Breaking Travel News interview: Anthony Mahler, minister of tourism, Belize
As the tourism sector gradually emerges from the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, one bright spot is provided by Belize.
The Central American destination has seen a rapid recovery in arrivals, and is on track to return to pre-pandemic levels of business early next year.
The turnaround has been driven by a recovery in the United States outbound sector, tourism minister Anthony Mahler tells Breaking Travel News.
“Experts had predicted it would take two-and-a-half, three-years for us to get back to where we were.
“But, with the new airline partnerships we have welcomed, we expect to be back to 100 per cent of pre-Covid-19 capacity by January next year, maybe even 110 per cent.
“Currently we have the main legacy carriers coming in – United, American and Delta – but we are set to welcome Copa Airlines from Panama, who are due to increase capacity,” he explains.
“Later this year, we will welcome Southwest Airlines, as well as a six-hour route from Seattle from Alaska Airlines, who will also be connecting us to Los Angeles.
“At the same time, we continue to talk to European carriers – and I hope to confirm an airline out of the UK in the near future.”
According to the latest figures, overnight visitor numbers to Belize rose from about 7,000 in January to 26,000 last month, with further increases expected for the remainder of the year.
“Currently the vast majority of people coming into Belize are from the United States, but we have welcomed visitors from 81 countries since the reopening last year,” adds Mahler.
“Tourism represents about 40 per cent of the GDP of Belize, directly and indirectly, so we have seen the size of our economy shrink by 15 per cent during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have thus been focused on getting back our legacy carriers and airlines in order to rebuild the sector – we will then have the cash to develop.”
While the country is slowly returning to pre-Covid-19 routines, some measures do remain in place to safeguard locals and visitors alike.
“We reopened the airport in October last year, following a few months of lockdown here in Belize,” explains Mahler.
“At the start of June we opened our land borders, but only for tourists travelling back and forth – this means Belizeans still cannot go to Mexico, Guatemala, for example.
“Stringent protocols remain in place, for the land borders, as well as for the airport.
“Fully vaccinated travellers arriving at the airport, who show proof of vaccination, are not required to present a negative Covid-19 test on arrival.
“At the same time, non-vaccinated travellers must show a negative rapid test within 48-hours or a PCR test within 92-hours.
“Travelers arriving via the land borders must present proof of full vaccination, or will be required to test on arrival.
“The ministry of health also reserves the right to test anyone on arrival at their expense, at any entry point.”
He adds: “So far, we have vaccinated 90,000 people from the eligible group, from a target of 240,000 people overall.
“We believe that by the end of this month we will reach around 170,000 people.”
For guests that do touch down, there is plenty to see.
Belize is home to the largest living reef in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef, as well as a number of pristine atolls and the most extensive cave system in Central America and the Caribbean.
There is also a dense rainforest and a number of archaeological sites, meaning there are a number of opportunities to explore across the 8,867 square miles of the country.
“There is tremendous potential to grow tourism here in Belize,” argues Mahler.
“We are the only English-speaking destination in Central America, while our food and music are more aligned to the Caribbean.
“However, over the last 30 years or so, with the conflict we have seen around us in the region, we have become Latinised.
“The same way parts of the south of the United States have become Latinised.”
During lockdown, Belize took the opportunity to improve its tourism product, with a number of new properties joining the market.
“We have just welcome Alaia Belize, part of the Autograph Collection from Marriott, which opened in Ambergris Caye neat San Pedro,” says Mahler.
“We are talking to the Four Seasons and financiers from Mexico about building a private island resort off the coast off of Belize City, the commercial hub of the country.
“This would be about 45 mins from the city by boat, but would also have its own airstrip.
“Our strategy is very much focused on the higher-end clientele; we are also talking to Six Senses, the luxury brand from IHG Hotels & Resorts, about a private island location.”
He adds: “Because of the nature of the product we have on offer here, we try and keep away from the mass market.
“Tourism plays a big role in Belize City and the southern parts of the country, and we are working to keep these areas sustainable for tourism.
“We also welcomed our first cruise ship, from Carnival Cruise Line, today, and we have put in place all the necessary protocols to ensure this visit is safe for passengers.”
Concluding, minister Mahler argues the success of Belize can drive the tourism sector across Latin America.
He says: “Multi-destination visits are important for us; for example, people land in Guatemala, head to Belize, and then visit Mexico or Honduras after that.
“We are part of the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the marketing arm, Central America Tourism Agency (CATA).
“Belize plays an integral role in those organisation.
“A quarter of our guests come through the land borders, most of whom are travelling as part of a multi-destination trip.
“Belize is considered a level one destination by the Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in the United States, which means we are one of the safest countries in the world right now – we are on track for a quick recovery.”
Belize offers guests every opportunity to make it spectacular.
From ziplining through the jungle to relaxing on the beach, pounding on a Garifuna drum to diving deep beneath the sea, the local tourism sector has plenty to offer.
Find out more on the official website.