First time visitors to any place in Belize often hear the phrase “oh…you should have seen (insert: Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye or Placencia) 5 years ago or 10 years ago…” before San Pedro got rid of the hand ferry and built the Barry Bowen Bridge to access the north end of the island (2006) or before Placencia paved the one long road that runs down the narrow peninsula (2010). These days are known to one and all as “the good old days” or let’s get local…”bak eena di day”.
Everyone remembers a simpler, more charming, just plain better time. For some reason, the first time you visited Belize (or for locals, the Belize of your childhood) always seems the best. That’s just the way life work. Time sweetens all memories.
The projects above led to gradual change, to progress, many would argue.
But what would happen if a multi-billion dollar cruise ship company bought an island less than 3 miles off the shores of your small town…and with only the most vague plans in place (big payoffs, few details), took advantage of the slow season, sluggish worldwide economy and divided local factions and made an agreement with your small government to bring in tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of tourists with promises that seem to change by the day?
Well…the tiny beach village of Placencia, Belize (population of roughly 800 to 1000) is about to find out.
Just recently, Norwegian Cruise Lines purchased 75 acre Harvest Caye from the Government of Belize for undisclosed amount (I’ve heard $3 to 10mm USD) with the intent to raze it and make it the main port in Belize for…well…general cruise ship fun.
That’s a cruise ship, right? Not a MacDonald’s Play World?
To put things in perspective, the annual GDP of Belize is about equal to the cost of ONE GIANT NCL CRUISE SHIP (reference). That is how small our country is relatively. And in a world where money talks, that is how easily we can be railroaded by a huge profit driven corporation like Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Okay…this topic is already getting me fired up! Let me back up and tell you where I went yesterday. Harvest Caye. Just about 3 miles off shore from Placencia Village and about a 20 minute boat ride through the GORGEOUS Placencia Lagoon which is packed with wildlife. Coral heads…manatees…dolphins…
LOOK AT WHAT APPEARED AT THE BOW OF THE BOAT AS WE WERE MAKING OUR WAY OUT TO HARVEST CAYE. Just 5 minutes from Placencia. My heart was in my throat. AMAZING.
A few feet below me. And then we saw a manatee only a few minutes later.
This image not mine. Oh how I wish it was. But there is nothing like a good pic of a manatee to tug at your heart strings. I’m sure these guys will just find some other place else to graze and raise their babies. Sniff…
Nicole Gomez, the Executive Director of the Southern Environmental Agency of Belize (SEA), let us know that this lagoon is one of the three most important habitats for manatees in Belize.
The other two are Belize City (already pretty much ruined by the cruise ship industry) and the Southern Lagoon off of Punta Gorda.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again…let me back up. Everyone who was headed out to the Caye met at the MnM dock in Placencia AT 9am. A $10bzd donation was requested for the use of these big dive boats. There was a good crowd but not as many people as I expected.
A representative associated with NCL was there in a small boat. He was handing out slick flyers about the project with dubious facts like 80% of cruisers are scoping out a spot to spend more long-term vacations.
Hotel owners in other parts of Belize…I’d be curious. Can you ask your guests if they found Belize on a previous cruise ship journey? Is the number 80%? Let me know!
Many of the locals and tour guides were not present since they have seen the caye many, MANY times. It’s a popular area for fly fishing and well known to those who have grown up in the area. But a little more support/solidarity might have been nice?
The first boat headed out.
Stewart Krohn, the BTIA Chairman of Placencia and someone who has been very vocal against NCL purchase, gave us a briefing.
It had rained heavily the night before but the dark clouds stayed over the mountains as we pulled up to the caye.
And we loaded onto smaller boats to see the island briefly and to take a picture. The caye is densely packed with mangroves and fruit trees.
We headed to the small beach area…I was pleasantly surprised to find it pretty bug free.
Just about 25 feet in from this small beach is an area where the previous owners (a resort with an air strip was to be built) had started some construction. Really it was just burned vegetation and what seemed like a giant ugly hole.
We posed for a picture…
And a few people spoke about the NCL plan and how it can effect the environment and mostly the lagoon. As we pulled up to the island, the water was spotted with boulder coral (easily a few hundred years of growth) and the depth was as shallow as 9 to 10 feet.
The dredging alone to bring in the construction work and the actual cruise ships (probably needs to be 35-40 feet) will wreak havoc on the sea bottom. The silt can smother the sea grass…the food for the estimated 300- 400 manatees that live in this area. (Out of the estimated 1000 to 1500 that live in all of Belize.)
We pulled back off shore and went snorkelling. I met people from all over…visitors, people who live in Belmopan and Punta Gorda.
I had so many questions: Where are the cruisers going to go to catch buses to their mainland trips? We don’t know yet. Are they going to be using Belizean guides and companies? We hope so. Will there be a cruise ship tour called “Cute Town of Placencia Day Trip”? We hope not since the cruise ships won’t make too much money from that trip.
But how is the village going to keep that from happening?
We hope not?!?! Even just 500 cruisers unloading off a boat at the dock at Placencia to walk through the town for a few hours…it’s unimaginable. Simple stuff like where are they going to use the restroom or where is their trash going to go has no answer. Is Placencia going to turn into a giant ugly flea market surrounded by barbed wire like many cruise ship ports across the Caribbean replete with “take your picture holding a baby parrot” hustlers to pharmacies selling cheap diet drugs and Viagra?
NCL says this project will be “different”…ummm…different HOW?
GOB how dare you sign an agreement without all of this written in stone. Like the exact number of ships you will allow or who EXACTLY can be employed? And if Belizeans are employed, how are they going to buy the buses, the boats, the insurance? Who is to say that 2 cruise ships doesn’t become 10 ships? And maybe NCL will allow other companies to use this new island.
It’s almost unthinkable what can happen in a town that is so quaint and small.
And what about our national tourism plan? Belize put together a serious nationwide plan only a few years ago to increase the now 35,000 annual nationwide overnight visitors. (Overnight visitors are THE WAY that money actually gets to Belizeans.)
The goal was eco-tourism…sustainable growth. HOW DOES THIS PROJECT MATCH UP IN ANY WAY WITH THAT?
So…I have a feeling that once this gets rolling (project proposed opening is the cruise ship season of 2015/2016) and the area is possibly flooded with day visitors who are here to “experience Belize” in a few hours…back eena di day is going to be something that Southern Belize and possibly the whole country talks about quite a bit. And not in the distant future. I don’t think it will take long to see BIG changes.
All that being said: I am no scientist. I’m not an expert in the cruise ship industry (I’ve never even been on a cruise) and I am not a resident of Southern Belize. But I have lived in Belize for 7 years now. And I can see how the decisions made here will effect the entire country…will basically set another precedent of the government doing whatever it wants, wherever it wants, with minimal (to no) consultations with the local citizens.
What’s next? Northern Ambergris Caye? Probably. It IS in our backyard.
This entire article is MY OPINION as it is…MY BLOG. If there are any factual errors here, please let me know.
And for a VERY compelling testimony about what cruise ship tourism did to Roatan, Honduras, an island VERY similar to Belize in many ways, watch this Story of A Cruise Ship Refugee.
It’s 7 minutes well worth your time.
For more information, I suggest you contact the lovely people at the Placencia BTIA. They can certainly point you in the right direction.
And please COMMENT from Belize or abroad. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!