On Wednesday, over two thousand Belizeans watched in horror via Krem News livestream as the GSU savagely advanced on a group of workers of the Port of Belize Ltd. who were peacefully protesting the actions of the receivership that is running the Port at this time. Watching the events unfold on Wednesday, as the GSU shot rubber bullets and used tear gas to chase the peaceful men and women who were legally protesting pay cuts and loss of their jobs, many Belizeans must have wondered if they were living in South Africa in the horrid days of Apartheid, minus a few Caucasian police faces.
The Minister of National Security and the Commissioner of Police have said that the GSU acted against orders.
What happened at the Port on Wednesday is part of a continuing national tragedy which could easily have been turned into a story of triumph for the Belizean workers if a UDP government that has been in power since 2008 was up to the task. In 2008 they were hired by the people to fix things that had gone wrong, and on the matter of the Port they chose to wash their hands.
Hopes for August 15th PGIA opening might be in jeopardy
Tourism has collapsed all across the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Belize, which is heavily dependent on the industry, is among the countries that are hurting the most.
A May 2020 report by Dorothy Neufeld in Visual Capitalist, published on the webpage visualcapitalist.com, says that Belize ranks 15th in the world among countries with the most jobs dependent on tourism — with 64,800, or 39%, of our jobs being tourism-related.
The Belize Tourism Board says that in 2019 a total of 503,177 overnight tourists visited Belize, a huge increase over the 241,119 who visited in 2010, and that we had over a million cruise tourists visiting for the fourth consecutive year. In 2015, 63% of tourists who visited Belize came from the USA, 12% came from Europe, 7% came from Canada, 9% came from various countries in Latin America, and 4.4% of overnight tourists were Belizeans who live abroad.
When tourism collapsed it was not only the hoteliers, tour guides, and others directly employed by the industry who took a big hit. Visitors to Belize consume food and drinks that are produced and/or sold here, they get their hair braided, they buy paintings, carvings, music, decorated shirts and other stuff produced by our artists and craftspersons¯Belizeans involved in these industries have been feeling the pain too.
The average stay of an overnight tourist is 6.5 nights or 7 days. The time spent here by last year’s 503,177 overnight tourists, added to the 1,000,000-plus cruise tourists who stay less than a day, equates to about a 5% percent increase in our population, a relatively wealthy 5% that will buy quality food and purchase items that the average Belizean with their small disposable income can’t afford.
Tourists eat more vegetables and fish and meat than the average Belizean, and they drink much of the expensive liquors that we import, directly supporting the merchants. In terms of what tourists consume, their impact might amount to more than a 10% increase in sales for our food and drink producers and importers, and when it comes to the paintings and music and books and carvings and decorated shirts and other such goods that they buy, their expenditure might account for 50% of our sales.
This collapse of tourism is a mighty big blow to our economy, and with the industry playing such a vital role, most everyone readily understands why the government is pushing the pedal on reopening the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA) on August 15. Initially, the government had hoped to reopen the country to overnight tourists on July 1, but that was shelved.
In an address to the nation on May 29, reported on by Caricom Today, Prime Minister Barrow, speaking on the harsh reality of the tourism blow, said: “It surely is not hard to understand why we so ardently wished for a go at the PGIA. Tourism is our largest job creator and the biggest contributor to GDP and foreign exchange earnings. In 2019, for example, total tourism expenditure in Belize was 502.3 million US dollars…between January and April of this year, tourist spending in Belize fell by 82 million US dollars over the same period last year. And until the PGIA can reopen, it is only going to get worse.”
As the so-called first phase of the disease seemed to be ending, some Caribbean countries that are at least as desperate as we are, announced dates for the reopening of the industry, but it has not been smooth sailing for them. The Bahamas, for example, re-opened on July 1st, but before the end of the month they were forced to do a re-think because there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases associated with American tourists. The USA has been badly hit by the disease, and at this time it is on the increase in most states in that country.
The Americans live just a stone’s throw from the Bahamas, but on July 22, the prime minister of that country announced travel restrictions that effectively bar them from visiting. Only international flights and commercial vessels from Canada, the UK, and the EU are now permitted.
Belizean authorities have pointed out that when we re-open the PGIA there will be considerable measures in place to ensure that the risk is minimized. Our authorities say they are closely monitoring what is happening in countries in the Caribbean that have already opened, and they are ready to implement new safety measures they deem necessary. The Director of Health Services, Dr. Marvin Manzanero, has said that our greatest risk comes from border jumpers, and Belizeans returning home.
It would seem that the majority of Belizeans are calling for the PGIA re-opening to be pushed back again. A number of hotel owners have said they are not ready to open their businesses to foreigners. The government has explained the painful economic realities, but those painful economic realities become worse if the disease spikes, which could happen if we have the same experience with American tourists that the Bahamas has had.
It is the hope of some that if we open the PGIA on August 15, Americans will stay home. The US economy has taken a massive hit, and that usually means fewer persons will be interested in vacationing abroad, however Americans in COVID-19-riddled states like Texas, from which we traditionally get the most tourists, might want to escape to our presently safe shores.
We are just three weeks away from the planned re-opening of the PGIA, and the pressure is mounting on the authorities to get it right. At this time the PGIA re-opening is looking more and more uncertain.