BELIZE CITY–This week, Yahoo Travel published an online article listing Belize as the third worst cruise port, and the anecdotal information published in the widely reproduced report points out that, “Ships do not actually dock here; they anchor off and use tenders to carry passengers to town, or sometimes directly to activities on nearby tiny islands”—a reality which saw the country lose millions last month after three cruise ships could not land passengers due to choppy seas.
Those cruise ships, belonging to Princess and Carnival, were diverted to Roatan, Honduras, where passengers could disembark at a near-shore docking port.
Belize’s Director of Tourism Karen Bevans had said that when the Stake Bank cruise port is complete, such diversions would not be necessary, since passengers will be able to disembark without having to be too concerned about maritime conditions.
However, the proposal to establish a state-of-the-art docking port off Belize City, which would be connected to the mainland via an above-water causeway, has been stalled because of litigation launched by the Fort Street Tourism Village (FSTV) – adamant that any move by the Government to introduce a new cruise port here would violate its guarantee of exclusivity.
Earlier this year, the Barrow administration tabled a fiscal incentives bill for Stake Bank in the National Assembly, but FSTV has since launched a legal challenge against it.
Today, BELTRAIDE chairman, Mike Singh, who is a former CEO in the Ministry of Tourism, said that mediation is the best way forward, and while Government would be happy to facilitate, it will not take a financial risk by getting too caught up in the tangle.
“Government has inherited an agreement that was extremely messy in the past,” said Singh, pointing to disputes that had erupted between Port of Belize and the Feinsteins (of the Feinstein Group of Companies (FGC) that are the investors behind the Stake Bank project), as well as the FSTV.
Singh said that as soon as the Government passes the legislation to grant the fiscal incentives to Stake Bank, FSTV served them with a lawsuit and now the Feinsteins are suing FSTV and the Government of Belize.
Singh said that unless the parties can agree to sit down together and work together, he does not know what else the Government can do.
He said that they had spent quite a bit of time in the past working with the Office of the Solicitor General, looking at ways in which the current contract with FSTV could be modified and changed.
Singh said that Royal Caribbean, FSTV’s partner, is also suffering from lack of a proper docking facility, and so is Carnival, the largest customer of FSTV.
“Surely they should have some kind of leverage,” said Singh, adding that the cruise lines should use that leverage.
Singh conceded that although Belize has already exceeded its target of drawing 1 million to tourists this year, the recent diversions cost everyone, from the hair braiders and tour operators, to the FSTV.
The good news is, the parties can still sit down and talk about a possible settlement.
If Government were to get more involved, it would have to make a decision that it would take a financial risk. He said that although it has, with the nationalization of the utility companies, Belize Electricity Limited and Belize Telemedia Limited, shown that it is not afraid to do so, the litigation being heard this week before the Caribbean Court of Justice in connection with these nationalizations has spanned a lengthy 5 years.
“We can’t legislate a solution to this problem,” he said, adding that it is way too late and everybody has been losing money.
“There should be a sensible approach at some point in time. How do you force somebody to be sensible? I have not learned how to do that yet,” Singh commented.
He expressed the hope that a facilitator could be engaged to bring the parties together, so they can talk.
In its legal challenge, the FSTV contends that the Government of Belize will have to compensate them for loss of exclusivity status as Belize’s only cruise port.
Meanwhile, Stake Bank investors contend that the head tax collected by the cruise port facility is unlawful.
The court hearings into this legal dispute are expected to be called up in two months.
Recently, Prime Minister Dean Barrow had said that the Feinsteins would have to indemnify the Government in the event that FSTV brings a claim against it for breach of exclusivity.
Fiscal incentives for the US$100 million project received bipartisan support back in February 2014.
Singh provided the media today with an update on another cruise port to be built in the south by Norwegian Cruise Lines.
He said that the investors are almost done with land works and the landing dock and dock itself, where they are dredging. He said that they are still hoping to open the facility next October, 2015.