News from Early 1999

Note: News articles in this archive were contemporaneous reports and generally have not been updated to reflect events that may have occurred after the articles appeared.

SEASONAL RAINS BEGIN; ROADS IN SOUTH FLOODED Seasonal rains began on schedule this year, with downpours hitting Stann Creek and Toledo districts in early June. Heavier than usual rains have continued into July, flooding parts of the Coastal Highway, Southern Highway and road to Placencia. Visitors planning to drive south are advised to check road conditions before they attempt the trip, or to consider flying to Dangriga, Placencia or Punta Gorda.

GUATEMALA FARMER KILLED BY BDF Belize Defence Forces soldiers allegedly shot and killed a Guatemala farmer, Mateo Paiz, who was selling produce in Arenal village, in western Belize just south of Benque Viejo. Arenal villagers generally dispute BDF claims that the farmer was a serious threat to the soldiers, who were armed with rifles, although he may have been waving his machete. They say Paiz, from nearby village of El Rondón in Guatemala, often came to Belize to sell produce door-to-door. Paiz's was shot to death in front of his 10-year-old son. The Guatemala government has protested the shooting. In August, a Commission of Inquiry convened to investigate the death determined that Paiz was killed in self defense and no one is to be held criminally responsible.

LOBSTER SEASON OFF TO SLOW START The 1999 lobster season began June 16. Smaller than-expected catches appeared to reflect a continuing decline in the Belize lobster population, due to overfishing, especially in the south. The season continues through March 15, 2000. More than 90% of Belize's lobster catch is sold to the Red Lobster chain, through a long-time arrangement between the restaurant company and the Northern Fisherman Cooperative.

CONSERVATIONIST PIONEER JAMES A. WAIGHT DIES James Aloysious Waight, first president and founding member of the Belize Audubon Society, proponent of Belize's national park system, former colonial governor of Belize and head of the colonial survey department, died May 29 at the age of 92.

WHALE SHARKS BECOMING TOURIST ATTRACTION Whale sharks, gentle giants of the ocean, are regularly seen off the southern coast of Belize in between April and June. Snorkelers flock to see these huge fishes. Separately, a large whale was seen in mid-July off Barranco, a rarity since whales generally are too big to come inside the reef. Naturalists were not able to view the whale closely enough to identify the species.

CAUSEWAY ACROSS PLACENCIA LAGOON PROPOSED A causeway across the Placencia Lagoon connecting Independence village and the Placencia peninsula has been proposed by Betty Zabaneh, president of the Belize Senate. Some peninsula residents are concerned about the environmental impact of a causeway.

TOURIST BOARD CLEANS UP, POINTS WAY A reinvigorated Belize Tourism Board led by Tourism Minister Mark Espat and Director Valerie Woods is helping clean up the roadways of Belize and putting up signs to keep visitors from getting lost. In late April, the BTB, Ministry of Tourism and Belize Waste Control Limited removed 47 old, rusty vehicles from the sides of the Northern Highway, and 62 from the Western Highway. Separately, the BTB is erecting road signs to direct tourists traveling by rental car to key destinations such as the Belize Zoo. Eight signs are being placed where the Northern and Western highways enter Belize City. Another sign will go up at the junction of the Northern Highway and the road to the international airport.

BELIZE TOURISM UP IN 1998, SETS RECORD IN MARCH 1999 International tourist arrivals through the Philip Goldson International Airport rose 9% in 1998, to almost 95,000, according to the Belize Tourist Board. About 70% of the tourists were from the United States. An additional 6,000 visitors came through the airport on business purposes. Statistics for arrivals by sea and land are incomplete, but figures from the Santa Elena border crossing at Chetumal show a comparable 8.5% increase over 1997-2001. Following two down months in January and February 1999, March 1999 was a record month for international tourism to Belize. Tourist arrivals at the international airport totaled 12,130 in March, the first time the number has exceeded 12,000 in a single month. Visitor arrivals were up more than 5% from the year-earlier period. The BTB says its new US$1 million North American ad campaign, featuring large-space ads in consumer publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Islands and Audubon, along with full-page ads in travel agency magazines, contributed to the increase in arrivals. The ads began running in February. Observers, however, note that it usually takes a longer period for the impact of magazine ads to be reflected in tourist arrivals, since most trips are planned months in advance. The BTB says it is fielding some 100 calls a day in its Belize City office inquiring about Belize, and that its Web site is getting about 3,000 visitors a week. The Tourist Board has shut down its New York office. Calls to its 800 number and mail sent to New York are now routed to the Belize City office. Although March was a record month for tourism, Belize remains relatively untouristed and undiscovered by mass tourism. By contrast, Costa Rica averages about 75,000 international arrivals a month, the island of Cozumel averages more than 75,000, and the resort island of Cancun gets more than 200,000 tourists in the average month. The BTB's new tourism logo and slogan, "Mother Nature's Best-Kept Secret," is designed to convey the message that Belize offers a variety of natural attractions both on land and in the Caribbean.

