Timeshares are starting to show up in Belize, with timeshare conversions from existing properties or new developments taking place on Ambergris Caye, in Placencia, and even on remote cayes. Expect to see more of these in Belize, as frustrated hotel owners turn to timeshare conversions as a way to get out of a money-losing resort proposition, and promoters come to where the fast bucks can be made without much legal oversight or control.

On the surface, timeshares may seem like a good idea for everyone. For the developer, it's a way to add value to a property. A US$500,000 property might be worth a million or even two if successfully developed as a timeshare. For tourists, timeshares in theory are a way to lock in a desirable condo-style accommodation in a sought-after area at a fixed price. And for the government and local businesses, timeshares - again in theory - can bring affluent visitors back again and again, spreading money around the local economy each time.

Timeshares indeed are a boom industry. Recent studies show that "interval ownership" sales hit US$5 billion annually, with more than 3 million owners around the world. The involvement of Disney, Marriott, and Hilton has brought new credibility to the industry.

But, for a lot of people, the reality of timeshares is different from the theory. That's especially true in places like Belize, where consumer protection statutes - such as restrictions on marketing practices or the 10-day "cooling off period" granted by some U.S. states to timeshare buyers, to give them a chance to change their mind following high-pressure sales tactics - may not be in place or difficult to enforce.

Timeshares can bring more problems than they are worth, and I encourage Belize tourism operators to think twice, at least, before getting involved in any timeshare operation. And I urge Belize travelers to approach any timeshare with a very skeptical eye.

Here are just a few of the problems that can plague timeshares:

It's easy to buy a timeshare, but very, very, very difficult to sell one. A poll of 485 timeshare owners by the Resort Property Owners Association discovered that 58% said they had been trying to sell their timeshares for an average of 4.4 years, but only about 3% of those with units on the market had been able to sell. Some had been trying to unload their units for as long as 11 years. Because marketing costs constitute up to 50% of the sales price - that's how timeshare salespeople can afford that flashy jewelry - the moment you buy your dream vacation home it drops in value by up to one-half.

High-pressure sales techniques hurt not only buyers but local businesses and the tourism industry in general. One of the biggest complaints in tourist areas such as Cancun and Hawaii is the relentless pursuit of tourists by touts trying to round up prospects for sales presentations. Some states, including Hawaii, have had to pass legislation controlling timeshare solicitations.

Timeshares attract some of the least-desirable types of developers. Yes, Disney and Marriott have brought new quality to the industry. But Disney and Marriott are not going to be developing in Belize anytime in the next few centuries. They stay in places like Orlando, where almost one-third U.S. timeshares are located, and which gets more tourists in one month than the entire country of Belize gets in 10 years. Belize, like some other Caribbean destinations, offers "low regulation" markets where almost anything goes, and the worst type of timeshare abuses are possible.

Even the best timeshare can get old fast. With each unit in a timeshare being divided into 40 or 50 separate pieces, a timeshare development quickly ends up with hundreds or even thousands of owners, spread around the globe. Add to that the fact that the big money in timeshares is made in sales, not in management, and you have a recipe for real estate disaster - fragmented ownership and unmotivated management. Easily can happen here what happened in the 1980s in New Orleans, then the urban timeshare capital of the U.S. Timeshare owners made their cream, then took a powder, leaving once-ritzy timeshare developments to the termites, with far flung owners perplexed, disillusioned, and missing thousands of dollars.

The real cost of timeshares too often leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Owners get tired of paying hundreds of dollars a year in maintenance fees, taxes, and "assessments" - often these fees alone add up to the cost of a stay at a first-class hotel. They become frustrated by the deteriorating condition of the development and their total inability to recover the US$5,000 or $10,000 they "invested" in the timeshare (the average timeshare costs US$7,500.) For their part, local business people and tourism operators tire of the bad image timeshares bring to their area, and they find the promises of new local jobs and more tourism didn't quite pan out. Even government gets the shaft, because it's left with a resort that nobody pays taxes on, and a big, fat mess to clean up.

Belize is a special place. Its appeal for visitors is in its jungle lodges and small seaside resorts and inns, not in glitzy, high-pressure timeshares.

Timeshares may have their place, but in my opinion that place is Orlando or Hilton Head or St. Maarten or Cancun, not Belize.

Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST Magazine. He has never owned a timeshare, but as a newspaper editor and reporter he did cover the timeshare industry in New Orleans in the 1980s.

 

Timeshares are a little like iguanas -- what do you do with'em after you catch'em?


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