Tourism, by definition, is a service industry. There is no shame in serving. Jesus the Christ made this very clear in John 13, when he washed the feet of his disciples. It must be noted, though, that when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, it was about humility and love, not money.
The first prime minister of Belize, Hon. George Price, didn’t consider tourism to be one of the horses on which to hitch our wagon on our way to prosperity. Belize’s foundation was formerly forestry, and the new foundation would be agriculture, and fisheries.
There are two reasons why Price did not see tourism as a major industry in Belize. One is that the industry has been considered fragile. Tourists don’t have to choose your country. There are open invitations for them to go to other countries, and the industry is always a bad travel advisory away from becoming a rejected destination.
Agriculture isn’t exactly impregnable. There are hurricanes and floods and droughts and diseases and gluts on the world market to derail that industry. But if a country doesn’t place all its eggs in production for export, there usually will be enough food at home to prevent starvation.
The fragility of tourism was reduced, ironically, by “selling off” the industry to the very foreigners we invite to our country.
Belize is a nation (one of those) that doesn’t grasp the importance of taking care of one’s own. People from other countries take care of their own. Italian tourists know that when they holiday at an Italian- owned resort in Belize, it’s like gambling in a state lottery. You might not win the grand prize in the state lottery, but your state gets the lion’s share of the profits, and taxes. The state gets a sizable cut from your losses, and these funds it uses to give you a job, and from your salary you siphon off some to purchase more tickets in the lottery.
The tourist gets a spectacular vacation, and much of the money the tourist spends returns to the home economy of the tourist, so the tourist’s home economy grows. When the tourist goes home there is a job waiting, and what do you know, pretty soon the tourist has saved up enough to go on a vacation in a foreign land again, at a resort owned by someone from their country.
So, to get the tourist we gave up ownership of the industry. The macro numbers from tourism are stunning, but a lot of the money doesn’t circulate here. Our government gets some taxes, as much of it as it can prevent from falling through the holes in its net, and the people get some jobs to serve tourists.
Another likely reason why Price shied away from tourism has to do with pride. Considering that Belize was built by slaves, forced service, when “slavery days done” we could have been expected to get as far away as we could from any kind of business that asked us to serve others. And we did.
Many Caribbean countries, notably the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Barbados, went for tourism long before we did. Jamaica, the land of resistance heroes like Paul Bogle and Marcus Garvey, has long been big on waiting for ships to roll in loaded with people from Europe looking for fun in the sun.
In Central America, Costa Rica has always been leading the way in the tourism industry. The other countries in the region also went for their share of the tourism pie. Only Belize, George Price’s Belize, kept the foreign hordes at arm’s length. That is why way up to the end part of the twentieth century we were indeed “Mother Nature’s best kept secret.”
Before we go on, we must recognize that there are people on this earth who are born to provide the kind of service that some tourists demand/expect. It’s in their DNA. But when a nation places tourism at the top, it means that those who don’t have that DNA have to get on board, or starve.
Tourism is our number one industry, and for anyone who has a little savings and has doubt about where to invest it, this decision by our government to construct a fantastic 50-mile-long highway to Caracol should take care of that.
This Caracol road, it makes us wonder if those James Bond movies are all fraudulent. You’ve seen Mr. Bond touching 90 and careening around curves on narrow roads that remind us of the old Hummingbird and the old Maskall highways. It is possible that in those now fully developed countries in Europe, those narrow highways are all four-lane now, but did we have to go there when we have so many pressing areas that are desperately in need of funding?
A narrow road widened some at the curves, for the purpose of safety, quite likely would have been sufficient to open this pristine area of our country. The Southern Highway is more than 20 years old, and you can still drive miles in your ride without meeting another vehicle. We must have loan money to burn. How do we justify a modern highway into pristine country?
Tourism is number one and the way it is run right now, we have to find our contentment with the crumbs. The government is not vocalizing it, but it is important for us to know that we must proceed with the understanding that they will not go the extra yard to help us protect our investments. Belizeans have invested their life savings in the industry, and then got chucked out by foreigners with greater wealth and the surety of clients. We are to seek the crumbs, not ownership. Our share is to serve, not own.
There are other things that the people who run the tourism industry are not telling us. Amandala columnist, Brother Clinton Canul Luna, has worked in the tourism industry in Mexico, and he has seen things the managers of our local industry haven’t seen. Note that Mexico has been a player in the industry long before we entered the waiting line.
In his column, Canul Luna has expressed great reservations about the kind of tourism we are encouraging; he says it will negatively impact our society if we are not careful. It is written that it is naught for one if one gains the world but in doing so one loses one’s soul.
A man like Canul Luna is an important resource. This is an industry that needs more debate and less dictate. It can’t be that the industry is steered wholly by a few who are pushing full speed ahead. Sure, every year, with the certainty of the movements of the earth, sun, moon and stars our numbers go up, up, up, but we wouldn’t want to crash into rocks.
Former leader, George Price, worried about certain negatives about the industry. There are negatives in all industries. For example, modern agriculture cuts down large acreages of forest, and pollutes the waterways with silt and pesticides and fertilizers.
We have to be concerned about our tourism industry. Is our country getting the maximum from every dollar spent in the industry? Is eco-tourism just a buzzword? Is our country helping local artists and artisans to get a good bite out of the industry? Is our country doing enough to help local entrepreneurs get a better share of the ownership pie? Is our country getting worldly and losing its soul?