At the center of any enlightened development philosophy for Belize should be sustainable human development and good governance – two mutually inclusive concepts. Belize, like other African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, is no longer a beneficiary of protected markets of the likes provided by our former European colonizers under the Lome Convention schemes. This period of protection was to allow our infant industries to grow, to develop, and be competitive in a highly globalized world. Unfortunately, too many of our infants never shed their diapers.
What I find quite interesting in the diagnosis of the tourist industry and its ultimate product, as laid out in the Master Plan, is the emphasis on sustainability and competitive advantage. The plan speaks of six tourist products for marketing, but made it abundantly clear that the two primary motivators will be nature-based tourism and culture-based tourism.
The economic wisdom was evidenced very much from the fact that we do have four unique (not uncommon, but unique) tourist assets, namely, the Barrier Reef Reserve System, the Blue Hole Marine Reserve, the Caracol Maya Site, and the Chikibul Cave System. These, of course, are complemented by the splendor of our other marine resources, our wild life, our landscapes and other Mayan sites. I need not mention the wonders of our culture and, most of all, our people.
Our tourist industry functions in a very competitive sub-region, not to mention the world, and the Master Plan has precisely identified a tourist product that gives us the much needed comparative and competitive advantage: Nature-based tourism. But the Plan also in its environmental wisdom noted the fragility and sensitivity of this much sought-after product and cautioned us about its use and enjoyment in the interest of sustainability and for the use and enjoyment of the Belizean people for generations to come. Implicitly the Master Plan is warning us against the lust for instant gratification.
Let us now look at the social justice and entrepreneurial aspect of it. The prerequisite for development must begin with the generation of wealth. But that wealth alone will not bring development. For wealth to be translated into development it is imperative that it be underpinned by the virtue of ordinary decency and distributive justice. But then wealth can only be created by the maximization of our limited resources.
The financial data as laid out in the Master Plan make it abundantly clear that Overnight-Tourism yields almost three times what Cruise-Tourism does. Overnight-Tourism is not only overwhelming in its returns but it comes with far less risk to the nature-based asset. In other words, for every dollar earned in tourism the risk of degrading the asset by Cruise-Tourism is far greater than by Overnight because of the large gap in visitor ratio to the dollar. What seems almost obvious is that Overnight brings far more value-added to the country and by its very structure is more distributive, which will have far more positive effect on poverty alleviation, which is one of the concerns addressed by the Master Plan.
Proponents of the MOU claim that Cruise Tourism can benefit Overnight Tourism by having repeat visitors cross over to Overnight. That may be true. But there is the risk of having the opposite effect on both because of overcrowding.
I am not averse to Cruise-Tourism, but the issue of sustainability, maximization of our resources, particularly our degradable natural heritage, distributive justice and meaningful and sincere consultation must be prominently factored into the decision-making process. Theoretically and morally speaking our collective business acumen and common sense should instruct us, given our smallness and limitation of resource, to structure our plan to sell the most first to the highest bidder, and then the excess to the next best bidder, and so on. Who among us could be so selfish and unpatriotic to seek first for the very few at the expense of the very many?
Twenty-five years for an investor with such concessions for exclusivity, tax exemptions, and, paradoxically, tax sharing, may be long enough to recover its investment with a more than reasonable return. But for Belize and its prized ecosystem it may just be too long. I do not think we can afford it. Such mass tourism is no doubt compatible where the product is mostly artificial and man-made, like the Atlantis in the Bahamas. These are repairable and replaceable. Our natural wonders are not.
I assume the negotiators for the MOU were sincere and if they are wrong, then they can only be sincerely wrong. Many people believe you may be wrong. But too many people believe you are wrong. Be once again magnanimous. Let’s put our trust in our collective wisdom and the NSTMP and go back to the drawing board.
THE BEST TIME TO HAVE PLANTED THE TREE WAS THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO. THE NEXT BEST TIME IS NOW.