Good morning all and thanks for coming. If you are anything like me, you have attended far too many Zoom meetings over the last two years… so I will try to keep it short.
In many ways the last 12 months for our BTIA have paralleled the last 12 months for the tourism industry as a whole: we tightened our belts, learned to survive with less, were enticed by the beginnings of a successful rebound and remain cautiously optimistic for a future that is anything but certain.
First, let’s look back at the past year.
By December of 2020 the pandemic-induced loss of virtually all our revenue sources had left our finances in shambles and forced us to dismiss all three of our staff members. We were down but not quite out. The strong advocacy campaign initiated under my able predecessor, Melanie Paz, never stopped as your board and executive committee lobbied strongly and successfully for low interest loans to the industry from DFC and renegotiation with the private banks. We supported policies that helped thousands of laid off employees receive government assistance and pressedthe Barrow administration for modifications of the Gold Standard program to ease initial restrictions that made visitors into virtual prisoners andhotel keepers into prison wardens.
At BTIA headquarters in Belize City we went into survival mode, slashing expenses and focusing our efforts on a narrow set of priorities, primarily how to revive tourism in the face of the deadliest pandemic in a century. That we were able to carry out that effort is attributable to several factors:
One, our members—despite being just as broke as we were—stepped up big time to renew their memberships and pay their dues. This enabled us to contract with Linda Munoz and her team at M-Business Solutions for administrative support. They rented our downstairs office while we shuttered the upper flat and kind of moved in with them. The marriage has worked well and we cannot thank them enough for their dedication toour cause.
Two, our board and executive committee—all unpaid volunteers dealing with their own pandemic related problems—stepped up and donated countless hours of work. Five of our board members are past BTIA presidents and it would have been easy for them to retreat from involvement, having already done their service to the industry. Instead they rolled up their sleeves and stayed involved, all of us working together as a team. I only hope that I can emulate their contributions once my term is complete.
Three, the Belize Tourism Board, whose budget was hit at least as hard as ours, still managed to provide a trickle of institutional support that allowed us to help a number of our destination chapters maintain services to members and visitors alike. As the BTB’s revenues improved so didtheir level of support and it is our great hope that 2022 will bring back those nearly forgotten names like Lobsterfest, Mangofest, Sidewalk Arts Festival, Chocolatefest and the many other events that your BTIA has organized over the years.
Four, the MarFund. Before the pandemic hit we were exploring a project with this international marine conservation organization that would havecreated much needed environmental measuring tools for tourism businesses. But when MarFund realized that BTIA’s very survival was at stake they agreed to let us rework the project toward institutional support, specifically financing the initial hiring of an executive director—whom you have met this morning– and the convening of a tourism summit later this year entitled “Re-imagining Belizean Tourism”. Special thanks to MarFund’s Angeline Valentine for putting up with our inexperience in the often frustrating world of NGO project writing.
Last—though certainly not least– on our list of Good Samaritans is the Atlantic Group of Companies. They have been with us as Diamond Sponsors for as long as I can remember. They are by far the biggest lender to Belize’s tourism industry and while it is not always easy to call any bank your BFF it is clear that Atlantic understands our industry in a way that many of its competitors do not. Thank you Atlantic and a special thanks to Pedro Perez who has served Atlantic and BTIA for at least several decades.
So much for BTIA housekeeping. What our members want to know is “what have you done for me lately?” And “what are you going to do for mein the future?”
The answer, we believe, is PLENTY.
During the past year we have continued to pursue concessional financing and other practical relief measures for tourism businesses. Through our membership on the Airline Development Committee we have succeeded in attracting Alaska and Frontier Airlines to Belize—with more to come in the future. We have pushed back hard against public health policies that defy common sense, like allowing unvaccinated tourists to enter Belize but not allowing them to enter restaurants. We have pushed hard for all measures designed to get Belizeans vaccinated…with banners and bumperstickers and media appearances. And we have unapologetically advocated for vaccination mandates. Mandates have worked very well in ourindustry and we do not see why they cannot work in the rest of the private as well as public sectors. Although our work on various boards and committees is less well known our positions at DFC, PACT, the Sargassum Task Force and other bodies is appreciated and effective.
Overall we have played a key role in influencing government policy. Not in a confrontational way but in a true partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations, BTB and other government bodies. This does not mean that we agree with every action that the BelizeGovernment takes…but it does mean that we have a seat at the table. That we are more often than not consulted and can—and do—call the Minister, the Director, the CEO and other officials routinely.
The important thing is that we have found the Minister and his team to be engaged. They eat, sleep and breathe tourism 24/7—just like most of us do. And again, while we do not always agree with official actions we have come to respect the process. My colleague Alina Saldivar at the Belize Hotel Association—and a member of our BTIA board– can attest that at BTB meetings we often find ourselves on the minority end of policy debates and even when we agree with a policy it is not adopted without a lot of tough questions being asked.
So where are we headed in the future? Certainly more advocacy. We support the compulsory insurance plan that goes into effect February 15th.This was not an easy decision but in the end I believe that the added expense is not too burdensome and will go a long way toward easing the fearsof visitors—and thus increasing the number of visitor arrivals—while at the same time easing the financial and PR burden placed on hotels that must deal with the increasing number of guests who test positive for Covid-19 and must stay here longer than originally anticipated. Again, the question is not whether we can afford to have our visitors insured; it’s can we afford NOT to have them insured.
And as Covid is brought under control we have a full agenda of initiatives planned for the next year: the previously mentioned summit; a return to training with the goal of establishing a unified industry-relevant hospitality training institute; a stronger presence in all our varied destinations, including more support for BTIA operated tourism information centers. And finally, we will devote significant resources to raising the public profile of BTIA and more importantly, the status of the tourism industry in general.
For if the pandemic has taught us one thing it is the crucial importance of tourism to the Belizean economy. As the employer of tens of thousands of Belizeans, as the generator of millions in foreign exchange and as the foremost promoter of Belize’s brand. Our brand is a positive international image that leads to increased investment in other parts of the economy as well as greater cooperation with foreign governments and international financial institutions. In our personal lives we all need friends…and nations are no different. Every visitor to Belize is a potential friend of Belize. And in a world that seems to grow more chaotic and scary each day, having good friends may be more important than money in the bank.