TACA SUSPENDS NON-STOP MIAMI-BELIZE SERVICE Hard-pressed by rivals American and Continental, TACA dropped its daily Miami-Belize non-stop service as of April 19. Service continues through San Pedro Sula. The Miami non-stop flight may be reinstated later, TACA management said. The Belize government is trying to woo other carriers to replace the non-stop Miami service. TACA also discontinued its non-stop service to Belize from New Orleans. TACA's daily non-stop service from Houston continues. (Editor's Note: TACA resumed non-stop service from Miami to Belize in June.)

"PENSIONADOS" TO GET TAX BREAK ON CARS AND HOUSEHOLD GOODS Patterned on a popular Costa Rica program, now discontinued, the Belize government has proposed new laws allowing the tax-free import of a vehicle and household goods and personal effects for "Qualified Retired Persons" from the U.S., the U.K. and Northern Ireland who reside in Belize. Canada reportedly may be added to the final version of the law. A "pensionado" would have to show a guaranteed monthly income, from a pension or annuity, of at least US$1,000, or deposit at least US$12,000 annually in a Belize bank. Under the program, retirees could also import an additional vehicle tax-free every five years. Retirees cannot work in Belize without government approval, but they can operate businesses outside Belize and any income from outside Belize would not be taxed in Belize. The Retired Persons Incentive Act was introduced in January. It is expected a final version of the law will go into effect in May. Applications for admission under this program will be made to the Ministry of Tourism, which will draw up further regulations for the retiree program.

IMMIGRATION TIGHTENED, FEES INCREASED FOR RESIDENCY, WORK PERMITS In an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigration into Belize, the PUP government has enacted legislation which requires businesses that hire illegal immigrants to pay the costs of repatriating illegal workers in addition to paying existing heavy fines. Public carriers of illegal immigrants will face fines of up to US$2,500 per immigrant and will also be ordered to pay repatriation costs. New regulations which went into effect February 5, 1999, also increase the cost of residency and work permits for non-citizens. Under the new rules, U.S. and most European citizens applying for permanent residency will pay a US$625 non-refundable fee, while Commonwealth citizens will pay US$500. Fees for other nationals range from US$125 to $1,500. Work permit fees for professional and technical workers increased to US$750 per year and general workers to US$100 per year. Work permits will not be issued for waitresses, vendors, domestics and farm hands "save in exceptional circumstances." Visas/tourist cards for those not on permanent residency status have increased to US$12.50 per month for up to six months, then US$25 per month after six months.

VAT TAX REPLACED BY SALES TAX The highly unpopular 15% Value Added Tax was replaced April 1, two years after its introduction, by an 8% national sales tax. While small businesses and some classes of goods were exempt from the VAT, the new sales tax applies to nearly all sales transactions in Belize. Hotel accommodations, already subject to a 7% hotel tax, are exempted. The tax on alcoholic beverages is 10%.

CRIME NEWS: Crime continues to dominate the news in Belize. While most Belizeans and visitors to Belize say they feel safe, especially outside Belize City, the crime rate in Belize's largest city and throughout the country continues to soar, with the police seemingly unable to do much to stop it. A new curfew for those 16 years and under may help reduce street crime in Belize City. Even keeping those caught in jail seems a problem for Belize authorities, as break-outs continue to occur with regularity at the over-stuffed Hattieville prison.

* U.S. EXPAT MURDERED A 62-year-old American citizen, Fredrick Hopkins, resident in Belize City for over a year, had been found dead near Bermudian Landing. He had been missing since April 1. His vehicle, abandoned and stripped, was found earlier. Hopkins died from severe head injuries. The U.S. Army veteran, whose last residence in the U.S. is not known, had worked in Belize delivering building supplies. A former co-worker, who reportedly told friends he was sorry for what he did to Hopkins, has been picked up by police.

* POPULACE HORRIFIED BY CHILD MURDERS Belizeans have reacted with horror to news of the murder, torture and sexual abuse of two young girls in Belize City. In October, a 12-year-old girl, Sherilee Nicholas, was found dead, and then in March, the body of Jackie Fern Malic, also 12 years old, a student at St. Ignasius School, was found with stab wounds to her buttocks, vagina and legs, and with part of her left arm chopped off. Prime Minister Said Musa said the killings reflect the same kind of madness of Jack the Ripper in London in the last century. The investigation, which is being assisted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, continues.

* THREE CHINESE KILLED IN BELIZE CITY Chinese businesses continue to be victimized by Belize City hoodlums. At least three Chinese business owners have been killed in recent weeks. The latest victim, Li Ron Chong, a popular grocer on Jasmine Street in the tough Martin de Porres neighborhood, was killed in a robbery in late March, while his 7-year-old son looked on. His wife was struck across the head with a butt of a gun by one of three masked and black-clothed men. The Chinese community has charged that Belize City police have been ineffective in preventing crime against Chinese-owned stores. They point to a series of robberies, burglaries, attacks and murders, most allegedly by Creole men, going back several years. Police have arrested several Belize City men in connection with this and other crimes against Chinese businesses.

