Highlights — 02 August 2013 — by Adele Ramos

Norwegian’s Harvest Caye gets BTB support

The proposal by Norwegian Cruise Lines to set up a US$50 million cruise port at Harvest Caye, very close to the onshore tourist destination of Placencia, has continued to attract ardent opposition from the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), and particularly the Placencia arm of that association.

When the controversy first erupted over the proposed investment—originally proposed for Crawl Caye but rejected because of environmental concerns—the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) declined comment to our newspaper, saying that it would rather wait until Cabinet takes a position before coming public.

Cabinet has taken a position; and today, the BTB, a statutory body within the Ministry of Tourism, issued a bold rebuttal to the BTIA’s comments, aired today on the Love Morning Show, charging that the association has launched an “ill-informed, irresponsible campaign” and it went on to ask the association to “refrain from any further exploitative and derogatory paraphernalia and campaign messages…” One such message is a graphic which depicts a cruise ship attempting to jab a man, who is bending over, in his rear.

In a fifteen-bullet statement, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture first rebuts the declaration by the BTIA that the Norwegian project flies in the face of the recommendation made in the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan – which calls for only pocket tourism in southern Belize, meaning ships with 250 passengers or less. Norwegian’s ships carry thousands.

The BTB contends that, “this proposed cruise tourism development project will, in effect, ensure the distribution of passengers in accordance with the pocket cruise model as outlined in the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan.”

A major point of contention is how the parties would split the head tax. The formula in the draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) calls for the company operating the port, in this case Norwegian, to receive US$4 out of the US$7 head tax it collects from cruise tourists.

Why are the investors being given the larger share of the pie? That’s one of the questions that the BTIA wants answered. Of note is that the BTB is billed to receive US$1.60 out of the US$7 and the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) is to get US$1.40 under the proposed terms.

In its statement today, the BTB says that essentially – that’s the way things have operated: “…the cruise ship head tax of US$7.00 will remain the same with a revenue sharing agreement between the relevant parties.”

The question of job sharing is also an issue. According to the draft MoU, Norwegian is to “maintain no more than 25% foreign employment during all phases of the project…” and it must progress to “a graduated scale and phase-out of foreign employees within the first five years of the Project.”

The draft MoU also calls for only locals to be employed as boat captains and crew, tour guides, tour operators, food and beverage handlers, and entertainers.

According to the BTB, “…this proposed project will guarantee a minimum of 130 calls per year in the first instance and generate 800-1000 direct jobs.”

It also said that “…the current average cruise ship passenger expenditure is US$73.00 per person per day and expenditure by the crew accounts for US$103.00 per person per day.”

There was no estimate provided to indicate how much of this money actually stays in the Belize economy.

As for tax incentives, BTIA indicates that the draft MoU calls for major tax concessions. However, the BTB rebuts that, “the proposed development will not receive any incentives over or above what is currently being offered under the Fiscal Incentives Act.”

The BTIA has pointed to a provision in the MoU that says that the developer should be granted exemption for all business taxes for Port entity, assuming island vending establishments or concessions will pay.

Importantly, the BTB, in its rebuttal to the BTIA, indicates that the Harvest Caye cruise port proposal by Norwegian Cruise Lines “will be subject to a positive outcome of the Amended Environmental Impact Assessment.”

It also indicates, in line with provisions in the MoU that “no cruise ships currently scheduled to call in Belize City will be diverted to this proposed cruise tourism island destination.”

However, when our newspaper spoke with the Norwegian rep leading the talks in Belize for the company, he had indicated that the main reason for setting up the southern port was to provide a unique experience for Norwegian passengers – who currently dock in Belize City.

Colin Murphy, Norwegian’s Vice President, Destination & Strategic Development, has said that “…the 30% of the passengers who come off the ship have a great time, but the other 70% don’t have a good time.”

The BTIA primarily represents the interests of the overnight tourism sector, and whereas the association is concerned that that sub-sector could be put in peril in the south with the new project, the BTB says to the contrary, that overnight sector continues to be the mainstay of Belize’s tourism industry, and “the growth in the cruise tourism sector, has not, in any way, impaired the growth or performance of the overnight tourism sector.”

It added that, “We call on the BTIA to be respectful of the many tourism stakeholders who currently earn an honest livelihood from the cruise tourism sector.”

The Ministry of Tourism & Culture and the BTB concluded their statement by saying that they will continue to actively engage key stakeholders in information sessions on this proposed cruise tourism development project.

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