Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Great Belizean Rip-Off

In my final year At Cambridge I made the biggest mistake of my life: I elected to do the one special subject in Part II of the Tripos that did not require competency in a foreign language. And there is always a price to be paid for being a monoglottal nitwit, though at the time I was unaware of this. 

Here in the one Central American country where you can get away without having to brush up on the local lingo, the premium is also rather obvious. 

But what gives? I mean seriously, $699,000 for an ugly two bedroom property that will be half gone the next time a major hurricane passes this way? That's roughly twice the equivalent cost of a home in either South Beach, Miami or Playa Del Carmen, two cities that are cool and fashionable in ways that Placencia in Belize is simply never going to be. 

If this is a boom, it is long overdue a bust. The major development here occurred in the 90s and has more or less stagnated since. When I was last in Placencia for longer than a day back in 2008 there were signs that things might be about to really take off, but instead they have, if anything, gone backwards since then, and the timings are no coincidence. Belize is the only Central American country suffering a serious European style recession (and sovereign debt default) in part because it cannot thrive unless more affluent people come and spend their money here. And as fewer do  – because Belize goes after after the one segment of the tourist market that is notably more sensitive to global economic conditions than those that provide a regular sort of income to its neighbours – the locals jack up the prices to compensate resulting in a kind of downward spiral...or a race to the top that ends up being a race to the bottom. 

Maybe Belize and Guatemala could benefit by combining their efforts to service the needs of international visitors, but instead they chase entirely different sorts of people. At first glance you might conclude that while Guatemala pulls in the travellers, Belize gets the tourists, eco and otherwise – and a recent sociological study from the UK has concluded that the major difference between the two is that while travellers have more money than tourists, they tend to spend less of it when abroad. 

So this should work in Belize's favour, but the truth is that Belize is a mecca for an odd kind of traveller-tourist hybrid that is as gormless as your average tourist but has the price sensitivity of the traveller, f not the self-defeating obsession with the authentically exotic and pre-modern. (Indeed, Belize's Mayan heritage, surely just as 'authentic' as Guatemala's, has been consistently downplayed by this nation's tourism authorities.) 

"Bonkers" millionaire fugitive McAfree and the horde of moustachioed, bandana-wearing American retirees that reside here are case in point. They are perhaps more benign than their peers in the 'gringo gulch' of Costa Rica (what I tend to refer to as the three Ss: surfers, sports fishermen and sex tourists) but their presence has roughly the same inflationary effect on prices. 

Go out for a meal here in Placencia and you will be lucky to pay less than $15 for your main course. These are near developed world prices, but Belize is not the developed world. Unlike Guatemala or any other country in the region (with the possible exception of Nicaragua) where anybody with sufficient means can live as if they were living in the first world – personal security aside – I bet even Warren Buffet would find himself somewhat off the grid in this under-globalised land. Want to see the latest Bond movie at the Multiplex? Fancy some really fine French food? Want to buy a new iPad? No chance, no chance, no chance. 

It is frankly telling that there are so few Brits now amongst the permanent residents. And as Belize has shifted its longings away from Blighty towards not so kind old Uncle Sam, many of the things that made it such a fine little nation twenty or so years ago have gone to hell. The rate of intentional homicides has doubled since 2004 and is now relatively more pronounced than in Guatemala. 46% of the labour force is illiterate and only 12% have completed their education to secondary school level. This used to be a country where just about anybody one met in any semi-clerical role struck one as absurdly well educated and informed. Nowadays Belizeans are simply not as comfortably badly off as they used to be. 

Of course Belize fits a certain middle American image of paradise that Guatemala never could. There are actual honeymooners here. Who comes to Antigua Guatemala a few days after their nuptials aside from inbred Mexican A-listers? 

It takes just an hour to cross the Bay of Amatique from soggy and forsaken Puerto Barrios to Punta Gorda. Another couple of hours and one can reach Placencia, where last night I found myself in a tapas bar surrounded by loud, rich, gay, yacht-owning, pooch-carrying, English-speaking Americans. The culture shock was profound. Is it sustainable though? 

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