News from 1997

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.


TRAFFIC DEATHS DOWN IN BELIZE In 1997, 19 persons were killed and 299 seriously injured in traffic accidents in Belize, compared with 34 deaths and 384 persons seriously injured the year before, according to the Traffic Department. The improvement was attributed to increased police surveillance and better traffic flow, mainly in Belize City. Drunk driving is the leading cause of traffic accidents in Belize.

GANG, DRUG VIOLENCE CONTINUE IN BELIZE CITY A crusading anti-drug policeman, Levi Spain, 22, was killed December 15 in a mysterious hit-and-run automobile incident as he rode his bike on East Collet Canal Street in Belize City. Spain reportedly had been aggressive in moving into areas where marijuana is openly sold. During the same week, another 22-year-old, Julian Bush, an escaped fugitive and criminal "reared on the crack streets of Belize" as The Reporter newspaper described him, was shot dead during an attempted robbery of a Chinese businessman, Boalin Tang, who was wounded during a shootout with Bush. The merchant, one of a number of Chinese businesspeople who have been attacked in Belize City by street thugs in recent weeks, has been praised by members of the local Chinese community for fighting back. After being shot twice by Bush, Tang pulled his .38 revolver and blasted three shots into the Creole, who died shortly afterwards. Two alleged associates of Bush, Frank Castro and Marcel Gabourel, also escapees from Hattieville prison, reportedly have been linked to the death of a cab driver in Belize City on the same night as the death of Julian Bush in the attempted robbery. The involvement of these two also has not been ruled out in the murder of a butane gas deliveryman and the wounding of his partner in Hattieville, police say. Separately, police have arrested Melvin Young, whom they allege has tried to establish a gang empire in Belize City by uniting two big street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Young has been charged with abetment to murder, in connection with the gang slaying of Liston "Big Crips" McField in November.

U.S. LANDOWNERS TARGET OF VIOLENCE IN COSTA RICA New incidents of violence flared up in Pavones, on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, following the death of a U.S. rancher in November, apparently in a dispute with squatters. In mid-December, an American landowner was attacked and stoned by a group of about 40 campesinos as the American and his workmen attempted to dismantle a squatter camp on his land. He escaped with minor injuries.

WILL VIOLENCE IN MEXICO SPILL OVER INTO CENTRAL AMERICA? The massacre of 49 Indians, including women and children, in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas has renewed fears that continuing violence in Mexico could spill over into Guatemala and other parts of Central America. More than 300 have died so far in violence in Chiapas.

DELTA SETS LATIN EXPANSION WITH SERVICE TO FOUR CENTRAL AMERICAN COUNTRIES -- IS BELIZE NEXT? Delta Air Lines in December announced an ambitious plan to increase service to Central and South America, with Atlanta as the hub. The carrier said it will begin nonstop service in April between Atlanta and Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama. It is now seeking government okays to fly to Belize and six South American countries. It may add service to other Latin cities over the next several years. Delta has been slow to penetrate Central and South America, focusing instead on domestic service and on Europe, although it long has served Mexico and recently began flying to Brazil. American Airlines, Continental and United are the major U.S. carriers in Latin America.

BELIZE AIR MERGER COMPLETED Maya Air, established in 1962, and Island Air, started in 1989, in December completed their previously announced merger. They're operating as Maya Island Air, with 11 airplanes serving all destinations in Belize plus service to Flores (Tikal), Guatemala.

NEW GALLON JUG PRODUCT LINE LAUNCHED Barry Bowen's forces have launched a new Gallon Jug Estate line of Belize products, named after the Bowen farm in Orange Walk District. Gallon Jug Coffee sports a new package, as do the mango jellies and jams. A new hot sauce, Lissette's Secret Sauce, is said to be selling well.

HERTZ BACK IN BELIZE Hertz is in Belize again, after an absence of about three years, in an association with Safari Limited Car Rental, operated by Betty Jean Hunt. Safari/Hertz is located at the new Shell station near the international airport. It picks up customers in a courtesy van. Safari/Hertz rents Isuzu Troopers and says it will add a few Toyota 7-seat Landcruiser Prados around Easter.

COSTA RICA HAS 30,000 PROSTITUTES Between 15,000 and 30,000 Ticas work as prostitutes, according to official estimates.

TRAVEL CHANNEL FILMS IN SAN PEDRO Exotic Islands, which airs on the Travel Channel on cable TV, has filmed a show exclusively featuring Ambergris Caye. Model Hunter Reno hosts the program. The film crew stayed at the SunBreeze and shot film at Tarzan's disco. It missed the famed chicken drop at the Pier Lounge due to an arrival delay. The segment is scheduled to air in February 1998.

BAY ISLAND LAND JUMPS IN PRICE Beachfront land on Roatan, Honduras, has increased by as much as 30% or more during 1997-2001, according to International Living newsletter and other sources.

NEW PRIVATE HOSPITAL PLANNED FOR BELIZE CITY A small 40-room private hospital is being planned by a group of Belize doctors headed by Dr. victor Lizarraga and Dr. Anastacio Cob. Completion date of the hospital has not been announced. A new diagnostic and imaging center operated by the same group is set to open in January on Goldson Avenue.

THREE DIE IN BARRANCO BOAT ACCIDENT Three people including a community college student and a baby died in an October 11 accident en route to the predominantly Garifuna village of Barranco in Toledo District. The boat, reportedly captained by Alfredo Rash, was carrying a full load of 15 people and capsized in rough water. The remaining passengers were rescued by a passing skiff operated by Bobby Polanco. Garifuna leaders say that if the road to Barranco were made an all-weather one and if a bridge were built over the Moho River, it would not be necessary to travel by boat to and from Barranco in the rainy season, thus avoiding this kind of tragedy.

