Editor's note: Cozumel, the island off the Yucatán, gets many more dive visitors than does Belize, even though Belize has a wider variety of diving and, many would argue, better diving. We wonder why, so as a start to finding out, we asked a leading dive operator in Coz why the greater interest in, and greater number of visitors, to that island. We went to David Dillehay, owner of Aldora Divers, a dive operation with a top reputation in Cozumel. At BELIZE FIRST, we don't necessarily agree with all Dave Dillehay's answers, but he points out they are what he is hearing from from his customers. This may help Belize dive shops, and general tourism operators, compete more effectively.
By DAVE DILLEHAY
Your questions are interesting to me because I actually have never been to Belize. So far my impressions have depended on descriptions and personal references by others...just like any other tourist. However, my work as a dive operator has given me the opportunity to get first-hand reports and comparisons from a lot of people that have been to both Coz and Belize. What follows is a list of the things that I think may account for the fact that the island of Cozumel gets more divers than the entire country of Belize.
Transportation: At least from the U.S., it costs about twice as much to fly to Belize as it does Cozumel. Even cheaper and with greater frequency are flights into Cancun, from which you can take the ferry over. It is also possible to fly into Cozumel from most of the U.S. and get in two dives that very same day, usually not the case in Belize.
Accommodations and Food: There are nice, clean hotels here for as little as US$25 per night. There are also US$900 per night rooms at our luxury hotels. Here there are many fine restaurants that offer up great meals at very cheap prices. Indeed, just about anything you want can be found within the relatively small confines of the island's only town.
Security: For the most part there is no - that means approaching zero - crime in Cozumel. There is an occasional theft of property but that is most likely the work of tourists. Violent physical crime is unheard of. Belize is known for a crime problem in many areas.
Character of the People: For some reason the Mayan people of this region have developed a great combination of laid-back attitude and industriousness. People here work, and are friendly when they do. Many refer to that as the "Aloha spirit" that the Hawaiians were supposed to have! No reports have come to me about how friendly the people are in Belize.
Other Activities: In Cozumel, one is never more than a few miles away from all the attractions that non-divers, or divers on a day off, can enjoy in safety. There are Mayan ruins on the island, and Tulum is just across the channel. Throw in Xcaret, Xel-Ha, access to Cancun, and morning trips to Chichen Itza, and you have divers or groups right smack in the middle of recreation land, whether you are a diver or not. That means that a diver who wants a dive vacation but has a spouse or kids that don't dive can safely come to Cozumel. I would guess that 25% of our customers are here with a no-diver in the group. Of course Belize has Mayan ruins, jungles, etc., but I think some people think of ecotravel in Belize as too strenuous compared to the kinds of attractions "casual" tourists can visit here in Mexico.
The Diving: I have heard that diving in Belize (especially around Ambergris Caye) is not as varied nor as magnificent as the best of the Cozumel reefs. That may not be true for the shallow reefs near town but the farthest reefs are truly remarkable. That is why my fast boats are so popular. That makes it just a 30-minute ride to some really magnificent sites. In addition, we have Barracuda and San Juan Reefs to the north that are quite different than any others here. And even in the string of dive sites to the south there is an amazing diversity of reef formations. Want cenotes, or cave diving? Well, that's here too.
Big friendly fish? Fishing was banned here about 20 years ago so the fish have grown big and friendly. Lobsters of 30 pounds are common as are octopus and other critters. I have heard reports of fished-out dive sites in Belize (coupled, I admit, with reports of zillions of fish). Probably both are correct, but it is difficult to find a fished-out site here.
Finally on diving, most of the dive sites here are on the protected lee shore of the island. That means that there is usually smooth water, so smooth that you might find water skiers at the dive sites. Those that suffer sea sickness have little problem here, whereas I've heard reports of how rough the water can beat times in Belize.
Summary: Now even in Cozumel (perhaps especially in Cozumel) it is possible to have a dive shop take you to crummy dive sites and treat the divers to crummy dives. But among those that have seen the "Best of Cozumel," and Belize as well, they seem to prefer Cozumel. I also have heard a lot of negative things about (what is perhaps a few) laid-back dive operations in Belize that just don't care about customer service. In particular, I sent a couple of friends to Belize a few months ago. They reported that they approached several operations only to find that there were no other divers around and that they would not go out with just two divers. That is after a lot of travel to reach the place. I understand the economics but surely they should have been able to find someone to go diving with.
Another aspect particular to my business is generated by people that have been excited by our very unique kind of service and diving. Somehow, almost a cult has developed calling themselves "Aldorans." Perhaps if Belize had such a service-oriented operation?
Now, keep in mind that you asked and I am just trying to list some reasons why the Cozumel section seems more popular. I am not trying to tear down Belize, just report to you those things that I have been hearing. On the other hand, I really should get down there to find out for myself.