President’s Remarks – Mandatory travel/health insurance: positive or negative for tourism?

Every country in the world—as well as their many states, provinces and municipalities—has been forced over the last two years to deal with the creation and implementation of policies to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you can name a country that has done it right please let me know, because every time the press has hailed a country that has the magic formula—Israel! Sweden! China! Canada!—the euphoria turns to horror as the statistics rise or human rights evaporate.

The fact is that most governments have muddled through trying to balance each nation’s health with the needs of its economy. If that is the measure then considering our slim resources, Belize—under both ruling parties– has done as well or better than most. As Covid shut down the economy in March 2020 the Barrow administration quickly rolled out a financial safety net for the poor and newly unemployed. When vaccines became available the Briceno government immediately procured ample supplies and a relatively efficient delivery system was implemented.

If there was any major flaw in the response that has allowed over 600 Belizean deaths and counting, it is that our own people have consistently failed to embrace the concept of vaccination despite the fact that the shots are free and readily available.

And Tourism? Yes, the industry took a major hit. But with few exceptions it wasn’t fatal and business is rebounding faster than most experts predicted. And as the case numbers continue to drop in both North America and Belize the latest controversy in Belizean tourism circles is the introduction of a mandatory travel/health insurance requirement for all tourists entering the country as of February 15.

The policy was introduced at a BTB meeting last year and was approved with only the BTIA and BHA reps voting against. Minister of Tourism Anthony Mahler and other officials, including insurance company representatives, later met separately with the respective boards of those two organizations. Members of both NGOs had many questions and while your BTIA formally wrote the Ministry with suggested modifications to the proposed mandate it was approved at least in concept.

 

WHY I SUPPORT THE MANDATE

A number of major hoteliers and other tourism players have registered their opposition to the new mandate. They point out that the added cost and complication of one more entry requirement will turn off prospective visitors to Belize and send them instead to Costa Rica or Mexico. Why, they ask, when the rest of the world is easing Covid restrictions, Belize is tightening up? While this line of reasoning is not without merit, I believe that a far better case can be made in favor of the mandatory health insurance policy. Why?

 

  • The value. At US$18 any policy that covers both trip AND health insurance for up to three weeks in Belize has got to be the bargain of the century. In June I am going on a two-week hiking trip in France. The EU mandated health insurance policy is costing me 48 Euros. And that does not include travel insurance!
  • The price becomes even less of an issue when compared to other costs AND inconvenience now encountered by US travelers to Belize who must pay for a rapid Covid test to enter Belize and another to get back into the States—a total of up to US$150 plus the indignity of a stick up your nose.
  • Easing visitor fears. Having spoken to dozens and watched hundreds of guests march to their pre-check out Covid tests (and a half dozen testing positive) I can attest to the fact that in the present environment testing positive and being quarantined in a strange country is a major fear for most of our visitors, many of whom are not vaccinated. Part of their concern is the cost of paying for all those additional nights in a hotel until they test negative. Now with health insurance what was previously a most awkward conversation about discounted room rates and credit cards is now the opposite. The mandatory policy covers US$300/night for room to a maximum of US$2,000. Plus pays for any required medical care, including pre-existing conditions and medications. Not bad for a premium of US$18.
  • Which is why some farsighted hotels (including mine) are picking up the cost of the insurance for all guests. What better way to show your guests how much you care about their physical and financial health! Because when you think about it the mandatory insurance policy benefits not just the visitor but also the innkeeper—and not only for larger more upscale hotels. What does the proprietor of a medium or low cost hotel do when the guest who just tested positive says that he or she has no money to pay for those extra days in quarantine? Talk about awkward conversations…
  • Lastly, there are those in the industry who maintain that with Covid-19 numbers on the downswing there is no longer any need to worry; the pandemic has been routed so we will no longer have guests in need of insurance. And if you believe that then there is a bridge in downtown Belize City I’d like to sell you. Even the most optimistic medical scientists will confirm that with the vast majority of the world’s population unvaccinated and vulnerable the odds are great that new variants will arise that may be both more deadly and more contagious than those we’ve already seen. If this is the case then at US$18 per head maybe little Belize is making the best marketing move in its history.

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