CHRISTMAS HOTEL BOOKINGS STRONG Despite a punk tourism season for most of 1997-2001, Christmas bookings appear strong on Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker, and in Placencia, according to reports from would-be travelers and hotel operators. Tourists report that only the most-expensive or least-desirable hotels still have space available. Seats on airplanes to Belize around Christmas and New Years are already almost fully booked.

ACCUSED KILLER WALKS OUT OF PRISON, THEN ALLEGEDLY KILLS AGAIN IN CRIME RAMPAGE After serving three months time in prison for burglary, Winsworth Mangar, 22, in May walked out of jail a free man. The only problem was, Belize police forgot to tell prison authorities he should have remained in custody to face charges he murdered Dr. Byron Foster last year at the British-born anthropologist's Cayo farm. Once free, Mangar allegedly went on a rampage of crime around San Ignacio and Belmopan, including the killing October 13 of Joseph Bulwer, a retired government official who was once acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the former official's farm near Camalote village. Police are still hunting for Mangar and two other men. News media in Belize have called Mangar "Belize's Most Wanted Man."

DOLPHIN SWIMARAMA GIVEN TENTATIVE OKAY The controversial swim-with-dolphins theme park at Cangrejo Caye near Ambergris Caye has been given tentative approval by the Belize Ministry of Tourism and the Environment, pending an environmental impact study. The lease on Cangrejo has been issued, a permit to dredge has been granted, and the development concession to Grupo Ritco de Eco-Dessarrollo S.A. de C.V of Cancun has been conceptually approved, according to reports. The Belize Audubon Society and other environmental groups have opposed the theme park, and a petition opposing the attraction also has been signed by more than 700 San Pedranos. A two-page ad promoting the dolphin swimarama ran in the new 1998 edition of Destination Belize, the magazine sponsored by the Belize Tourism Industry Association. Susan Fuller, BTIA president, said that the Miami publisher of the magazine approved the ad and that it was not endorsed by BTIA.

OFFSHORE MED SCHOOL OPENS St. Matthews University School of Medicine officially opened September 6 on Ambergris Caye at ceremonies attended by local and national dignitaries and by school officials from Washington State. The initial class has 23 students, with 50 more expected in January, and an additional group coming in May, according to the university. School officials claim the med school may eventually enroll 450 students in its two-year program and that a total of US$15 million could be invested in the medical school. St. Matthews is now housed in temporary facilities at Banyan Bay, Mar de Tumbo, but plans are for a permanent campus nearby. St. Matthews is one of a growing breed of controversial for-profit, offshore medical schools ~ fueled by U.S. government student loans ~ that attract mostly American students who want to become doctors but who can't get into U.S. medical schools. Most of the offshore schools are in the Caribbean or Mexico, due to the proximity of these locations to the U.S. The quality of these schools varies. Some, such as St. George's University in Grenada and Ross University in Dominica, have a good record of getting their students into clinical internships in the U.S. and have a respectable rate of pass on U.S. medical boards. Others appear less qualified.

DENGUE FEVER STRIKES BELIZE Belize City, Dangriga, and Northern Belize are among the areas with incidents of dengue fever, but most other parts of Belize, including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, have had at least a few cases, according to reports from Belize. The total number of cases in Belize is unknown. The government says there have been only a handful, but the number is more likely at least in the hundreds. Dengue fever, a viral disease transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and generally causing a flu-like illness lasting a few days to several weeks, is on the rise in much of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and in Mexico. Costa Rica has reported more than 10,000 cases this year, up by more than 100% from last year, and the Mexican Yucatan has had more than a thousand cases in 1997-2001. The Aedes mosquitoes are most active during the day and, unlike the type of mosquitoes that transmit malaria, are more common in urban areas instead of rural or bush areas. They are often found indoors. Peak feeding by Aedes usually occurs in the early morning and late afternoon, and on overcast days. The mosquitoes are most common toward the end of the rainy season. People who have dengue fever are NOT infectious (except to mosquitoes), and person-to-person transmission does not occur. There is no vaccination to prevent the disease. The treatment is complete bed rest and taking Tylenol-type medicine (not aspirin as it can promote bleeding with dengue). The more-serious types of dengue have not been reported in Belize.

BELIZE CITY TOURIST CENTER STUDIED Hibernia Bank and the Lugano Group, both based in New Orleans, are conducting a feasibility study for a cruise ship tourist center at Fort Point in Belize City, formerly the old Customs complex on the waterfront. Observers say a key point of the study will have to be how to overcome visitor perception that Belize City is one of the crime capitals of the Western Hemisphere.

CONTINENTAL ADDS EXTRA FLIGHT TO BELIZE Beginning December 18, Continental Airlines will add a second daily flight to Belize City from Houston. American and TACA also have international flights to Belize.

BELIZE TOURISM STAYS FLAT Visitor arrivals by air in Belize for the first six months of 1997-2001 totaled 48,417, down about 1.4% from 49,100 for the same period in 1996, and off about 7% from 1995. However, May and June saw solid increases from the previous year, a possible indication that the weakness is tourism in Belize has about run its course. Informal reports from hotel operators suggest that the summer of 1997-2001 is at least somewhat better for many than was what many called the "disaster" of the summer of 1996. Any improvement would be welcomed by hotel operators. Overall, hotel occupancy in Belize stands at only about 31% for the first half of 1997-2001, less than one-half that of average levels in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe. Belize's occupancy rate would bankrupt hotel operators in most other parts of the world. Belize District and Ambergris Caye have the highest hotel occupancies, at close to 40%. Toledo District has the lowest rate, at about 10%. Belize Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel says that, with proper development and promotion, Belize could host 500,000 international visitors a year, about five times the present level. Tourism officials blame Belize's weak tourism environment on lack of competitive air fares to the country from the U.S. and Canada, lack of direct air service from Europe, inadequate international promotion and public relations, higher prices in Belize than in neighboring Mexico and Honduras, and the perception that there is a serious crime problem in Belize, especially in Belize City.

