This April, nine charter brokers and managers were invited on a four-day familiarisation trip, co-hosted by the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) and BOAT International Media, to discover Belize as a superyachting destination. Focused around the southern region of the Central American country, the delegates were given a taster of the activities on offer – including a dive on the country’s 190 nautical mile Barrier Reef, lunch on a private island and visiting a luxury lodge set in the rainforest.
On the final day of the programme, the delegates took part in a roundtable discussion, attended by representatives from the BTB, including the Minister of Tourism, The Hon. Anthony Mahler, to feedback on how the country could shape its superyacht strategy.
All of the attendees were positive about the potential that Belize has to attract superyachts in the future. “There is a lot of offer everybody,” said Denison Yachting's Rose Jolis. “The trip has been incredible, the people are very inviting and very warm. Of course, there is the reef, which is the main draw for boats, but it is also easy to travel around the country to see archaeological sites, explore up rivers or even go fly fishing.”
“I love exploring new destinations and passing that excitement onto my clients,” added Fraser's Gina Robertson. “I was here 18 years ago and things have changed. I have been so happy to experience it again and now pass on this enthusiasm to some new clients.”
Chicken and egg
Despite the positivity for the destination the charter brokers and managers explained some of the challenges that the destination faces. “I’m excited to share Belize, but interest right now is very low,” said IYC's Carrie Freeman. “The challenge is we have to have clients who want to come, but we also need to have boats here. If we have a client interested in Belize then it is a case of trying to find a yacht in and around that area. It’s kind of a mutually driven bus, between charter managers and brokers, to make a destination accessible and appealing.”
As part of this puzzle, attendees highlighted the importance of having good information and itineraries for the destination. Northrop & Johnson's Sacha Williams said it was vital to “make it simple”. “Our job is to put places on the map so that it makes it easier for brokers to then ignite their clients' imaginations about going off the beaten track. We need to put in the legwork prior to make sure we’ve got all the answers ready for them in terms of regulations, tax and provisioning,” she added.
As part of this, having clear charts and anchorage information for captains was also raised. “I had a captain that did have a successful charter here last winter,” explained Casey Noble from Ocean Independence. “However, he told me that having a local dive master on board was the only reason that they knew where they could anchor without getting fined.”
“It is very much chicken and the egg,” added Y.CO's Tom DeBuse. “We need to have the information and then we can share that with retail brokers for them to send out to their clients.”
At the moment, Belize has limited infrastructure for superyachts and no dedicated marina. All of the delegates were unanimous in the opinion that this would need to be enhanced to attract superyachts for longer periods.
Hill Robinson's Barret Wright, spoke about the importance of creating a “hub” for visiting yachts. “If a yacht is committed to being somewhere for a period of time they need a place they can treat as a home base,” she explained. “If you can find a central location that people can base themselves out of that is going to be a good starting point.”
Burgess’ Charmine du Plessis added that she thought the lack of marina was putting Belize behind other destinations such as Panama and Costa Rica. “Having a state-of the-art marina where you have the infrastructure is hugely beneficial,” she added. “Boats want to know that they can come in, they can provision, and get guests off the boat for land experiences.”
“Crew don’t like to be on the hook [at anchor],” added Wright. “It’s a real pain to go back forth, running tenders with groceries and provisions and running crew back and forth.”
The Minister of Tourism was keen to reiterate that Belize’s tourism strategy was routed in sustainability. “We have quite a few interest areas in Belize and hopefully in the next two years the landscape will have changed a bit, but not too much,” he said. “But, we don’t want McDonalds, we don’t want Burger King on our landscape. We prefer that we have strategic partners and we focus on specific areas.”
Wright suggested that this core aim would fit well with the superyacht community. “There is an awareness of the importance of preserving the beauty that is here. If you highlight that eco-tourism side you are going to find a lot of owners who want to ensure they leave no trace. They love doing philanthropy, engaging with local communities and being able to make a difference,” she added.
“If there’s a structure or a way that people can do something positive a lot of people will want to be involved,” added DeBuse.
Tax and regulations
Finally, the attendees also shared insight on how tax and regulations could impact the potential of Belize as a superyacht destination. Camper & Nicholson's Agnes Howard suggested the government should think long-term about their tax strategy. “You may want to consider doing an amnesty for a period of time, say five years, to get boats to come here,” she said. “You are competing in a pretty tight pond and when boats are passing your country, you want to say we are open and invite them in.”
DeBuse suggested that a more favourable tax rate could help Belize assert itself in the region. “You are right next to Mexico who are charging 16 per cent tax, plus 5 per cent tax for the owner,” he explained. “If you start a charter in Belize, then you do an international charter because of IMO regulations it is allowed. So you could become a destination where people want to start and then head into Mexico. It gets them into Mexico and you profit from it.”
He also reiterated the importance of having a clear and transparent process, regardless of the fees charged. “You need a clear charter permit, a process that is not overly bureaucratic and a simple registration. You also need an easy way to pay taxes owed and a receipt.”
Concluding the event, the BTB and Tourism Board reiterated their commitment to the superyacht industry. “Today was a very important, very relevant discussion on where we need to go and the path we need to take moving forwards,” said Nicole Solano, CEO of the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations.
“I think we have all learnt more about what it is we need to do to develop the industry and also to be able to share how magical this country is,” added the BTB’s investment and innovation specialist Simone Bell.
“I can assure you as long as we’re here, and as long as I am Minister of Tourism, we see this sector as being part of our growth path,” concluded Mahler. “It is high-level, low-impact in terms of people coming to Belize.”