The Memorandum of Understanding between Norwegian Cruise Line and the Government of Belize was signed a few days ago, but the hard work that both sides hope will lead to a prosperous cruise port facility at Harvest Caye in the Stann Creek District has only just begun. Today a three-hour press briefing was held where the project’s developers and backers, Norwegian, allied with the Government to make the hard sell to the public and skeptics in particular. In opening the press briefing, Minister of Labour and Chair of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Investment, Senator Godwin Hulse, was quick to dismiss the many misgivings expressed by opponents of the project. He assured that Government was not about to sell out the national interest for nothing.
Senator Godwin Hulse:
[There have been] many presentations of the MOU. The final one that will be presented today will create a bit of confusion. I think it started in about draft 6. We’re at about draft 10, but they caught up with us at draft 6 and moved steadily through the various progressions. So much so that the plans fell, they blindsided the Honourable Prime Minister by presenting one that his signature should have been on. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no secret to this thing. This thing is called negotiation. When you negotiate, you put your best foot forward.
The Minister went on to discuss one of the many benefits of the project: foreign exchange.
Senator Godwin Hulse:
Any investment that will create some jobs for our people, I think we need to get that in our minds. Those who are comfortable in their castles and in their little areas and have their jobs, need not to be mean because the man who doesn’t have a job, is really looking for one and we are committed to helping him find one; that is the fundamental principle behind these kinds of investment. It is a very good thing because this project aims to bring more visitors to the south of our country. When people visit your country, one thing is for sure, they leave some money. You won’t give them anything free. When they leave the money, hopefully, and the project is structured that the money is left in the hands of Belizeans. What could be bad about that? Of course, there’s a lot to manage to ensure that that happens the way we want to have it happen, but I anm very confident that the able team we have at the Ministry of Tourism, at BELTRADE, and the Ministry of Investment, are capable of managing with great success, in concert with thwe people from Norwegian [Cruise Line].
Now to the specifics. The cruise line has outright bought the 75-acre caye, actually two adjoining islands, located south of the Big Creek Port, for an undisclosed price. It intends to invest $50 million in developing 12 acres of that property into the proposed “eco-park” destination that will serve as Norwegian’s chief port of call for Belize.
Vice President for destination and strategic development for Norwegian, Colin Murphy, says that he expects that its larger planned ships for 4,000 passengers will be solely using the Harvest Caye property if all goes well. Murphy said the company intends to abide by all laws and pay all requisite taxes and other fees necessary, including a $100,000 environmental preservation fee paid annually. The Caye was already previously approved for a prior development that dredged much of the inland area of the caye and intended to build a hotel and airstrip on the west side of the island, directly affecting a manatee site.
According to project developer Hugh Darley of IDEA, Inc, Norwegian intends to develop only 12 acres, on the east side of the Caye, with as little effect to the island as possible. Darley has developed projects as large as Walt Disney World in Orlando and Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, and says that truly unique destinations tell their own story. In Southern Belize’s case, that is the unique cultures of the Garifuna and Maya, and as many of them as possible – 1,000, at the conclusion of construction in two years – will be employed.
The hiring frenzy begins not too long from now, as Murphy today announced a recruitment drive for direct employment on Norwegian ships with the option to join the project in two years’ time – a decision, he told PLUS News, that was taken out of the need to be a “good corporate citizen” in Belize. The project takes into account the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan which speaks of ‘pocket tourism’ – small groups visiting destinations with the maximum being whichever number the site managers at destinations from Dangriga to Punta Gorda say they can take. The company commits to a strong environmental policy including taking out its own garbage and leaving as small a ‘footprint’ on the island as possible.
According to Darley the structures will be pre-fabricated with Belizean material, a floating pier will be built to lessen impact to the surrounding waters and reefs, and the attractions on the island including duty-free shopping will allow visitors to leave their mark on the country. Belize City, the primary cruise destination, handled more than 600,000 passengers last year, of which 98,000 traveled with Norwegian, but their reviews were somewhat poor among those visitors who disliked the “sense of arrival” provided by the Fort Street Tourism Village. Harvest Caye, it is argued, will take some of the pressure off the Old Capital in terms of visitors, though only one ship per day will be allowed.
Michael Singh, CEO in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, said that Norwegian will pay a US$7 head tax, about the average for the region apart from Bermuda which pays US$60. The split is 4-3 for Norwegian and increase of no more than a dollar every five years will be considered, split evenly during the 25 year concession. He later denied having any personal stake in the project.
Next on the agenda is meetings with stakeholders in the South, according to Director of Tourism Laura Esquivel Frampton. She said that Belizeans in the South must “be prepared” for the project and disdained the suggestion that cruise tourism and overnight tourism cannot co-exist, pointing to high growth figures of 9% so far this year and 10% last year for overnight tourism. We will have more tomorrow.