TWO NEW BUTTERFLY CENTERS FOR CAYO Chaa Creek and its Blue Morpho Butterfly breeding center is getting new competition from not one but two new butterfly ranches in Cayo. Green Hills Butterfly Ranch and Botanical Collection (tel. 501-9-23310, fax 8-23361, e-mail, operated by veteran butterfly rancher Jan Meerman, who was formerly associated with Shipstern Nature Reserve in Sarteneja, and dragonfly and damselfly expert Tineke Boomsma, is open at Mile 8 of the Mountain Pine Ridge road. It is open to visitors daily Christmas through Easter, by appointment the rest of the year. Entrance fee is US$2.50 per person with a minimum of two people. Tropical Wings Nature Center is set to open in January 1998, between Miles 71 and 72 of the Western Highway about 6 miles west of San Ignacio. The project is a joint Belizean-U.S. effort. Florentin Penados of San Jose Succotz is president and general manager; John Yaeger is a U.S. biologist working on the plant and butterfly developments; and his wife, Judy Yaeger, a teacher in the U.S., is in charge of finances and marketing. Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch near Punta Gorda is another Belize butterfly operation. Associated with Tropical Wings is The Trek Stop (tel. 501-9-32265, e-mail, a budget-priced lodge now open near San Ignacio with cabins for US$10 and camping for US$3.50. Tent rentals are available for an additional US$2.50.

CAPTAIN MORGAN'S, ROCKS, AND BARRIER REEF HOTEL FOR SALE Three more Ambergris hotels reportedly are on the market: Captain Morgan's Retreat, the nine-acre, 21-cabana resort on North Ambergris, is offered for a whopping US$3.2 million. Separately, Magnum Belize, the operator, announced Hugh and Teresa Parkey, who own Four Fort Street Guesthouse in Belize City, are now managing the resort. One of San Pedro's oldest structures, the Barrier Reef Hotel in the center of San Pedro Town, with 12 rooms, pool, and restaurant, is for sale for US$695,000. Rock's Inn is also on the market, for US$1.5 million.

BLACKBIRD CAYE BACK ON BLOCK Blackbird Caye Resort, sold by Houston's Al Dugan last fall, reportedly is up for sale again. The owner is said to be willing to sell Blackbird in a package with Manta Reef Resort on Glover's Reef, or separately.

MARUBA FOR SALE Maruba Spa and its 1,000 acres on the Old Northern Highway near Altun Ha is on the market for a whopping US$5 million. Listing agency is Sunrise Realty in San Pedro.

TWO NORTHERN RESORTS CLOSE, A THIRD TO REOPEN Pretty See Ranch, the lodge and restaurant on the Old Northern Highway near Altun Ha which has received rave reviews from BELIZE FIRST readers and other Belize travelers, has closed. An internal situation between the Belize operator, Pamela Kimberly, and her Oregon-based partner, Finis Carter, allegedly contributed to the closure. Carter may reopen the lodge under another name, according to sources. Separately, Casablanca by the Sea at Consejo in Corozal District, owned by a U.S. physician, has at least temporarily discontinued offering lodging, although the restaurant remains open. It may reopen as a B&B. The Don Quixote hotel and restaurant in Consejo Shores near Corozal Town, closed for several years, is set to reopen late this year.

NEW FOR AMBERGRIS CAYE: Here are some of the new developments on Ambergris Caye:

* TROPICA BEACH RESORT A new beach hotel, Tropica has opened next to Villas at Banyan Bay at Mar de Tumbo south of San Pedro. The casual small resort has a 34-seat restaurant and an open-air bar.

* CAYE VILLAS Like Ambergris but don't want a condo? Caye Villas is one option. Developed by Bob and Diane Campbell, Caye Villas at Mata Grande is a small development (construction of five houses has been approved) which offers freestanding 2,000-square foot houses with some of the advantages of condos, such as a shared pool and common grounds maintenance. Three villas have been built. Although houses can be made available for nightly, weekly or monthly rentals by owners, or through the Campbells, there is no pressure on the owner to do so, says Diane Campbell, as has happened in some cases with in the "condotels" in San Pedro. An associated 10-room dive hotel, The Caye Resort, is next door.

* ESSENE WAY OPEN TO PUBLIC The Essene Way, formerly The Belizean resort on North Ambergris and renovated to the tune of some US$7 million to offer free vacations for terminally ill adults, is now open. "Several families in crisis have been brought down to the resort," says developer and food supplement entrepreneur Tom Ciola of Orlando, but "until we have enough funds to be 100% humanitarian, we are also booking rooms to the general public on an availability status." Rates this winter are US$125 a night plus tax. A restaurant also is open to the public.

* SAN PEDRO SUPERMARKET With the opening of San Pedro Supermarket at the San Juan Statue Crossroads, Rock's has another competitor in San Pedro. Despite the competition, grocery prices remain high on the island. A 6 oz. tin of tuna goes for US$1.50 at the new grocery, and an 8 oz. bag of potato chips, on sale, is over US$2, while a 750 ml bottle of imported Tanqeray gin breaks the bank at about US$23.50.

PLANTATION AT PLACENCIA OFFERS 50 BEACH LOTS The Plantation at Placencia, a planned community of several hundred acres about 4 miles north of Seine Bight Village, is marketing 50 seafront lots in phase one. Prices begin at US$45,000 for a lot with 75-foot frontage on the water, or about US$600 a front foot. Construction is set to begin this fall on a model home designed in what the developer, Belize Land and Development of Arlington, Washington, calls the "British Honduran architectural style of times past."

MONKEY RIVER GETS NEW LODGES Two small lodges are opening at Monkey River. Bob's Paradise is a three-cabana lodge accessible only by water, and the Monkey House is a small B&B.

