On Sunday, Belize was the only country in the Americas that hadn’t reported one person being infected with COVID-19 (since then, one Belizean who goes back and forth between Belize and the US has tested positive for the virus), but we are among the countries that are being hit the worst on the economic front. The financial losses in the larger countries are staggering, but expressed in relation to the size and robustness of their economies, their losses pale compared to what is happening to our economy in Belize, and what is going to take place if there is no return to normalcy soon.
Belize is heavily dependent on tourism, one of the industries that are being hit hardest by the short- term lockdown all over the world so that the disease can be contained. There will be a tourism industry after the new coronavirus is better understood and contained (if a new 45-minute test for the disease is validated, it will be no small news for travel and tourism), but the industry definitely should no longer command so great a percentage of our national product. Also, Belizeans must control a greater share of it.
Tourism contributes significantly to the gross national product of almost all countries. The website knoema.com reported that in 2018 travel and tourism made up 44.9% of Belize’s Gross Domestic (GDP), and we were ranked 9th in the world in dependency on the industry.
The website says that in the Caribbean travel and tourism accounts for 62.4% of St. Kitts and Nevis’s GDP, and it accounts for 56.6% of Grenada’s GDP, 34.9% of Barbados’s GDP, 34.0% of Jamaica’s GDP, 33.4% of Dominica’s GDP, and 7.6% of Trinidad and Tobago’s GDP.
In our neighborhood on the American mainland, travel and tourism accounts for 17.2% of Mexico’s GDP, and its share of GDP in Honduras is 14.6%; in Panama it accounts for 14.5% of the GDP; in El Salvador, 13.6%; in Costa Rica, 13.1%; in Nicaragua, 11.1%; in the USA (where it is worth $1.6 trillion), 7.8%; in Guatemala, 7.4%; and in Canada, 6.4%.
If we look at a few European countries, travel and tourism makes up 13.2% of Italy’s GDP, 11% of the United Kingdom’s GDP, 9.5% of France’s GDP, and 8.6% of Germany’s GDP.
In all of the Americas and the Caribbean, there are only three countries with greater dependency on travel and tourism than Belize: St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Those are three small island countries that, put together, cover 389 square miles, less than 5% of Belize’s land territory. It is perfectly understandable why those three islands have to be so invested in sun, sea, and sand.
It isn’t all gloom in Belize. We have to be thankful that we were spared from any cases of the disease for so long, and on the economic front it is a bit of good fortune that we are very small, so if our leaders screw their heads on right we can make the adjustments quickly so that we pull through, not fall apart.
On Thursday last week, the government passed the budget estimates for 2020/21. They should tear it up. Belize wouldn’t have met the budget’s projections even if the new coronavirus hadn’t become a global problem, a pandemic, and even if we had not moved into survival mode overnight. The aim of the budget should reflect that.
We shouldn’t be making any heavy investments to expand tourism. One project that definitely needs to be revisited is the Caracol Road. It was not well thought out before, and to continue it as it was planned would be obstinate.
The claim was made that the road will be of great service to the farming communities of San Antonio and Seven Miles. That point has worth, but it justifies only seven miles out of fifty. The farmers of San Antonio do not need to access the George Price Highway via the Mountain Pine Ridge Road (now being called Caracol Road); they usually go through the village of Cristo Rey, and from there to Santa Elena, Cayo.
Less than four miles down the Caracol Road is Cool Shade Farms, a large citrus enterprise, and three miles down the road from there is Seven Miles. The farmers in that village (and Cool Shade Farms) would certainly be grateful for improvement to a small section of the Caracol Road, and to the feeder roads that lead to their farms.
Shortly after you pass the junction to Seven Miles you enter the pine ridge, a relatively large area with lands that are marginal for agriculture but which contributed greatly to the forest products industry, before an insect (Southern Pine Bark Beetle) infestation a couple decades ago. This is a scenic area, spectacular in spots, but no good for agriculture.
The traffic on the road to Caracol is north to south in the mornings, as visitors go to see the pine ridge and its many sights, as well as the famous temple built by our Maya ancestors many hundreds of years ago. In the afternoon the traffic is mostly south to north, as visitors leave the area to return to where they came from. As we suggested some time ago, the road to Caracol has value, but it should be scaled down, from a double-lane highway to a single-lane.
Prisoners must feed themselves and their families
There is a small farm program at the Belize Central Prison, and our first step must be to expand it immediately, with the aim that persons in prison provide sufficient food for themselves, their families (who are minus a breadwinner while they are incarcerated), their victims (to pay for whatever damages they caused), and for our army. As a matter of national pride alone, our army should not be fed by foreigners. They must get the best ground food, vegetables, peas and beans, cucumbers, fruits, tilapia, and meat produced in Belize.
Good agricultural land — not marginal, not poor — good agricultural land must be acquired, maybe from tax-delinquent large landowners, and prisoners who are not behind bars for crimes of violence should be relocated there.
A farm of this type wouldn’t disrupt the natural flow of the old economy (what remains during this period) that has been denying them a fair piece of the pie, because the persons who fall into the prison net are usually not the big shoppers whom the merchants rely on for their profits.
Our political leaders and their cronies have insisted on being in total control of everything, but for a project like this they must yield. The board members that run such a project must be chosen from among the kind of persons Brother Paul Rodriguez suggests for his proposed elected Senate. They must be persons who have proven that they have capacity to get the job done, and they must also have exhibited considerable resistance to being corrupted, because we cannot continue to allow patently dishonest people to ruin good programs and add to our poverty.