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Belize

A question of space

Belize plans new cruise terminals to cope with larger ships

No one doubts that Belize City needs to improve its access and capacity to cope with the new generation of cruise ships. But how feasible are two schemes recently agreed by the government? Can they both get financial backing? And if so, does Belize City really need two cruise terminals? Gary Gimson reports.

Location of the proposed Port of Magical Belize

During the second half of 2017 the Government of Belize signed agreements with locally based investors for the construction of two new Belize City cruise terminals. One agreement was with Portico Enterprises and the other with Stake Bank Enterprises, part of the Feinstein Group, a property development company.

Both of these schemes aim to resolve the issues of access restriction and capacity constraint that have held back the development of the nation’s cruise sector. Without a solution, and with the ships getting ever larger, Belize City is in danger of losing a slice of its cruise business, of which around 60 per cent is controlled by Carnival.

Cruise ships calling Belize City currently anchor four miles offshore and tender passengers ashore. Clearly, this is far from ideal – for the passengers, for the cruise operators and for those running shore excursions, a key feature of any port call in Belize.

Moreover, water depths in the narrow One Man Caye Channel, which gives access through the Barrier Reef, mean that new larger vessels cannot even anchor off Belize City. A further problem, once ashore, is that many of the million or so passengers who hop off the tender at the Fort Street Tourist Village (FSTV) and who wish to see attractions outside the city have a tricky bus journey through the congested streets of the nation’s so-called Old Capital.

Remedy

To a lesser or greater extent, both the Portico and Feinstein schemes offer the same remedy – to build new, dedicated, direct berthing cruise terminals a short distance from Belize City.

Clearly, the more ambitious of the two schemes is the one backed by Portico Enterprises, which aims to establish a new US$ 150 million cruise terminal called Port of Magical Belize.com. Portico is backed by local tour operator David Gegg and by free zone interests.

The plan is for Port of Magical Belize to be located on a small peninsula of reclaimed land south of the Sibun River estuary. The plan includes four Oasis-class berths plus a marina, retail space and a water park as well as craft and cultural centers and an aquarium.

Dredged spoil from the new access channel – which will allow ships of up to 12.0 meters draft to call – will be used to create the peninsula. Portico’s David Gegg told Caribbean Maritime about his vision: “This will provide us with some 75 acres of additional land area where the majority of the port infrastructure will be located.”

Benefits

Mr Gegg sees very real benefits for passengers in the proposed location: “Aside from easier and faster access to the traditional shore attractions presently offered by the cruise lines, the land area located within a 10-mile radius of the new terminal provides unlimited opportunities for the expansion of shore excursions, including visits to Peccary Hills National Park.”

Having an idea is one thing; realising it is another. So Portico’s proposed timetable looks like this. Environmental assessments and other technical feasibility analysis were due to commence in January. This process will take about six months, after which contracts could be negotiated. It is foreseen that construction could commence in the second half of 2018 with an opening set for 2021.

The plan is for Port of Magical Belize to be located on a small peninsula of reclaimed land south of the Sibun River estuary.

Mr Gegg is confident the project will go ahead: “I have had multiple meetings with all the major cruise lines and I sincerely believe that they all recognize the qualities of our location and the fact that Belize desperately needs a mainland docking facility.” And he is equally bullish about financing the project: “Ideally, a joint venture with a cruise line partner or credible international player is what is most needed and we are certainly pursuing such an option.”

Failing that, and mindful of Belize’s huge untapped cruise potential, Mr Gegg is a great believer in the ‘build it and they will come’ maxim. In this regard, he says, local, regional, and international banks appear keen to participate. Certainly ‘call contracts’ and/or ‘berthing agreements’ with cruise ship operators would go a long way in securing the necessary financing.

There are future plans, too. An additional two cruise berths, a 300-room hotel just 30 minutes from the international airport and a water theme park are scheduled for Phase II. Further funding will be required for this work, with 2022 being talked about as a completion date.

Contrast

Meanwhile, and in contrast, the Feinstein-backed project aims to build a four Voyager-class capacity cruise terminal at Stake Bank Caye, located just four and a half miles offshore from Belize City and covering about 15 acres. The idea for such a cruise terminal has been around for some time. This US$ 50 million scheme includes a Mayan-themed water park, a 60-slip marina, restaurants and shops. It is envisaged that the Stake Bank Caye scheme will be linked by causeway to the group’s planned Ocean View Grand resort project at North Drowned Caye. It is thought that this causeway awaits government approval.

More importantly, the Stake Bank scheme, too, requires the building of a causeway to the mainland and it is understand the application for this project has been turned down. The deputy prime minister confirmed this on local television only recently.

So, without the causeway to the mainland, if this project goes ahead then Belize is in effect back to square one, as passengers would still have to use a tender; although for many the attractions planned for Stake Bank/Ocean View Grand might be enough in itself. Many believe, however, that without a causeway, Stake Bank Caye is a non-starter as a cruise terminal.

It’s important to point out that the broadly based Feinstein Group is a well-established and serious player in the local tourism sector and was the original creator of the FSTV (now owned by Royal Caribbean and Diamonds International) and a developer of a number large hotels and resorts of which Ocean View Grand is just the latest. So its pedigree is undoubted.

But does Belize City really need two new cruise terminals? Probably not. And that’s why only one is likely to get built. The question is, which?

See Caribbean Maritime issue 22 for a report on Harvest Caye – Norwegian Cruise Line’s own terminal and resort development in southern Belize.