INTERNATIONAL ARRIVALS TO BELIZE FLAT Visitor arrivals by air in Belize for the first six months of 1997-2001 totaled 48,417, down about 1.4% from 49,100 for the same period in 1996, and off about 7% from 1995. However, May and June saw solid increases from the previous year, a possible indication that the weakness is tourism in Belize has about run its course. Informal reports from hotel operators suggest that the summer of 1997-2001 is at least somewhat better for many than was what many called the "disaster" of the summer of 1996. Overall, hotel occupancy in Belize stands at 31.4% for the first half of 1997-2001, less than one-half that of average levels in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe. Belize's occupancy rate would bankrupt hotel operators in most other parts of the world. Belize District and Ambergris Caye have the highest hotel occupancies, at close to 40%. Toledo District has the lowest rate, at about 10%. Belize Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel says that, with proper development and promotion, Belize could host 500,000 international visitors a year, about five times the present level.

POPULATION EXPLOSION IN PETEN Thousands of Mayans from the Highlands of Guatemala are arriving in the Petén, the jungle area of Guatemala near Belize, every month, seeking land. Hundreds of thousands of uprooted peasants have been on the move as a result of Guatemala's three-decade-long civil war, which ended late in 1996. The Petén, which adjoins Belize's western border, has seen its population increase more than 20-fold in the last 30 years, to 360,000, and the current annual growth rate is as much as 15%. The region's population may hit half a million within the next three years, a level more than twice as high as the entire population of Belize. Squatters attempt to replicate Highland Guatemala's slash-and-burn style of agriculture in the low jungle, resulting in rapid erosion and even desertification of the poor soil of the Petén. Some experts think the 3.9 million acres of protected jungle that make up the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including the world-famous Tikal ruins, are threatened.

LOBSTER RANCHING IDEA ABORTED Opposition by Belize fishing coops, tourism operators, and environmental groups at least temporarily shelved plans by the Belize government to allow a Taiwan group to farm lobsters at a caye off Sittee Point. The marine farming idea was opposed in part because of concerns that the impact on barrier reef ecology was not clear and that such a program might harm Belizean fishing interests.

NIM LI PUNIT STELLAE VANDALIZED In August, culprits apparently used a machete to deface four stellae at Nim Li Punit near Punta Gorda. No one has yet been arrested for the crime.

U.S. JOURNO BIGWIG VISITS BELIZE David Lawrence Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald, in August toured Belize at the invitation of George Bruno, U.S. Ambassador to Belize. He stayed at Blancaneaux and met with UDP Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel and PUP challenger Said Musa (who, Lawrence reported, said of the upcoming 1998 election, "It's the economy, stupid.") Among Lawrence's earthshaking observations: Belize has only three stop lights and seven elevators.

SWIM-WITH-DOLPHINS PARK PROPOSED FOR AMBERGRIS A smaller version of a Cancun theme park has been proposed for the Cayo Cangrejo area of Ambergris Caye by Grupo Ritco de Eco-Dessarrollo S.A. de C.V of Cancun. The proposal is under consideration by the Belize Ministry of Tourism and the Environment. Such swim-with-dolphins businesses, while popular with tourists in Mexico, Honduras, Florida, and elsewhere, have been criticized by animal rights and environmental groups.

30 BELIZE COPS UNDER INVESTIGATION FOR DRUG DEALING About 30 police officers are being investigated for drug trafficking activities, according to Minister of National Security Dean Barrow.

TOURISM IN BELIZE STILL FALTERING Despite spotty improvements, tourism remains weak in much of Belize. For example, the 1996-97 season was a very slow one for Mountain Equestrian Trails in Cayo Its owners, Jim and Marguerite Bevis, have temporarily returned to Texas. Business recently has been "dreadful," says Marguerite, citing high costs, poor promotion by tourism authorities, and other problems. The lodge remains open under new resident managers, Bob and Camille Armantrout, who have leased the property for a year.

TERREMOTO FELT IN BELIZE An earthquake measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale was felt in much of Belize on July 6. The quake, which caused no serious damage, was centered about 60 miles off Punta Gorda in the Caribbean Sea.

PENNY-STOCK COMPANY CLAIMS IT WILL DEVELOP SALT ESTATES SITE Wall Street Financial Corp., a tiny U.S. Over-the-Counter company with stock trading recently at about 33 cents a share, claims it will "develop the first-ever mixed-use destination resort in the country of Belize" at Mayan Salt Creek Estate, a 31,423 acre site near Ladyville north of Belize City. According to a widely circulated company press release, the resort will include a " world-class ecological resort" with a "golf course and five-star deluxe low-rise hotel, as well as both executive and affordable housing areas." Many observers are skeptical, however, noting that planned development of the Salt Creek Estate is something that is announced every few years but has yet to come to fruition. Others point out that published financials show a peculiar situation: Despite grandiose plans, Wall Street Financial had revenues in its most recent reported quarter of only US$358,576, and its main claimed "net asset" is whatever interest it may have in the Salt Creek Lake lands in Belize, which are valued by the OTC company at US$134.5 million, or about 35% of the total annual GDP of Belize.

FIVE NEW MAYAN CITIES DISCOVERED IN ORANGE WALK Five new major Maya cities and more than 50 other sites have been discovered in the jungles of Rio Bravo over the past several years by archeologists from the University of Texas. The archeological team is headed by Dr. Fred Valdez.

SEA & AIR FESTIVAL REVS UP San Pedro's annual Sea & Air Festival will be held August 19-24.

DISCOUNTED AIR FARES FINALLY AVAILABLE American Airlines has been offering fares to Belize and Honduras from Miami and elsewhere for around US$200 round-trip through AA's "NetsAAver" fares, last-minute specials offered through the Internet. Those interested can check AA's Web site at or call a travel agent.

AMERICAN TOURIST DROWNS WHILE SNORKELING A U.S. tourist, Floyd Henry Crews, died in July while snorkeling off Ambergris Caye. He was one of a group of tourists aboard the snorkel boat "Royal Blue." Reportedly Crews was separated from his wife, other snorkelers, and the boat during a thunderstorm. Investigations are underway.

