Address by Hon. Anthony Mahler, Minister of Tourism and Diaspora Relations, at 36th AGM, Jan. 20, 2022

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen,

Once again, it is indeed an honor and a privilege to be a part of this very important event. As I see it, BTIA’s AGM is an annual milestone for the leading tourism advocacy and lobbying group in Belize. I wish to congratulate all BTIA memberson your 36th AGM. I am well aware that it was back in 1985 that tourism stakeholders came together to form the tourism industry’s very first umbrella organization, with many great industry leaders at the helm. Over the years, and under thecurrent leadership, the BTIA has lobbied effectively and relentlessly for the betterment of the entire industry and not just for a sector or a select few who have their own self-interests at heart. BTIA has represented hotels, restaurants, tour operators, tour guides, cruise ship operators, transportation companies, attractions, gift shops, and individuals – with chapter associations in all major destinations throughout this country, I sincerely appreciate the invitation to provide a few words today, and I truly value the partnership with the leaders and members of this very important organization.

Fifteen months ago when we took office we found an economy in shambles, we found a people in despair, we found a government void of true leadership and a tourism sector on the brink of collapse. This state of emergency was partially created by the pandemic, however, it was alsocreated by over twelve years of neglect and mismanagement of our economy, of our public purse, of our social services and of our industries.When we took over government as a result of an overwhelming mandate by the people, we were at the tail end of a year that would see a 70% contraction in overall tourism performance globally, as well as in Belize. We inherited an unprecedented state of affairs in our sector withunemployment and underemployment skyrocketing, with over 40,000 tourism jobs impacted by the economic downturn, and with countless businesses closed or on the brink of closure. We faced an uphill battle against what seemed to be an insurmountable reoccurrence of waves and spikes of COVID-19, further challenging our economic recovery, and placing a damper on an already impaired sector with ever-shifting healthprotocols and regulations. We also found ourselves confronting institutional and financial challenges within the public sector, capital projects and even our statutory agencies, with the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations by no means immune to this unfortunate reality.

But what we also found, was a private sector that was ready to move forward…ready to work with a government that would do its part to create an environment for recovery. We found a tourism work force that was eager to return to the frontline. We found hotels, tour operators, restaurants, gift shops, and countless tourism-based businesses yearning for opportunities to do business, for some redress in what was an extraordinary shock to all our livelihoods and to our families, and communities. What we found was a private sector that became our true partners. Together, we were able to ignite the recovery process for tourism. Together, we were able to lead economic recovery efforts for the country during these difficult times.

That was the reality of only 15 months ago! In fact, I remember that at last year’s AGM, we were confident, but uncertain of where COVID would take us. Look how far we’ve come! I recall when we came together and began shaping what today has become a formidable lobby for economic liberalization, vaccine prioritization, and relaxation of health protocols for our sector.

We were able to not only mount one of the most extraordinary resurgences in tourism overnight arrivals in the pandemic era, but also saw the reopening of our land borders for foreign visitors, and the restart of cruise tourism in a safe and secure manner. All of this, possible through groundbreaking marketing efforts, innovative business support programs, and an ardent focus on health and safety for our guests and tourismproviders.

Earlier this month, the UNWTO announced that experts maintain that pre-pandemic levels in tourism will not return until 2024, with projections that 2022 will continue to show slow recovery, and with an expected resurgence in 2023. But to appreciate what we in Belize have been able toaccomplish, I would like to share some eye-opening data with you.

In 2021, globally, the tourism sector grew by a meager 4% compared to 2020. Europe and Latin America saw the largest recovery rates, respectively, with the Caribbean and Central American areas recording the best performance by sub-region. In fact, the ForwardKeys 2021 reportnotes that Belize had a stand-out year of performance last year, and was one of the leaders in the recovery surge in this part of the world. Interestingly, in 2021 Belize recovered approximately 54% of its tourism overnight arrivals, that is, we saw an expansion of 20% more than theglobal average. Similarly, in Cruise, since July 2021, we saw a return of approximately 47% of our pre-pandemic performance compared to the same time period of operations in 2019.

What this equates to is the results of the relentless and strategic work done jointly over the last 15 months by our government, and by you our partners in the private sector. With the vision and creativity of the Exhale and Grab life campaigns in marketing, we have been able to amass a resounding resurgence in Belize’s brand equity in our main source markets. In the US market alone, we have been able to garner over 1.9 billion total impressions in 2021, with well- designed saturation initiatives on key US media platforms such as Travel + Leisure, the Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Travelers, National Geographic and Men’s Journal, to name a few. We also trail blazed our Belize Brand into our emerging and new markets, with countless features on printed and digital media in Canada, Mexico, Europe and South America. These activities saw an increase ofover 75% in some of these markets, compared to other destinations such as Jamaica in 2021.

With an aggressive airline development posture, we have been able to not only reestablish our legacy airlift, but we have been able to land two new major carriers to the country, with a few more promising opportunities in the pipeline, especially from the region. If we make the right decisions in the coming weeks, I strongly believe that we can change the game for regional travel to Belize.

