Health — 24 October 2014 — by Adele Ramos
Cruise lines threaten to pull plug on Belize over new Ebola screening measures

BELIZE CITY–North Korea has announced a travel ban on foreign tourists, and while Belize is not considering such a blanket ban on tourists, it has introduced more stringent screening measures, just in advance of the peak for the cruise ship season, which begins next month, November.

Those new measures almost triggered an economic backlash from the major cruise lines, one of which had initially responded by suspending visits to Belize and the other threatening to pull calls to Belize’s port in the old capital, Belize City.

Karen Bevans, Director of the Belize Tourism Board, told our newspaper that an agreement was reached with the cruise lines yesterday, and today, business was restored to normal with Carnival bringing 3,916 visitors and Royal Caribbean bringing 3,339 visitors today.

The impasse was a spinoff from last week’s Ebola scare. On Thursday, October 16, it had been reported that a lab technician who had treated Thomas Duncan, the Liberian who died in the US from Ebola earlier this month, was on Carnival Magic, a cruise which came to Belize, but the person in question never came ashore, and remained under self-quarantine on the ship after the Government of Belize refused a request from the US Government to have the person evacuated via Belize’s only international airport, the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA).

Since that development last week, the Government of Belize jumped into high gear with new screening measures for cruise tourists. Those measures took effect this week, with passengers having been initially transported to an offshore site at English Caye, but the cruise lines complained of inordinate delays and threatened to pull the plug on Belize.

Subsequently, Belize modified its screening measures to permit only health personnel to embark at English Caye, while further screening would be conducted by Immigration and other authorities at the Belize City port.

Bevans said that Royal Caribbean had sent an e-mail saying that its ship would not be docking in Belize today, but with the amended screening procedures, the parties were able to resolve their issues. Carnival had not formally said it would pull its ship, but had threatened that it was considering doing so, she explained.

Bevans said that the BTB has gotten e-mails from both Carnival and Royal Caribbean saying how smooth the process was for their passengers and expressing their satisfaction with the way things have worked out.

We asked her whether Belize’s safety protocols had not been compromised to appease the cruise lines, but Bevans said this is not the case, since the health inspectors still begin their assessment of the ship at English Caye.

Under the newly instituted procedures, the ships now send their maritime declaration form and manifest forms with passenger information electronically, 24 hours ahead of time, so that Belizean authorities can review their data, Bevans said. She also told us that the cruise ships screen passengers at points of embarkation, in line with a regional policy, to ensure that no one will embark if they have been in the most affected countries in West Africa within 21 days, so those persons should not even be on the cruise ship.

According to Bevans, 70-75% of tourists come from the USA. Belize received 700,000 cruise tourists in 2013 and expects to receive a million by year-end, Bevans told us.

Tourism authorities in Belize now say that they have implemented more streamlined measures which have reduced delays resulting from the new screening procedures, thereby putting the cruise lines at ease. Those screening procedures are intended to identify persons who have traveled to Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa in the 30 days prior to their arrival in Belize.

Last Friday, it was announced that the Government of Belize is advising against non-essential travel to those countries, namely Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Guinea, and new travel restrictions and a travel advisory remain in place until further notice.

Under the travel and visa ban announced last week, persons who were not previously living in Belize would be barred entry, but those who hold Belizean citizenship or residency would be admitted but held under quarantine, according to official Ministry of Health information.

The Government of Belize says that the decision to quarantine such travelers is guided by Ministry of Health protocols, in accordance with International Health Regulations.

Two Mennonite buildings, made of wood, have been taken to the Philip Goldson International Airport to house persons under quarantine, and Director of Health Services Dr. Michael Pitts assured us that persons who have Ebola symptoms, who are deemed to be contagious, would be placed separately from persons without symptoms and who may never develop the disease.

The Ministry of Health said that “the precise specifications of these facilities are currently being reviewed.”

The Government of Belize has also introduced updated screening protocols for cruise ship passengers, and a draft plan of action for Ebola is being designed for the Ministry of Health through the office of the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).

“The NEMO meeting was headed by the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Peter Allen, and the Director of Health Services, Dr. Michael Pitts. The primary focus of that meeting was to sensitize stakeholders to issues related to the Ebola virus and to discuss the implementation of a coordinated effort to contain and manage the disease if it enters Belize,” the Ebola alert said.

While there has been emphasis placed on the cruise port in Belize City, which receives hundreds of thousands of visitors to Belize each year, and the PGIA, the country’s only international airport, which is the entrance point for the bulk of overnight tourists to our shores, we did not see anything specifically related to the Commercial Free Zone in Corozal, northern Belize, which sees heavy commercial traffic from neighboring Mexico.

Although Mexico has not reported any case of Ebola, it is also a major entry and exit point for Belize, and a point through which travelers connect via land to Cancun for cheaper flights overseas, including flights to Africa.

We asked Immigration Minister Godwin Hulse about screening measures at the Free Zone entry point, and he told us that the Immigration Department is meeting with Health officials to work out borderline protocols.

According to the Ministry of Health, they are introducing a “health alert” notice card, a passenger location card, a fact sheet on Ebola, and an Ebola information flyer for passengers on international flights, which are being printed for wide distribution at the PGIA.

The Ministry’s hotline for information is 629-5604. It urges members of the public to visit the Ministry of Health’s website at www.health.gov.bz for more information on Ebola and other health-related issues.

Hulse said that Government officials have been in meetings to “tweak and fine-tune protocols,” and they have been in constant communication with partners in the Caribbean, Cozumel (Mexico) and the USA.

“Everybody is on high alert, and there is great communication,” Hulse said, admitting to some logistical challenges.

One such challenge is the fact that Immigration staffers simply cannot process the volume of passports received in Belize within the desired time, and so Belize has to establish better coordination with agencies that can help with scrutinizing travel documents, perhaps even before their arrival in Belize.

There is also substantial cross-border traffic between Belize and Guatemala, just as there is between Belize and Mexico, and Hulse said that whereas these countries pose a “lower risk” than Ebola-stricken countries, Belizean officials must still remain vigilant.

He said that there is a holding cell which Immigration officials can use for immediate quarantine if anyone with symptoms should land at the airport, for example.

“There are currently no known cases of Ebola in Belize and the overall risk of Ebola to Belize remains low,” the Government of Belize says.

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