'97 LOBSTER SEASON LOOKS GOOD Early reports of catches in the 1997-2001 lobster season, which began June 15, are very good. One co-op reported it caught as many pounds of lobster in the first week of the season as it did in all of the 1996 season.

TROPIC AIR PILOT KILLED IN BELIZE CITY CRASH A Tropic Air cargo flight from the international airport to the Belize City municipal airport crashed into the Belama Extension Phase 2 housing development just off the Northern Highway near the Best Western Biltmore Hotel early in the morning on July 23. Reportedly the pilot tried to set the plane down on a road, but it caught some power lines and hit two houses. The pilot was killed, but there were no other fatalities or serious injuries. Ironically, the crash occurred very near the pilot's home.

BELIZE'S RICHEST MAN GETS RICHER Michael Ashcroft, British by birth, Belizean by naturalization, and business tycoon by inclination, just got a lot richer. Say, US$275 million richer. That's the approximate value of his options in Tyco International Ltd., Tyco shares, and cash severance from the sale of ADT Ltd., a security company headed by Ashcroft, which is being taken over by Tyco, a manufacturer of security alarm systems. Ashcroft, though out of the job of ADT CEO he's held for many years, is more than a quarter of a billion dollars wealthier, thanks to savvy and timely changes to his stock option plan with ADT. Ashcroft, 51, is worth an additional US$100 million by virtue of an about two-thirds ownership of BHI Corp. which in turn owns Belize Bank, the Radisson Fort George Hotel, and part of the Belize electric and telephone monopolies. Ashcroft's total net worth is now more than the annual Gross Domestic Product of Belize.

BIG FIRE SWEEPS THROUGH OLD BUILDINGS IN BELIZE CITY In late June, a pre-dawn fire which began in an old building on King Street raged through parts of Prince and Albert streets. Many buildings, mostly wooden structures set close together, were destroyed. At least five businesses and a number of homes and apartments burned. The damage estimates are in the millions. No deaths were reported.

HOTEL OCCUPANCY UP, TOURIST ARRIVALS DOWN IN FIRST QUARTER Tourism results from the Belize Tourist Board for the first quarter of 1996, high season for tourism in Belize, were mixed. Average hotel occupancy rates for the quarter were up from 1996, to 37.5% compared with 36.2% last year, but tourist arrivals at the international airport were down by almost 5%, to 28,573. Apparently, more visitors are arriving by land and sea. Hotel revenues were also down, likely reflecting discounting or a move by visitors to less expensive lodging. Hotel occupancy rates in the first quarter were highest on Ambergris Caye (47.7%), Placencia (44.7%), and Belize District (41.7%). Caye Caulker, Stann Creek District, and Placencia saw the greatest increases in occupancy.

MAYHEM ON ROADS OF BELIZE While the entire country of Belize has fewer cars on the road and fewer miles of highway than many small towns in the U.S. or Canada, the number of traffic accidents in Belize is staggeringly high, and the number keeps growing. In most months, 200 or more accidents are reported. Through May of this year, there have been 24 deaths due to traffic accidents. Reckless driving and driving while under the influence of alcohol are the cause of most accidents, authorities say. Observers note that driver education is lacking in Belize, that procedures for getting drivers licenses are lax, that some roads in Belize are narrow and poorly signed, and that the police traffic department is short of staff and equipment.

MEDICAL SCHOOL ON SAN PEDRO MOVING AHEAD St. Matthews University School of Medicine's offshore medical school is closer to reality, with three temporary buildings scheduled to be completed in July at Mar de Tumbo, reports the San Pedro Sun. School officials say 150 students will be enrolled in the first class this fall. Students will wear a uniform consisting of white shirt and tan skirt or slacks. The permanent campus, with construction scheduled to begin later this year, is to be located south of San Pedro Town near Holiday Lands, according to the San Pedro Sun.

CAULKER HEADS UPMARKET WITH CONDOS AND SUITES The first condos on Caye Caulker are scheduled to open in August, according to The Caye Caulker Village Voice newspaper. The first building in Emerald Pointe Condominiums' three-building development at the Split will have 10 condo units and two penthouses, with prices from about US$95,000 to $250,000. The controversial project likely will be run as a condotel, similar to those on Ambergris Caye. Separately, Iguana Reef Inn is under construction, with suites hotel units in the US$75 to $100 a night range expected to open late this year. More in the Corker tradition, the 1788 Motel, near the Split, owned and operated by George Besta and his partner Abe Meehl, both U.S. expatriates now resident on Caye Caulker, has opened. The motel has seven rooms with private bath around a courtyard with rates of around US$25 a night. A 21-room dive resort owned by Shaun Keating also has recently broke ground on Caulker. It is unclear whether the island can support all the new development. Occupancy rates even in the high season on Caulker rarely exceed 33%, according to Belize Tourist Board figures.

HEAVY RAINS HELP BREAK DROUGHT IN WESTERN BELIZE Torrential rains in late June have helped break the dry-season drought in parts of Western Belize. Low river levels have meant electrical brown- and black-outs as power generation at the Mollejon hydroelectric plant has been reduced. Forest fires have plagued the Mountain Pine Ridge.

BATTY'S DEBUTS LUXURY BUS Batty Brothers has introduced a new articulated, 57-seat luxury bus, the Crown Ikar, to its fleet of about 70 buses in Belize. The bus is air conditioned and has bucket seats for passengers. A second of these buses is on order from the European manufacturer. The flexible center portion allows the bus to maneuver narrow Belize City streets. The luxury liners probably will be used on the Belize City-Chetumal Northern Highway route. Prices will be slightly higher than for regular buses.

TROPIC AIR LETS CUSTOMERS WRITE ADS Tropic Air, based in San Pedro, has been running a contest in the San Pedro Sun newspaper which encourages customers to send in their short headline for Tropic's newspaper ads. Winners, who receive a non-designated prize, have included "Varoommm with a View" submitted by Wil Lala of Caribbean Villas and "The Ones Who Care" by Marion and Volker Jerichow of Germany. Entries can be made to the San Pedro Sun, P.O. Box 35, San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, Belize, C.A.

