Last week the leader of our country, Hon. Dean Barrow, spoke of tourists returning to the country in the coming months, and it has been mentioned that as early as July we could see international flights coming to Belize if things keep progressing as they are right now. Mr. Ted Tejada, the president of the Belize Hotel Association, said that in preparation for the return of tourists they are developing policies and procedures to ensure the safety of people working in the industry.
Our country depends heavily on the tourism industry, and the pandemic has laid us flat. The sooner tourists start coming back to Belize the better for our economy, but everyone knows that accepting them before there is a vaccine for COVID-19 increases the risk of the disease reappearing in Belize, and in a worse way than we experienced it in the “first” wave. This is a risk that every Belizean will bear, so it can’t be overly ambitious for us to expect that tourists pay more for the opportunity to visit our wonderful country.
We Belizeans know we have the best country, from the Hondo to the Sarstoon, and we have been openhearted and inclusive — welcoming people from all walks of life to our shores. However, at this time, under our current circumstances —because of the risks, we can only afford tourists who pay top buck.
We are definitely within our rights to ensure that those who make money off the industry pay into the government’s treasury all that our country deserves. According to our laws the Belize Tourism Board receives, on behalf of the Government of Belize, 9% of what tourists pay for accommodations (hotels) while they are here. To our knowledge local authorities have no control over arrangements made abroad; they have to depend on the honesty of hotel operators to fork over the country’s rightful share.
No longer will it only be our environment that is stressed by tourism; our people are risking exposure to a disease that people the world over are scared of. Our country appreciates all, both foreigners and Belizeans, who invest in the industry, but it is only fair that all the taxes due to the government and people of Belize are collected. It does appear that the arrangement for booking tourists has to be improved. Everything must be done in the open air, transparently.
We must also get our rightful share of the business of transporting tourists across our country. Local bus operators have reportedly been left out because they don’t have buses that meet international standards. If our buses are short of quality to transport tourists, our government must step in with policies/incentives so that our operators get better buses. Tourism exposes our people to COVID-19, so it makes sense that we milk every drop we can from it.
Seguing briefly to the transportation of local commuters, there seems to be no initiative coming from government to improve the fleet that transports our people across the country. Some of our buses are not roadworthy. Some bus drivers seem to be better suited to transport rice or cattle, than human beings. Old buses driven by operators who like speed make for road disasters. The government must put in the effort to improve this essential service.
Returning to tourism, we can improve our management of the industry in many areas so that it yields more to the national treasury, and so that our people who are involved in the industry get a greater share.
For too long the people at the decision-making level have been dictated to by foreigners and narrow interests. This has to stop. The risks are great. The costs are higher. It is imperative that we get our full share.
Serving utilities while ignoring food security and the environment in villages
No modern country can develop by turning all its citizens into full-time farmers, but the country that encourages its citizens to be involved in some backyard gardening will be physically healthier, and in times of crisis – hurricanes, drought, disease – it will have more food security. That country’s citizens will also be mentally healthier because of the improved environment.
There is little that we can do in the way of backyard gardening if our government keeps issuing lots that are no bigger than a sandbox. Our national brain trust has been developing villages with an eye to providing electricity lines, water mains, telecommunications/cable television, and roads, and there has been little concern for food security and the environment.
Ill-advisedly, the Land Utilization Authority has been authorizing subdivisions that result in lots that are smaller than the lots that we used to give out in towns and our two cities. Incredibly, some villages are now fitting five lots into an acre. These are urban-sized lots in a rural setting.
The owners of a small lot maybe have space for a coconut tree and some plantain suckers after they put up a small dwelling. The family that lives on a half-acre or 1-acre plot has space for a good-sized vegetable garden, a compost heap, a well, a few fruit trees, and a couple pens, for layers so that the family has fresh eggs every day and turkeys so that occasionally there is meat for the dinner table. With a little supplemental feed there could even be a milk goat in the yard.
Belmopan and some areas of Belize City are the only places in the country that have sewer systems. The owner of a small lot in a village can’t put an outhouse because even the best designed ones need a little more space so that they don’t negatively affect the air quality in the neighborhood. They have to put in a septic tank/soak away (leach field); however, environmental engineers say that installing this will pollute the environment if you don’t live on at least half an acre of land.
Some villagers have small farms outside the village proper, but families moving from urban to rural areas, seeking a better environment to raise their children, will not have that resource. The cost of land keeps going up, and the more families you can pack into small spaces the cheaper it is to put in the utilities and roads, hence the temptation for the authorities to issue plots that are less than the ideal size. In the short term it looks smart to issue a small lot, but down the road we pay the price with food insecurity and poor physical and environmental health.