During the last few months, we have focused on the small operators in our industry assisting many micro- and small-enterprises with much needed capital to help them prepare for this season.

In the area of infrastructure, we in only a matter of weeks, showed the country what true public-private partnership looks like, as we were able to pave the Hopkins road leading to the hotel zone, a feat that our predecessors could onlyreciprocate with empty promises for the three terms they were in office. We are also about to roll out a Lease-to-Own Program for tour vans for tour operators, tour guides and hotels to modernize their vehicle fleets. With the expansion of the Tourism Gold Standard program beyond just the traditional tourism business sector, we were able to elevate Belize’s hold and promise of a safe travel experience, even garnering internationalrecognition via the WTTC travel safe program. And the list goes on.

Even though we have seen great accomplishment over the past 15 months, I stand here to say that it means nothing if we fail to see the lesson that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront. Today, we that lead and make possible tourism in Belize, should embrace a dual reality. The first, is that recovery continues, and that we must continue to develop ways in which we can support the economic re-integration of tourism businesses andtourism workers lost in 2020 and 2021. However, as this pandemic progresses into the 2022, we should also recognize that this recovery will become organic, and this is where destinations like ours have a decision to make. The decision is whether we as an industry want to recover, return, and be satisfied with the same state of affairs we were in two years ago before the pandemic. A state where, yes, arrivals were up, but average dailyexpenditures, occupancies and length of stay were contracting, tourism infrastructure was in decline; a clear sign of plateauing and stagnation.Alternatively, as an industry we can come to the realization that this pandemic is not only a negative socio-economic shock, but in fact it is an opportunity to evolve, to improve and to differentiate ourselves from the pack. This philosophy of evolution, and one may say revolution, is where I want us all to invest and partake in. I have said it time and time again, the days of mediocrity, sub-class service and sub-par experiences should bekept in the past.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is time for Belize to step-up. We have already shown that in just a small period of time, we can lead in this industry. And this lead-first mentality is my vision for tourism moving forward. This pandemic, will eventually wane, this virus will become endemic, but theneed and demand for world-class and value-for-money travel will only grow.

Therefore, in 2022, we have begun to engage in an even more aggressive campaign to both support the recovery, but also to serve as a catalyst for this evolution. We have scheduled a series of ground-breaking marketing initiatives, to further engage not only our north American market, but also start to reinvigorate our European Market, and to tap into the Mexican and extended Latin American markets. We also will be rolling out new infrastructure projects around the country, including a revamp to the ATM Cave experience, the Belize City urban experience, destination improvements, a new wave of community cultural tourism trails, a culinary tourism product development program, the roll-out of the IDB Grants Program for tourism businesses, and the repair and enhancement to the Placencia Pier, a festival tourism program, and a program to boost both nautical and private aviation tourism, to name a few. We also will be launching a new national training program called Elevate, that will provide year- round training opportunities for frontline agencies, hotels, tour operators, tour guides, restaurants, security personnel in areas such as service excellence, health and safety, new tour development, specialized tour guiding skills, front-end and back-end management and even opportunitiesfor specialized food and beverage training for restaurants and food establishments.

And yes, we will continue to implement new measures that will safeguard the health and safety of our guests and tourism partners. We are planning the roll-out of a travel health insurance program for our visitors starting in February – and we will listen to the recommendations and feedback from the industry in determining the best way forward. We also plan to integrate the tourism gold standard protocols within the minimum requirements for hotels, tour operators and tour guides.

As a responsible government, we see it necessary to plan comprehensively for the future. As a result, in February of this year, the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations and the BTB, will commence the process of updating the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan. This update process will not only allow the country to integrate within our national development strategy areas of improvement and vulnerabilities, such as climate change and health and safety, it will also provide a much needed platform for the industry to determine the priority investment areas for tourism leading up to 2030.

A few such priority investments, without a doubt, will include enhancements to our airport network and infrastructure, development of our privateaviation services, construction of yachting marinas and facilities, the operationalization of a National Tourism Training Institute and expansion inthe hotel sector of the industry. Additionally, the BTB, in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations, has also convened a Cruise Working Group, which includes the BTIA, to oversee the update of the National Cruise Policy of Belize. A policy that will guide the future development and operations of the cruise sector throughout Belize.

I am also pleased to share that in the pipeline are a series of legal works that will see the expansion of the Qualified Retired Persons Program, and astreamlining of licensing requirements for tour operators and tour guides. An Amnesty Program for unlicensed properties trading on Shared-Economy platforms is also in the works, and an official agreement with Airbnb for regulatory support and taxation purposes is also being negotiated as we speak.

As I conclude, I wish to reiterate my message to all of you, that we must not only occupy ourselves within a process of recovery, but we must alsoinvest and begin to propel our individual businesses, communities and industry into a new era of tourism growth and development in Belize. Ithank the Belize Tourism Industry Association for inviting me to share with you a few words, best wishes to the BTIA in 2022, and let’s continue to work in true partnership for the betterment of Belize and our people.