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Belize’s onerous departure tax

A short-sighted non-solution that exacerbates rather than solves…

Dear Editor,
History is littered with ill-conceived policies that were rashly implemented to fix problems, only to make them worse. Often made in haste, and without proper consultation, these so-called solutions have created problems much bigger than the ones they were designed to solve.

A recent example is the GOB’s recent increase to the departure tax imposed on travelers leaving Belize – a legislative “fix” that has been shown to make matters worse, and has already resulted in Tropic Air abandoning three travel routes.

In what is looking like a classic case of killing the golden goose, the government is milking Belize’s visitors to cover budgetary shortfalls, and in doing so is compromising the very lifeblood of our economy. In a very volatile and fragile global tourism market, and with a country that is already one of the region’s most expensive travel destinations, such a heavy-handed impost carries a very real potential to backfire – and backfire disastrously.

Belizean tourism is one of the global travel industry’s great success stories. Seemingly coming from nowhere, without name recognition, a large marketing budget, infrastructure or experience, we have, in a very short time span, built a popular travel destination with a global reputation second to none.

And I say “we” in full recognition that it was the combined efforts of many people in the private and public sectors who accomplished this seeming miracle. My husband Mick and I worked alongside just about everyone connected with Belize’s fledging tourism industry and know full well about the dedication and hard work that went into building Belizean tourism from the ground up.

We also understand that no matter how healthy Belize’s tourism industry is right now, it is part of a highly competitive global market comprised of tourists looking for – and destinations competing to offer them – the best deals at the lowest prices.

Another thing we’ve learned is that the travelling public is always seeking something new and exciting, and how well the “novelty factor” has worked for us. Belize is still attractive as the relatively new, fresh faced kid on the block, but that won’t last forever.

I’m not trying to paint a negative picture of Belizean tourism, which is still healthy and something we can be proud of. But it is important to understand the realities of today’s global tourism marketplace.

But I am concerned that private sector stakeholders have been so completely cut off from a decision-making process that affects the viability and future of tourism in Belize and that carefully considered recommendations, made in good faith and backed up with research and facts, are being ignored.

It’s a situation that is more than frustrating – it’s dangerous.

According to an April 2017 report on Belize by the World Bank,

”Its small-size economy, high dependence on exports and imports, and exposure to natural disaster make the country particularly vulnerable to terms-of-trade shocks and volatility”

In a country where tourism accounts for a quarter of the entire GDP, any significant decline in tourism would represent a serious “terms-of-trade shock”.

This is why the GOB should take notice when such a wide range of travel professionals – including BTIA President Osmany Salas, Tropic Air CEO Steve Schulte and many others come together to raise the alarm.

After Tropic Air announced it was discontinuing three of its international flight routes due to a decline in passengers – a drop attributed to the departure tax increase, the Belize Tourism Industry Association followed with an August 10 media release expressing solidarity with the airline, and again calling for the increase to be rescinded, as “Tropic Air’s decision is sufficient evidence that that tourism arrivals may be negatively impacted by the increase in the departure tax.”

What if – as seems increasingly likely, Tropic Air’s decision marks the beginning of a frightening trend? What if Delta, Southwest, American and other carriers follow suit?

You can bet that other destinations, many with much larger marketing budgets, are ready to take advantage of that situation.  In our region, Cuba, a trendy, multicultural contender with beautiful beaches, is already taking slices from our share of the pie with their own novelty factor and cheaper flights and lower tariffs. Well-established Mexico competes with Belize and beats us hands-down with the budget-conscious.

Panama and Costa Rica have embarked on strong marketing campaigns, and just a little further south Colombia and Ecuador offer beaches, pristine rainforests and eco-tourism at very attractive prices.

And what is our government’s response? Make already high-priced Belize that much more expensive while treating travelers with contempt.

If you think contempt’s too strong a word, ask a family of five their thoughts as they pay their hefty departure tax of nearly USD $300.00 – only accepted in US dollars, mind you – on the way out.

The time has come for all Belizeans to stand in solidarity with Tropic Air, the BTIA, and the entire Belize tourism industry to express concerns about decisions being made behind closed doors and without consultation with industry stakeholders.

We need to remind our elected representatives that they are elected, and chosen by us to represent the people of Belize, not a selected few.

With the stakes so high, we can no longer afford to be complacent. It’s high time to show Belmopan that we aren’t.

Lucy Fleming

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