* MENNONITE MAN KIDNAPPED A Mennonite businessman, Meno Penner, was kidnapped and reportedly is being held for ransom. Details are sketchy.

BELIZE FULLY CERTIFIED BY U.S. IN DRUG WAR The United States has determined that the Belize deserves full certification for its efforts in counternarcotics. U.S. Ambassador to Belize Carolyn Curiel, a former Clinton speech writer, stated, "I am delighted that the President has recognized the efforts of Belize in working with the United States to curb the flow of illegal drugs. This certification is the result of the Belizean Government's commitment in ensuring that this country is no haven for drug smugglers and I anticipate that our joint efforts will continue and grow in strength."

HARD-CURRENCY SHORTAGE HITS BELIZE BUSINESSES In late winter, some Belize businesses reportedly were unable to pay their bills due to a shortage of U.S. dollars. The businesses have been unable to convert Belize dollars to U.S. dollars to remit payment outside Belize. Hard currency shortages have occurred occasionally in the past, but such shortages appear to be happening more frequently, boosting the gray-market exchange rate at the Belize border to 2.15 Belize dollars, per U.S. dollar, or more, from the peg of 2 to 1, and sparking renewed rumors of a coming devaluation of the Belize dollar.

COROZAL FREE-TRADE ZONE TAKING OFF Mexicans looking for bargains have fueled a boom at the Corozal Free Zone just south of the Santa Elena border station. The zone now has 50 operational businesses, and officials with the zone claim that by the end of 1999 some 200 businesses may be open. It employs more than 300 Belizeans. Mexicans from Chetumal are flocking to the zone where they can buy gasoline, alcohol, cosmetics and clothing at duty-free prices. Businesses in the zone racked up sales of US$47 million in 1998. The zone is currently off-limits to Belizeans, although Belizeans returning from Mexico can fill up on gas at savings of almost two-thirds from the going Belize price of more than US$2.50 a gallon.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS OPPOSE DAM Sharon Matola, head of the Belize Zoo, and other environmentalists have come out against the construction of the Chalillo hydro electric generating plant on the upper Macal River. Matola says the development of the 2,700-acre site would be "an environmental crime of the highest degree" and extremely detrimental for many endangered species, including a sub-species of the Scarlet Macaw, Baird's tapir, Morelet's crocodiles and the jaguar.

NEW ECO GUIDE TO BELIZE PUBLISHED The Ecotraveller's Wildlife Guide, Belize and Northern Guatemala, by Les Beletsky, is the latest entry in the Belize guidebook sweepstakes. This new guide, published in London by Natural World Academic Press and endorsed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, focuses on the birds, reptiles, mammals and marine life of the region. It includes dozens of color plates of Belize wildlife. List price for the 487-page book is US$27.95.

BELIZE HOTEL CHANGES New hotels are open or planned in several areas of Belize. In the Hopkins/Sittee Point area, Beaches and Dreams and Tipple Tree Beya Inn have opened recently. In Gales Point, White Ridge Inn, a four-room rental house, has opened (but it is closed in the off-season from April through November ) and plans by White Ridge Farms for a 35-room upscale resort, with a golf course (if you can believe it) have been announced for "sometime" in the future. In San Pedro, The Tides has opened at the north end of town. In Crooked Tree, the Crooked Tree Resort has closed, and in Bermudian Landing Jungle Drift Lodge has changed hands. New properties in Placencia include Miller's Landing. Also on the Placencia peninsula, the Hotel Seine Bight has new owners, its English owners being replaced by Americans. The forced sale and its confused aftermath generated numerous complaints from guests who charged that they were moved from the hotel to other accommodations or didn't receive the meals or other services they expected. The hotel has been renamed the Bahai Laguna. The Inn at Robert's Grove is expanding again, with six new rooms to be open by October. Tamandua Jungle Experience near Belmopan has closed and is up for sale.

CARACOL VISITOR CENTER OPEN A 1,500-square foot visitors center with displays depicting the history of Caracol, is now open for visitors to the Classic period Maya site, which in its prime in 700 A.D. had a population of 150,000 with more than 30,000 structures. The US$5 admission to Caracol includes entry to the visitors center. Visitors centers are also open at Cahal Pech, Altun Ha and Xunantunich. Lamanai has a small museum.

BELIZE WEB SITE CONSOLIDATION Tony Rath, operator of the Belize by Naturalight (Belize.net) Web site, has purchased the You Better Belize It Web site from Ulrich Communications in Miami for an undisclosed sum. The site, which had received some 125,000 total visitors, was put out for bids to several potential buyers. Rath says he will continue to operate Belizeit.com as an independent site, with improvements and enhancements.

NEW NEWSPAPER IN DANGRIGA Southern Exposure, a weekly newspaper, has began publishing in Dangriga. Editor and publisher is Lydia Chuc, formerly with the San Pedro Sun.

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