Belize’s Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, explained to the nation recently that tourism has buoyed our economy for the last 15 years and that while it is good for us to aspire toward a more diversified economy, we have to recognize that the calamity (COVID-19) has not only hit tourism, but it has also hit manufacturing, agriculture, all sectors. PM Barrow noted that commodities are always subject to volatility, and that he doesn’t see the collapse of tourism at this time as a reason for us to sour on the industry.
Belize does have a competitive advantage in tourism, with plenty sun, sea, sand, historical sites, flora and fauna, and exciting people, so the Prime Minister is not off target when he advises that we shouldn’t give up on tourism. Our government’s belief in tourism, pre-COVID-19, was not all speculative, because in their economic model it was bringing home most of the foreign exchange that our country so desperately needs, but the amount of emphasis our leaders placed on the industry has to be questioned.
Somebody has to run a check on the lens our leaders were looking through to find out why they saw such a rosy picture in the period just prior to COVID-19. Reports from the Statistical Institute of Belize show that we were in the middle of the 4th consecutive quarter of negative growth when COVID-19 dropped in on us.
COVID-19 came along, tourism crashed, and the big story for Belize is how to survive until it is contributing to the economy again. Most medical experts say that COVID-19 will be with us for another two years, and that means that people will not be eager to travel outside of their countries for a while, and most countries will not be eager to host the adventurous.
The talk in countries around the world, and in Belize too, is that people who want to travel will be looking to rediscover destinations in their home countries for some time to come; however, in the not too distant future there will be a few opportunities for Belize to seize if we have the capacity to minimize the risks, and we keep our country COVID-19 free. In the meantime, until the medical experts give the green light, we have a hurdle to cross and a festering problem in the tourism industry to address.
Belize could be staring at 50 or 60 or 70 percent unemployment/under employment if the wait for the all clear is as much as two years, and we cannot expect our people to keep heart on empty stomachs until the ships and planes return. We are a country in desperate need of energy and ideas to help those who have lost their jobs, and to help those who have jobs to keep theirs.
So far we have seen no ideas or plans forwarded by the government to help our economy, outside of the slim hope that we can find a thousand more jobs in the call center business and, in a very intriguing development, that an entrepreneur could employ some of us to construct another cruise port terminal.
Before COVID-19, tourism made up nearly 50% of our economy, and cruise tourism was set to increase with the Stake Bank port project, which broke ground over a year ago. The discussion about another cruise port (at Port Loyola), and maybe another (Port of Magical Belize), could quadruple this sector of the industry if/when the cruise ships start arriving at our shores again. Expanding cruise tourism, however, might not be on the wish list of most Belizeans.
The government just read a budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that was ambitious under normal circumstances, and now that our entire country has been hit by something that is worse than a Category 5 hurricane, that budget has to be revisited. In the roughly two months that we have been in the grip of COVID-19, our government has focused on reefing our sails, and talked about tourism.
Our people need jobs, desperately. There were some road projects mentioned in the budget: are they going to be redesigned and the pie shared with all those companies that were left out? Annually, we have to find a tremendous amount of foreign exchange to pay for imported food. Why hasn’t the government given incentives to our entrepreneurs so that they fill the shelves at the grocery stores with preserved Belizean produce?
Our people have stepped up to make the face masks we need. What about our people getting government support so that we satisfy most of our clothing needs? Hemp is a quick-growing plant that is used to make rope, paper, and cloth. Our people can grow hemp and process it into the materials we need.
When are we going to start composting all the vegetable waste in our country? When are our leaders going to speak to the elite so that they stop using our foreign exchange to purchase luxury goods? Our suffering will increase if we sit around waiting for tourism. Our path forward is very clear. The government must invest in local production.
While we are waiting for the tourists to return, we should be addressing the serious concern of our people that they weren’t getting the portion of the earnings from that industry that we would expect, being that we are the owners of the country. If our local tourism operators had been getting a preferential share of the pie, which they deserved, they would have been better able to sustain themselves and help their workers during this very difficult period.
We need new ideas from our leaders, but all we’re getting is a prayer for the return of old-time, foreign owned/controlled tourism.
The simple yet critical math of physical distancing
Our potential exposure to COVID-19 is the sum of all the people we’ve met in the last 14 to 21 days, plus the sum of all the people they have met. If you met ten people in the last 14 to 21 days, and each of those ten people met ten people, then your potential exposure is 10 times 10, plus ten – 110. That is why, when we meet our friends or go to visit our relatives, we must physically distance. It’s tough, but someday the pandemic will be over.
The medical experts say it isn’t possible for us to be COVID-19 free forever, but our plan must be to remain free of the disease until the experts understand it better, and maybe find some effective medicines to treat it. We can remain free of the disease by practicing physical distancing, and by following all the other recommendations of our medical experts.