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Harvest Caye – Eco-concerns over cruise resort plan

Opponents and proponents of a new private cruise terminal and resort in Belize continue to squabble over plans by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) for a development earmarked for Harvest Caye.

Yet, as things stand, NCL has the go-ahead from the Belize government to buy around 75 acres in the south, where it plans to build the company’s second private resort on Harvest Caye. NCL already owns Great Stirrup Cay in The Bahamas.

Harvest Caye is made up of two thin, adjoining islands, covered mostly in mangrove and located about 5 km south of the Placencia Peninsula.

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NCL plans to spend US$ 50 million on the resort, which is set for completion in 2015. Harvest Caye will feature a floating pier, a tasteful island village with raised-platform structures, a marina, a man-made lagoon for water sports and a beach. As with Great Stirrup Cay, the resort will be the exclusive reserve of NCL passengers.

The purchase marks NCL’s second attempt to build a private cruise resort in Belize. In mid 2013, for environmental reasons, the government turned down a proposal to build a cruise ship terminal on Crawl Caye (a privately owned island reportedly up for sale on the internet for US$ 6 million). Crawl Caye is located in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Undeterred, NCL then pushed for and won approval for its alternative location at Harvest Caye.

In order to comply with certain conditions insisted on by the Belizean authorities, NCL agreed to abide by the country’s environmental standards, to employ local construction workers and to set up a hiring program for Belizeans who want employment on board the cruise operator’s ships. Naturally enough, local people will also get preference for staff positions at Harvest Caye.

Cards on the table

Meanwhile, NCL chief executive Kevin Sheehan put the company’s cards on the table: “In our quest to continuously look for new and exciting destinations for our guests, we plan to develop a cruise destination focused on sustainable design and eco-friendly principles that will retain the natural beauty and local culture of this tropical paradise.”

Not everyone agrees with NCL. But Harvest Caye had already been approved for resort development by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who says he wants to “decentralize cruise tourism” away from what he describes as “busy Belize City”. At present, the nation’s main cruise port receives up to nine ships a week during the peak season. But it’s fair to say that many Caribbean destinations would not regard nine cruise calls a week as ‘busy’. Nine a day, perhaps.

As elsewhere in the Caribbean, however, there is friction between those seeking foreign investment and pushing for economic development, and those who say that protection of the environment is paramount. Accusations that the government is in too much of a hurry to approve such environmentally sensitive projects are also being voiced.

For example, in relation to Belize’s famed barrier reef, concerns are being raised about the impact of the waterborne disposal of dredged spoil and the loss of the breeding grounds of the endangered Antillean manatee. At the same time, the sheer size of the project in a largely undeveloped part of Belize is sounding alarm bells. The length of the 100 meter cruise pier, which appears to exceed local planning restrictions, is also a factor.

Yet Nayari Diaz-Perez of the Protected Areas Conservation Trust told CM that her organisation did not have a position for or against the scheme.

Conversely, and somewhat surprisingly, the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) and the national hotel association are also both against the project.

Emphatic

The BTIA says the nation’s Sustainable Tourism Master Plan is emphatic that southern Belize should remain an eco-friendly, low-impact destination. In terms of cruise ship calls, the plan clearly states that only so-called ‘pocket’ cruise ships (carrying fewer than 250 passengers) are acceptable on the south-eastern coast of Belize.

Then there is the usual fight over who controls what. Local people want a slice of action in regard to the proposed Harvest Caye-mainland shuttle, but this operation is likely to be the preserve of NCL, which can use its specially designed shallow-draft tenders to take passengers ‘ashore’. The same goes for shore excursions, where local tour operators feel they may be denied opportunities to generate income.

Others are worried that the passenger head tax (part of which will be re-bated to the cruise operator) is far too generous in NCL’s favour.

So here we have a government and a serious foreign investor on the one side; environmentalists and those not set to gain financially from the project on the other. It was ever thus.