One of the things the ebola panic does is confirm the fact that tourism is a fragile industry. It is not desirable to build your economy on tourism if you have solid options. Belize has solid options. It is silly for us to design our economy so as to suggest we wish to go the way of the small islands in the Caribbean.
The political leaders in Belize have always been acting under various constraints, constraints they have seldom wished to reveal or publicize. The decisions our political leaders make are often not free or footloose. A couple years ago this UDP government announced they were getting a loan for 25 or 30 million for tourism infrastructure or some such. At this newspaper, we said this money would be better spent on training and equipping our fishermen for deep sea fishing. But, the chances are the regional bank which was loaning Belize the tourism money would not have loaned us that same money to go into deep sea fishing. The pressure for Belize to keep going the tourism route comes from outside our borders, to an extent. The multilateral financial institutions have been eager to lend Belize money for tourism. If we wanted to build a cement factory or a canning factory, it would not be so easy to get the financing.
In the latter part of the 1980s my family and I began to vacation in Placencia. We’d drive down there late Easter Monday, when the crowds were headed out of the peninsula after the Easter weekend, and so we spent the Tuesday and Wednesday in relative privacy. Fishing was still the biggest thing in Placencia at the time, but you could see that a change was coming. The money from tourism was too big and it was too easy, compared to fishing. After the early 1990s, we basically stopped going to Placencia. The place was still extraordinarily beautiful, but it was beginning to go the way of Ambergris Caye. I’m just saying.
The reason tourism is such a fragile industry is that the host nation has to depend on people coming from somewhere else, and coming in bulk. If anything happened to scare off these people, such as a messy rape or murder, or if the nations from which your tourists originated decided to put you on their list of enemies for any reason whatsoever, you are up the proverbial creek. What’s worse in the case of ebola, is that now we ourselves, the host nation, have to become nervous about large shiploads of people swarming upon us.
The environment on cruise ships is not a particularly healthy one. The ships have had problems with gastrointestinal bugs from time to time, but these problems of people crowded into relatively small spaces passing bugs to each other, have not been highly publicized. Out of nowhere almost, the cruise ship industry became a huge growth business a couple decades ago, and the profits were enormous. Wealthy corporations know how to control the news coming out of the media systems in their base nations.
In the case of Belize’s ebola scare on Thursday, the cruise ship bosses, and they come from the same giant company which was holding Belize up to ransom because of tender size or something like that a couple years ago, knew from Wednesday, the day before, that one of their passengers was a quarantine case because of having handled ebola lab specimens at a Dallas (Texas) hospital. Instead of heading back to port in Galveston (Texas), for the maximum safety of the rest of their passengers and the countries they were scheduled to visit – Honduras and Belize, the cruise ship unloaded these passengers on our innocent, vulnerable Third World populations, then cooperated in pressuring Belize to have the quarantined passenger processed through our immigration, customs and airport for a charter flight to Texas. The Belize Prime Minister stood his ground, and is being praised by Belizeans for doing so.
The private sector in poor countries like Belize is such that business people are always trying to get into businesses which look successful to them. They are more imitative than creative. The industry where there is the most cash flow in Belize during peak seasons is the tourism industry, and our business people have been fighting to get a share of the tourism dollar. This is how the marketplace works here. If elected governments do not monitor the type of feeding frenzies which occur in open economies from time to time, then profitable industries experience an excess of investment and competition which lead to marketplace glut. After a while, nobody on the domestic scene makes money. This is classic “boom and bust” in unregulated capitalist markets. The neoliberal theorists and their disciples say that this type of periodic carnage is necessary, even healthy. Socialists, for their part, do not believe that human beings have to suffer from capitalism’s chronic contradictions. They believe that governments exist to monitor and regulate economies for the protection of the people.
It so happens that Belize’s peak tourism season is now about to begin, just as the ebola panic is reaching a peak! Tourism, to repeat, has become Belize’s biggest dollar earner. In 2014, what hurts tourism, hurts Belize. Ebola threatens Belizean tourism with the biggest hurt the industry has ever experienced.
The point of the column is that we Belizeans have no control over this situation. We are vulnerable. Tourism is so fragile. Our leaders have to think carefully when they are deciding where the Belizean economy should go. There is pressure on our leaders, beloved, but it is they who asked for the job.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.