IMF TIGHTENS SCREWS ON BELIZE, HINTS AT UNPEGGING BELIZE DOLLAR The International Monetary Fund in early June said that it's urging "deeper fiscal consolidation" by Belize. Despite Belize's improved performance in international trade, in boosting revenue through higher taxes, and in cutting fat from the civil service, the IMF, known for its hard-nosed approach, wants Belize to do more. Belize should raise government revenues and cut spending further, the IMF said. Following its annual "economic surveillance mission" to Belize, the IMF said that continuing external support from the Monetary Fund and aid from the U.S., Britain, and other countries is only "temporary relief," not a substitute for internal fiscal reform, nor a way to redress Belize's "macroeconomic imbalances." The IMF's published report suggests that the Belize dollar's peg to the U.S. dollar depends "crucially" on strengthening the country's financial position and on local wage restraint. The IMF wants Belize to broaden its tax base, eliminate tax exemptions, and improve customs collections. The IMF's recommendations may not sound good to many Belizeans, who are already reeling from the impact of the pullout of British troops, the addition of the 15% VAT, high local interest rates of nearly 20%, a weak tourism sector, and increased competition from nearby low-cost producers such as Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras which, unlike Belize, have currencies that float against the U.S. dollar and other major currencies.

PRE-ELECTION MUD GETTING THICK In the best democratic tradition, mud is being slung thick and fast in Belize , in anticipation of next year's general election. The party in power, the UDP, is running "attack ads" against the PUP and its leader, Said Musa, in Belize newspapers, while the PUP, widely expected to win the election were one held now, charges the UDP with everything from mismanaging the Belize economy to disenfranchising voters through the voter re-registration program pushed through the legislature by the UDP in mid-June. The timing of the re-registration scheme is viewed with suspicion by many Belizeans. Also, Belize's many citizens now living outside the country fear that they will be at least temporarily disenfranchised by the re-registration process. The UDP, for its part, claims that the PUP has in recent years packed the voter lists with illegal aliens from Guatemala and Honduras, and that re-registration will help provide cleaner, more fraud-free elections in the future.

ECONOMIC INDICATORS MIXED Selected economic indicators from the International Monetary Fund show a mixed picture of the Belize economy. Inflation in Belize, reflecting the impact of the VAT imposed in April 1996, jumped to a 6.3% annual rate in 1996, about twice that of the U.S., but fell back to 4.75% in early 1997-2001. Real Gross Domestic Product grew 3% in 1996, in line with expectations. Export volume expanded 6% last year, the best performance since 1992, and imports declined by 2.9%, but this improvement was offset by weakness in tourism and the fact that the pullout of British troops reduced capital inflows. The external current account deficit increased from 1.75% of GDP in 1995 to 2.5% in 1996. Total external debt remains high, at 33.1% of GDP in 1996. The Belize dollar gained 5% in its real effective exchange rate in 1996.

BELIZE NOT PART OF "OPEN SKIES" AGREEMENT TO CUT AIR FARES At the Central America summit in May, five C.A. nations -- Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua -- plus the United States agreed to sign an ``open skies'' accord to create new air routes to the region with potentially lower fares. Belize was absent from the agreement, despite concern by tourism interests in Belize that high fares to Belize are a major reason why the number of arrivals to the country dropped in 1996, and dissatisfaction with high air travel costs by expat Belizeans wishing to visit home. The open skies agreements allow airlines to provide passenger and cargo services between any point in the participating countries as well as to third countries. It also will give airlines the right to price their services as they choose and will remove all restrictions on capacity. Henry Young, Belize minister of tourism and the environment, has told tourism groups he is working to reduce air fares to Belize.

NEW ACCORD PROTECTS REEF In early June, the governments of Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras signed an agreement to protect the barrier reef shared by the four countries. The accord is designed to protect the fragile reef, aid tourist development, and improve fishing opportunities in the region. The agreement covers the reef from the Yucat~n peninsula in Mexico to Roat~n Island in Honduras. Stretching for more than 600 miles, this barrier reef along the coast of the four countries is the second-longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The section along the Belize coast alone is fifth-longest in the world.

SHRIMP HATCHERY PLANNED FOR AMBERGRIS CAYE A company with a shrimp farm operation on the Belize mainland has plans to open a shrimp breeding and hatchery center on north Ambergris Caye. Nova Companies, Ltd. says it has a contract on 16 acres in the Basil Jones area. The company is testing the feasibility of breeding shrimp and hatching eggs on Ambergris for its Ladyville operation. At present, the company must import shrimp eggs from abroad.

BELIZE BY NATURALIGHT WINNING INTERNET WAR? Tony Rath's Internet development group appears to be winning the Internet war in Belize. While Belize Online, operated by Belizean Manolo Romero and Californians Susan and Izzy Garcia got off to a strong start, that site has added few new clients or advertisers in recent months, while Rath's group claims to be adding an average of two new sites a week. "We have a backlog now and are planning on hiring a fifth person and moving to a new office," says Tony Rath. Observers think that the Rath has the advantage in having superior graphics and better local connections. You Better Belize It and other commercial Belize sites appear to be also-rans, observers say.

COCA-COLA SMUGGLED INTO NORTHERN BELIZE Cheap Mexican Cokes are flooding into Northern Belize, in a fairly large-scale smuggling operation. In part because these soft drinks are not subject to high Belize taxes, or to import taxes, they sell for one-half or less of the cost of Coca-Cola bottled by the Bowen group in Belize. The Bowen folks have complained to the Ministry of Trade.

