An International Airport on Ambergris Caye: Really? Who Does this Benefit?
Just a few months ago, in mid-December 2017, the Government of Belize announced that they had signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with an outside contractor (the International Airport Alliance Belize) to finance , build and manage an international airport on North Ambergris Caye. The site would be the Basil Jones area – about 14 miles north of San Pedro town and about 10 miles beyond our paved road.
The idea of an international airport on North Ambergris Caye is not a new one. It was first announced by our current administration in September 2015. (Just a few months before the last PM election. Note that the December 2017 agreement also preceded an election by just a few months.)
The project was heralded as a great opportunity for those of San Pedro town (14 miles away) and a boost to tourism in Belize.
Our country-wide and local newspapers and TV stations reported the signed MOU – showed pics of our ministers shaking hands on the planned $100mm USD venture and the airport was even named for San Pedrano Efrain Guerero.
Our local Minister and the Minister of Tourism and Aviation Manuel Heredia told the San Pedro Sun: ““This airport means a lot to me because I always think about the future and seeing the way San Pedro has been developing year after year,” said Heredia. “Being the number one tourism destination in the country I can foresee the next 10 years if his happens, it will develop so much that it will probably be the next city in Belize.”
So let me get this straight…if you build it they will come? (It hasn’t happened for the Placencia International Airport)
I will be blunt. I dismissed this all as a pipe dream. Perhaps a campaign promise that would never come to fruition. That sort of thing happens everywhere.
It was even easier to dismiss when the named consultant for the project – Jorge Jaen, a representative of “International Airport Alliance Belize Limited” – was exposed to be a known swindler in Florida with no experience in the aviation field. (That information was available by simply using Google.)
But over the past few months, I’ve heard tour guides and taxi drivers, hotel reps and marketers talk about this airport as a real thing. I’ve received many inquiries about the timing, about property values way up north, asking when the road construction will start. Not just a possibility but something that is on the verge of happening. A real reason to visit and invest in Ambergris Caye.
Which leads me to this glaring question: What possible sense does a $100,000,000USD+ airport make on our island and to our country?
And CAN this airport be built? Would $100 million US dollars be enough? Ie. Is it economically and geographically possible? With no infrastructure – road, water, sewage, housing in the proposed area….not to mention customs, immigration, a fire department, a hospital…we haven’t even talked about air and noise pollution…how could this happen?
There is also the question: who does this benefit? I can argue that it is not the people of Ambergris Caye – at all. It’s not even the people of Belize.
I decided to try to look at it methodically and ask for a bit of expertise. I met with Steve Schulte, the CEO of Tropic Air Belize, for a better understanding of all the parts that go into this.
So here we go.
Here are some bullet points to keep in mind.
- The departure tax for leaving Belize for non-Belize citizens or residents is $55.50US (paid in USD) – of that, $15US is the “facility fee” and goes directly to the airport management (From the FCC: In the United States, the federal passenger facility charge (PFCs) program allows the collection of PFC fees up to $4.50 for every enplaned passenger at commercial airports controlled by public agencies.)
- 427,000 overnight visitors arrived to Belize in 2017, just under 200,000 came to Ambergris Caye
- The proposed location of the new airport at Basil Jones is 14 miles north of San Pedro town, Ambergris Caye. Our current paved road reaches 4 miles north, unpaved road about 10 miles north. The BULK of our population lives in town – or the neighborhoods directly around it.
- Airlines, domestic and international, need to fill planes to make money
- The International to San Pedro route is the most regular and profitable for our Belizean domestic airlines – without that route, they would be unable to operate the lesser travelled routes (to the west and south of Belize) and ultimately, unable to operate at all
- Cancun International Airport handles over 20 million passengers per year. In 1999 an international airport, Chichenitza International, was built for about $15MM US one hour away from Cancun and near the Mayan site of Chichen Itza (that draws 1.4 million visitors per year) – after initially drawing a handful of Mexican carriers, the airport folded and there is still debt outstanding
- Currently our local air strip in Caye Caulker is closed (and has been for months) awaiting repair and our Municipal Airport – recently improved for $8.5MM USD – is already undergoing visible stress
You can draw your own conclusions but there are some glaring issues that I can see with this proposal.
More airports doesn’t mean more carriers or lower prices. Delta isn’t going to just start sending more flights down here. They need to fill planes, they need to make money. We have 10 international airlines flying from 18 cities. If they are having trouble filling planes year-round with only one international airport, how do TWO make sense?
Without the International-SPP route, our local airlines would not be able to operate. Tropic Air is the 2nd largest private employer in the country of Belize with over 380 employees. Maya Island Air employees many many Belizeans around the country as well. What happens if our local airlines close?
The population of Ambergris Caye AND the vast majority of the hotels and resorts and visitors are located 14 miles SOUTH of this proposed airport site. Our stores, shops, restaurants, tour guides, rental homes, all of our businesses are centered in San Pedro town – what would happen if everyone started arriving 14 miles north of town?
How would people get to their resorts or to their homes? A 15 mile…20 mile taxi ride? Is the road north going to turn into a highway?
I have no solid answer about why this is being proposed. I can see no reason why we would encourage a development that would close our local airlines and move our economic center to the other end of the island. I don’t see the benefit to anyone here – unless you own land in the Basil Jones area or will be part of the management contract of the new airport.
Though I’m not sure how that airport management would pay back $100MM USD in debt. 200,000 passengers a year x $15 airport fee = $3,000,000 a year. That wouldn’t even pay back the interest on the loan.
Let me know your thoughts. It’s an interesting topic to be sure.