Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Hol Chan Marine Reserve’s new park fee remains undecided


The proposed increase in entrance fees at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) from US$10 to US$20 has sparked controversy among tour operators and tour guides. They have voiced their concerns, questioning the HCMR management about the 100% increase and the need for a proper justification. HCMR has responded to these concerns, explaining the process that led to the new proposed entrance fee. It’s important to note that the US$20 entrance fee was not a unilateral decision by Hol Chan but a collective one following a meeting with the heads of the associations representing tour operators, tour guides, and sports fishers, ensuring transparency in the decision-making process.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve

An initial meeting was held on June 9th, where HCMR staff, along with the Area Representative Honorable Andre Perez, Tourism Minister Honourable Anthony Mahler, and other officials from the Belize Fisheries Department and Belize Tourism Board, explained the need for an increase in the reserve’s entrance fee. The presentations did not sit well with many stakeholders (tour guides) in the meeting. Instead, they requested a pause on the new fee slated to take effect on July 1st. This request highlights the importance of their role in the decision-making process.
HCMR’s Executive Director (ED) Ian Pou was absent from that meeting. The ED spoke to The Sun to explain the issue with the proposed new entrance fee for Hol Chan. Pou reiterated that over the years, the reserve has significantly expanded from about five square miles in 1987 to over 160 square miles. All these expansions were good for conservation but came with additional costs, which is a critical factor in the proposed fee increase. According to Pou, they dialogued with the presidents of the tour and tour guide associations, including sports fishing, in July 2022. He said they also invited members from Caye Caulker. The discussion started with the issues affecting the reserve and addressing the concern for much-needed buoys at specific reserve parts. A year later, another meeting was held to discuss illegal activities in the reserve, including unlawful fishing, cutting of mangroves, irregular dredging, and building piers in prohibited areas. “We told them that while we had some of the resources (boats), we did not have enough manpower,” said Pou. He emphasized that as the reserve increases, they need to hire additional personnel, which incurs more expenses to run operations and justifies the fee increase.
At a second meeting in 2023, it was explained that while the US$10 was sustaining operations, it was not enough to conduct additional tasks and cover the entire reserve. “We told the presidents [of stakeholder associations] that it was not working, and that the organization [HCMR] was affected,” Pou explained. Pou said that at that meeting, the presidents of the different associations requested a survey and other analysis to justify the increase. Some months later, in February 2024, another meeting discussed the results of a study done with the assistance of high school students. The survey asked tourists how much they would be willing to pay to visit Hol Chan. Pou said the study concluded that most participants agreed to pay between US$15 to US$20 to visit the marine reserve. “We had an open discussion with them. At that time, Hol Chan was not looking at a figure. We just showed them what the visitors were willing to pay, a fair amount,” Pou noted. Pou said he told the presidents to explain this to their membership and share the survey results.
At a meeting in May of this year to finalize the new entrance fee, Pou said they let the different association presidents lead the meeting. They wanted to hear what their membership thought about the survey results and what visitors would pay. Pou said the presidents said their membership believed US$15 would be a fair new entrance fee. However, Pou noted that before the meeting was over, one of the presidents stood up and suggested US$20 instead to avoid another increase in the future.
The presidents at that meeting were asked to vote on the increase. Afterward, the new agreed fee was to be taken to Hol Chan’s Board of Trustees to pass a resolution. “They all voted in favor of the US$20,” Pou said. He mentioned that when voting, the presidents said they were voting on behalf of their membership. The ED said that the Board of Trustees met to officiate the fee following the meeting. At that board meeting, it was decided that tour operators would get an incentive, which includes a 10% discount for every pre-purchase at Hol Chan of over BZ$1,000. If businesses have pre-bookings for Hol Chan, the US$10 fee will be honored if they provide proof of the booking.
However, the plans to introduce the new fee were halted weeks after some tour operators and tour guides rejected the increase. The Hol Chan management said they were baffled by this reaction because they thought the associations’ presidents had informed their membership. “We thought that by talking to the presidents, we were going to get a better approach,” Pou said. The new fee proposal is now on pause, and Pou said they may need to go through consultations again and speak to their Board of Trustees. “We also have to see what the Belize Fisheries Department has to say, and most importantly, we need to talk with the tour guides because if it did not work with their presidents, now we will see how best we can engage them,” he said. No statement has been issued from the associations regarding these clarifications made by HCMR.
Many tour guides continue to reject the increment of 100% but are willing to take up to US$15. Most of them shared that they did not know about such meetings and the discussions about increased fees. Others shared that not all tour guides belong to an association and believe they should be involved in such conversations, not just the associations’ heads. Hol Chan plans to get better feedback from most stakeholders. As such, the fee increase will not go into effect on July 1st. This new round of consultations and meetings will aim to engage Caye Caulker and San Pedro tour guides in agreeing on a fair increase in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve entrance fee. A date for this new approach is not set, but it is expected to occur soon.

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