BELIZE MAKES FRONT PAGE OF WASHINGTON POST ... IN HIGHLY NEGATIVE STORY The Washington Post, which suddenly has shown an interest in little Belize, ran another article on Belize in early June, this one on the front page of the "World News" section, highly negative of Belize's drug enforcement efforts. The Post quotes U.S. government reports that the ability of the Belize government to combat drug trafficking is "severely undermined by deeply entrenched corruption, which reaches into the senior levels of the government .... Politics, incompetence, and corruption have accompanied undermanned and poorly equipped police investigative efforts."

SERIOUS CRIME DOWN 30%, POLICE SAY Serious crime in Belize (mainly robbery, burglary, and gun possession) dropped 30% in the first quarter of 1997-2001 compared to the same year-earlier period, according to Belize Police Commissioner Ornell Brooks. The incidence of rape increased, from seven to 10 in the period, and the murder rate was unchanged, with 10 murders occurring in both three-month periods.

SNAKES FEATURED ON NEW BELIZE STAMPS Slither on down to your nearest Belize post office for the latest colorful Belize stamps, a set of four stamps with a different beautiful Belize snake on each one: yellow-jawed tommygoff (fer de lance), bead and coral snake (coral snake), guinea hen snake (speckled racer), and green vine snake. The stamps were designed by Doreen McGuiness and printed in Barbados.

CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT A record 217 species of birds were counted in one day at Gallon Jug during the annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the Belize Audubon Society. The 1996 Belize City count, the 28th consecutive annual count for this area, totaled 181 species, with 21,501 individual birds counted. The Belmopan count found 198 species. The first Belize Christmas count was conducted by W. Ford Young in early 1970.

NEW LODGE AND BUTTERFLY CENTER TO OPEN IN CAYO The Trek Stop, a budget-priced lodge, and an associated butterfly and nature center, are set to open near San Ignacio. The accommodations are scheduled to open in early July, while the Tropical Wings Nature Center is supposed to open in January 1998. The project is a joint Belizean-U.S. effort. Florentin Penados of San Jose Succotz is president and general manager; John Yaeger is a U.S. biologist working on the plant and butterfly developments; and his wife, Judy Yaeger, a teacher in the U.S., is in charge of finances and marketing.

POOL AND SPA AT CHAN CHICH LODGE A swimming pool and spa opened in late March at Chan Chich Lodge. The new additions were designed and the construction supervised by Tom Harding, who with his wife, Josie Harding, co-manages the award-winning jungle lodge for owner Barry Bowen.

SANTINO'S AND COURTS SLUG IT OUT Courts, the large Caribbean retailer that moved into Belize about two years ago, is giving Santino's and other local retailers fits. Santino's is running ads trying to counter Courts' specials. Local observers chuckle and say, "Just wait until Wal-Mart or K-Mart finally open in Belize!"

BELIZE COOKBOOK AVAILABLE Belizeous Cuisine, a collection of Belize recipes, has been published by LABEN, the organization for Belizeans in Los Angles. It may be obtained by sending check or money order, payable to LABEN, to LABEN, P.O. Box 19001A, Los Angeles, CA 90019 The book is US$15 and shipping and handling is $2.95 for the first book, $1.25 for each additional. LABEN's other contact information is tel/fax: 213-732-0200, with a Web site at

FIRE SWEEPS 3,000 ACRES IN PINE RIDGE AND RESORTS NARROWLY ESCAPE On April 24 and 25, a massive forest fire of unknown origin raged over more than 3,000 acres of the Pine Ridge. At one point, it reportedly came close to destroying both the Five Sisters and Blancaneaux lodges, but the efforts of forestry department fire fighters, and some luck, allowed the lodges to escape damage. Guests staying at the lodges had to be evacuated. The cause of the fire is as yet unknown. However, the Cayo has experienced hot, dry conditions during April. On April 22, a record high temperature for April, 98 degrees F., was set at Central Farm, Cayo.

OFFSHORE MEDICAL SCHOOL CLAIMS PLANS TO OPEN IN SAN PEDRO. An offshore medical school has sent press releases to media saying it plans to open a school of medicine on Ambergris Caye. The press releases did not include an address or telephone number, only an e-mail address. In the release, Mary Beth Downs, who describes herself as dean of academic affairs with a Ph.D., said that "I am pleased to announce that on April 21 the Government of Belize and St. Matthews University School of Medicine signed a charter for the establishment of a medical school in San Pedro. The school will offer courses leading the M.D. degree and will be open to all qualified applicants. Once established, St. Matthews anticipates enrolling three classes of 150 students each year. St. Matthews anticipates enrolling the first class in the fall of this year." Offshore medical schools in Belize have had a brief but checkered history. One in Belize City allegedly took advance payments from students but never opened; another operated for a short time in Belize City but then relocated to another part of the Caribbean. Offshore medical schools, run for profit, have sprung up in the Caribbean to meet the demand by U.S. students who aren't able to get admitted to U.S. schools. There are schools on several islands including St. Vincent, St. Maarten, and Grenada. St. George's University, which has campuses on Grenada, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines, is considered one of the best of the Caribbean medical schools, with more than 2,000 students having been awarded the M.D. degree, a high student pass rate on the U.S. medical boards, and graduates practicing in some 40 countries.

THREE NEW TARANTULA SPECIES DISCOVERED IN BELIZE Memphis biologist Steve Reichling has discovered three new types of tarantulas in Belize, including a fingernail-size arachnid that is the smallest tarantula known to exist and a spider unique enough to receive its own genus name, Crassicrus lamanai. Crassicrus, the genus name, means ''thick-shinned'' in Greek, and lamanai is the species name, so called because because it was discovered in northern Belize near Lamanai Outpost Lodge where the biologist was staying.

RADISSON WINS INDUSTRY AWARD The Radisson Fort George is one of 15 Radisson hotels worldwide to win a top Radisson customer service award, according to General Manager Norman Pennill. Based on responses from guest comment cards, the hotel received the 1996 Advocate Award from the Radisson chain. According to Pennill, 99.6% of guests filling out the comment card said they were "willing to return" to the hotel.

