Thursday, July 25, 2024

Hol Chan Marine Reserve holds public meeting regarding park fee increase

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On Wednesday, June 12th, tour operators and guides from San Pedro and Caye Caulker met to discuss the proposed park fee increase at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) from US$10 to US$20. The attendees acknowledged that operational costs are rising and were open to an increase but requested a detailed analysis justifying the 100% raise. The HCMR management agreed to conduct a thorough study and provide a report to the stakeholders by Wednesday, June 19th, regarding the proposed fee hike to access the marine park.
The meeting at the Sunbreeze Hotel conference room in San Pedro Town started at 7 PM. Present at the event were HCMR’s management, Area Representative Honorable Andre Perez, Minister of Tourism Honourable Anthony Mahler, members of the Belize Tourism Board, the Ministry of the Blue Economy, and the Belize Fisheries Department. Notably, the San Pedro Town Council was absent, with Mayor Gualberto’ Wally’ Nuñez choosing to support tour operators and guides in opposing the increase in park fees at Hol Chan.
Perez began by welcoming everyone and emphasizing the importance of managing the nationally protected marine areas. He mentioned that the Hol Chan Marine Reserve holds significant value for the country and stressed the need to proceed sustainably. Perez also acknowledged the substantial growth in Hol Chan under new management but pointed out that this growth has led to increased maintenance costs. He requested the attendees’ collaboration to enhance the tourism services provided at the reserve.
Minister Mahler briefly spoke to the crowd, mentioning other destinations worldwide with higher entrance fees than those in Belize. “When you look at Hol Chan, look at the quality of the experience. Having a US$20 entrance fee, our guests will not hesitate to pay it, especially if it goes into preservation and enhancing the experience,” said Mahler. He said that as long as people know the reason for an increase in service, the risks of a negative impact are minimal, and it helps the local economy and the quality of tourism products.
Hol Chan’s evolution
Following Mahler’s remarks, Hol Chan’s Environmental Educator, Mariela Archer, shared a short presentation. She explained that when the reserve opened in 1987, it comprised only three zones, A, B, and C, and measured approximately five square miles, with the first entrance introduced in 1988. The fee was $3 for tourists and $1.5 for Belizeans. In 1996, the costs for tourists increased to $5. Three years later, the reserve expanded to approximately seven square miles, including an additional zone dubbed Zone D. The entrance fee for Zone A charged tourists $5, and Belizeans paid $2. In Zone B and C, tourists were charged $5 and Belizeans $2.5. While in the new Zone D, the fees increased to $7 for tourists but reduced to $1 for Belizeans. By 2008, the reserve had expanded to include approximately 22.3 square miles, with the last noted expansion in 2015, which took the marine park to around 160 square miles in size.
Archer also shared the work they do besides managing the marine reserve. According to her presentation, they conduct queen conch and lobster surveys and monitor sea turtle nesting. They also engage in coral restoration and bleaching surveys, including coral and fish surveys. The Hol Chan team also conducts site assessments, among other conservation activities, including operations, enforcement, education, and outreach. Archer pointed out some of their challenges, including consistently monitoring areas such as the Bajos (flats) and the Secret Beach area, hiring additional staff, training staff, incorporating technology, mangrove and seagrass surveys, and policy development. Therefore, with the increase in the reserve’s size and the additional efforts needed to manage it better, an increase in the park’s entrance fees is considered appropriate.
The tour operators’ membership was not thoroughly convinced, and they continued requesting a more detailed report. Some, including former Mayor Daniel Guerrero, asked for the fee increase to be put on hold. Others in the meeting, including the Chairlady from Caye Caulker and Seleny Villanueva-Pott, asked for better communication and inclusion of the stakeholders from her island.
The San Pedro Tour Operators Association president, Roberto Canul, reiterated that they are not against an increase but want a more precise justification for how those additional funds will be used. They want a conservation plan that the entire membership will support
The meeting was then adjourned.

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