking double-murder of a local tour guide and an American National in June 2019. Local Mario Graniel and tourist Dr. Gary Swank were shot to death while on a fly-fishing tour on the lagoon side of Ambergris Caye. Police investigation led to the custody of several suspects, but all were released. Police say the case remains open and investigations continue to solve the double murder.
According to Tamara Sniffin, Chairwoman of the San Pedro Belize Tourism Industry Association, their members have indeed felt the pinch of low tourism numbers. “Many of our members are saying the last quarter of 2019 was the worst they’ve ever seen, and surviving it has been financially challenging. There has been unsustainable development on the island that is affecting our bottom dollar. We are taking a hard look at what is detracting tourists from coming here and how we can make it more appealing and profitable for tourism stakeholders. We are pleased to see a drop in crime on the island over the last several months, which is great news for the entire community and a massive benefit for tourism here.
We look forward to working with our local government to address other issues, such as infrastructure, city planning, garbage management, and other problems sooner than later,” commented Sniffin.
Stakeholders are hopeful that after January, the season will stabilize and flow steadily through the remainder of peak tourism time.
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