NEW ELECTRIC CABLE TO BE LAID TO AMBERGRIS CAYE Belize Electricity Ltd. has announced it has awarded a US$6.3 million contract to a French company, Alcatel, to lay a 34.5kV submarine cable to Ambergris Caye. The 12 1/2 mile cable will connect to a Maskall substation which is part of the power grid carrying electricity from Mexico.

BETEX '97 EXPO LOOKING GOOD The Belize Tourism Expo 1997-2001, set for July 15-18 at the Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City, has sold out nearly all of its 74 supplier booths, and interest in the event appears even higher than for last year's successful show, according to organizers.

BELIZE SUN PROVING SUCCESS WITH VISITORS The Belize Sun, operated by the owners of the San Pedro Sun, Bruce and Victoria Collins, has quickly established itself as the most useful of local Belize tourism publications. The Sun is distributed free to visitors at hotels and other outlets in Belize. The typical 40-page, tabloid-sized issue contains travel advice and numerous articles on destinations in all parts of Belize. It is published nine times a year.

OPPOSITION PUP PARTY SWEEPS BY ELECTIONS: Hard-fought but peaceful and democratic elections for town board seats around Belize held March 11 resulted in a sweep by the opposition People's United Party (PUP). Every municipality in Belize, including San Ignacio which was a former United Democratic Party stronghold, is now controlled by PUP. PUP politicians are playing the "VAT card" -- claiming they will do away with the unpopular tax if returned to power in the 1998 general elections.

OPERATORS CAUTIOUSLY HOPEFUL ABOUT TOURISM After a dismal showing in 1996,when hotel occupancy dropped by as much as a fifth during some periods, and air arrivals in Belize fell almost 5% for the year, tourism may be on a modest upswing. Some of the higher quality resorts, such as Chan Chich, report strong occupancy and bookings for the winter and early spring. Officials at the Belize Tourism Industry Association called the '96 summer season in Belize a "disaster" but are hoping for an improved summer of '97. According to the Belize Tourism Board, tourist arrivals at the international airport totaled 83,756 in 1996, down from 87,981 in 1995 and 87,399 in 1994. Air arrivals represent about 70% of all visitor arrivals in Belize. However, in an optimistic sign, air arrivals in the fourth quarter of 1996 were up by 2.3% from the year earlier period.

U.S. citizens make up 71% of all tourists arriving by air, with Canadians making up almost 7%. Tourists from Europe, including the United Kingdom, constitute 13% of air arrivals. With a number of new hotels and resorts having opened in the past year, the decline in air arrivals means that fewer tourists are being divided among a larger number of hotel rooms. The Belize Tourist Board estimates that there are now 360 hotels in Belize with a total of 3,690 hotel rooms and 6,111 beds. Occupancy rates at Belize hotels are low by U.S. and international standards. They range from a high of 35.3% in Belize District to 9.1% in Toledo District. In the U.S., occupancy rates under 60% are considered a cause for possible financial failure. Here are occupancy rates by area and average room night rates in US dollars for 1996:

1996 Occupancy Avg. Room Rate

* Belize District (60 hotels) 35.3% US$59

* Ambergris Caye (52 hotels) 33.5% US$101

* Orange Walk District (10 hotels) 26.8% US$57

* Out Islands/Remote Cayes (25 hotels) 25.9% US$65

* Cayo District (67 hotels) 25.0% US$46

* Placencia/Seine Bight (31 hotels) 24.9% US$62

* Caye Caulker (33 hotels) 19.5% US$22

* Stann Creek District (37 hotels) 19.2% US$40

* Corozal District (12 hotels) 13.6% US$33

* Toledo District (33 hotels) 9.1% US$22

Countrywide, the average room rate in Belize in 1996 was US$64, up from US$58 in 1995. Because of its high average room rate, with the second-highest occupancy rate and second-highest number of hotel rooms, Ambergris Caye contributes the largest amount of hotel revenue (and therefore the largest share of the 7% hotel tax revenue) in Belize, more than 43%. Belize District is second at almost 27% of total country hotel revenue. Tourism operators point to several factors which are holding down tourism to Belize: the high cost of Belize hotels, restaurants, and car rentals, especially compared with Mexico next door; the cost of air fares to Belize -- fares to Belize from U.S. gateways are as much as twice as high as to Cancun, Jamaica, or some other popular Caribbean destinations; lack of knowledge about Belize by most travel agents in the U.S., Canada, and Europe; the low level of marketing, advertising, and public relations spending by Belize, especially compared with competitors such as Costa Rica, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgins Islands; the perception that crime is a problem in Belize, primarily due to the reputation of Belize City. Some hotel operators outside of Belize City claim they are do not get a fair share of tourism promotion dollars and aid, despite the fact that only about one-fourth of Belize's tourism revenue comes from Belize District. While 1997-2001-1998 may prove to be a better time for tourism in Belize than 1995-96, the unknown in the equation is the state of the U.S. economy. With the U.S. stock market volatile and interest rates up, a possible recession in the U.S. could hold down travel to Belize by Americans.

UN CITES BELIZE'S REEF AS 'OUTSTANDING UNIVERSAL VALUE' The Belize barrier reef system is one of five new sites the United Nations has added to its list of natural places of "outstanding universal value." Belize's barrier reef is the longest and largest in the Western Hemisphere. The other sites added were in Nigeria, Zaire, and two in Russia.

BELIZE CITED AS BABY-BOOM RETIREMENT SPOT Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and even Cuba could be part of a new Sun Belt retirement area with appeal to the 76 million U.S. baby boomers who will begin to retire in the next decade, reports the Trends Research Institute, a Rhinebeck, New York, consulting firm. The firm predicts that a "massive new migration" of retirees will start settling abroad, lured by low living costs and warm weather. Other experts call that conclusion speculative and predict that the total number of expat retirees is likely to be small.

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