Who Dropped the Ball with NCL?

“I think the tourism representatives may be able to speak directly to that issue. From the very onset of those negotiations, it was clear that the NCL ships will be sent down south that would create some opportunity for the southern region of Belize.As you know that is the most impoverish in terms of opportunities. And so, I am not sure what negotiations FECTAB had, if any, with NCL in terms of being facilitators of tours here in the Belize District. I know that there are a number of tour operators and tour guides in the south who have prepared themselves to benefit from the NCL project in that area. But I don’t have the finer details and I think the tourism representatives can add some more value to that discussion.”–Minister of State Tracy Panton

Based on the level of data made public, I could certainly appreciate why FECTAB members would be alarmed at the “recent” developments as it pertains to Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)’s Harvest Caye project and the potentially negative impacts it could have on FECTAB members’ revenues.

Nevertheless, this, in my opinion, is what happens when there are a couple of things absent from the public sphere: (a) a large news consumer base that incentivizes the media to keep these types of issues in the fore, (b) limited appreciation of the truly competitive and fluid nature of business, and (c) requisite communication (including listening) skills, preparation and negotiating skills from some key public and private-sector stakeholders.

Why do I say this? Because, I could think back to 2013 when I was still in the media and this issue came up regarding NCL and whether or NOT it would divert ships down south to Harvest Caye. I’m glad that 7News went back to archive footage this week. Because from at least three years ago, one needed to “listen carefully” to what was actually being said.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow, for example, speaking to the media said: “There is to be no diversion of the current Belize City calls and there is to be no use of that port by ships other than NCL ships. This was our position throughout; the binding agreement will make that absolutely clear.”

Minister Hulse, speaking on the same issue, maintained: “Any scheduled visits in the North as existing – those shall not be diverted just as simple as that. So whatever was scheduled will be maintained and then you go to the south.”

Words like “current Belize City calls” and statements like “whatever WAS scheduled will be maintained” had or should have at least raised a few antennae, because the next viable question should have been this: “So what about calls beyond those that are currently scheduled?”

Scheduled Calls

News of FECTAB’s press conference this Thursday sent me looking in my email archives for the Tentative 2013-2016 Cruise Ship Calls Schedule that I had requested and received via email from an official at the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) back in August 2013. And while I must heavily underscore that the document clearly stated “TENTATIVE calls”, it was somewhat noteworthy that for 2013 and 2014 NCL had more than 40 “Calls” to Belize, with several being made for the last three months of the year. In 2015, however, there were no NCL calls scheduled for those latter months. To be fair, I should say ONLY Carnival was scheduled; there were also no recorded calls from most other cruise lines like Royal Caribbean International and Aida Cruise Lines.

It’s not fair to compare 2016, because the document (which I repeat was from August 2013) only had scheduled “calls” up to March 2016. Consequently, I will only state it as a side note of interest, here. In the month January, for example, NCL generally had about 9 or 10 calls for all reported years, except for 2016, when it recorded zero. Unlike the Carnival-only comment above for the last quarter of 2015, January 2016 had from other Lines such as Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises.

Clearly, a TENTATIVE schedule is NOT enough for definitive conclusions, but let’s be real here: if you’re going to invest millions in an exclusive port, why would a cruise line business (I repeat, business) want their ships to go anywhere else?

So who dropped the ball? 

Therefore, the “recent” developments, in my mind, aren’t so recent; the writing has been on the wall for all to see for at least three years. The question is whether or not anyone wanted to really interpret it for what it ostensibly was. This, consequently leads us to the question as to who dropped the ball. Was it FECTAB, the Government of Belize (GoB), other private-sector tourism stakeholders, was it the media, or was it the public at large?

In my view, it’s a mixture of all five! But I will only focus on three: GoB, FECTAB and other private-sector tourism stakeholders. GoB gets its blame because it should have come out right and ‘decoded’  the language. However, I can suspect that such “decoding” was deemed unfavourable, because like the sugar farmers in the North, words like “change” mingled with the limited trust that exists between government and these groups usually result in resistance and public outcries that become fodder for the news cycle.


While GoB should have “suck it up”, FECTAB and other private-sector tourism groups should also get their turn in the hot seat, because I refuse (REFUSE) to accept that they did not see the graffiti. Thus, the relevant question here is this: what preparations were made in anticipation of this ‘change’? Were any other options or modifications to the business model discussed or contemplated? Have there been, for example, any GoB-FECTAB-tourism-stakeholders discussions on which ship could replace NCL in Belize City, given the “worse-case” scenario that it moved all its vessels southward?

Even if a basic analytical framework such as a SWOT analysis was used candidly, it would have told everyone that this possibility should be listed as an external “threat”, and required a viable counter-attack strategy. If FECTAB’s capacity was low in this area, this is where the likes of government could have helped these businesses to prepare for this “eventuality”. But, yes, this would have required a series of fact-based, brutally honest conversations and planning sessions. And if there were some attempts at doing just that, then we all have to ask “what happened?”


The Way Forward
Returning to the opening quote of this article, Panton speaks to creating opportunities for southern tour operators. If that’s the case, then I guess we’ve identified one of the local winners of this project, and that’s fine. As long as Belizeans are still benefiting.
Moving ahead, however, in terms of Belize City, it must be noted that if NCL is completely cancelling any calls to the Old Capital, then that leaves room for another cruise line to take its place. If it’s too late for FECTAB to negotiate tours for Harvest Caye, maybe it’s best for FECTAB and other relevant stakeholder groups and the government to collaborate to find alternative lines that could fill the hole left by NCL. While the temptation is strong to ask ‘why this wasn’t done from at least a year or two ago’, at this stage, it’s more important to work on the way forward.

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