Monday, June 29, 2020

Bootleg tourists

Having performed better than almost any other nation in the hemisphere in containing the spread of covid-19 —  indeed they logged 50 consecutive days as virus free — Belize now plans to re-open its Phillip S.W. Goldman airport on August 15, and thereafter its tourism sector to a renewed flow of (controlled) visitors. 

The protocols that have been established in advance are interesting; the problems immediately obvious.

"... short flight away from most major US cities."

This is theoretically true, but Belize has not traditionally been connected to 'most' major US cities. Instead, like Guatemala, it has been receiving flights from major (current) covid hotspots like Houston and Miami, the last places from which anyone wants to be taking in travellers just now. 

Indeed, if the local migratory narrative in the last few years has been all about deterring Central Americans from heading north, the polarity of intense undesirability has been resoundingly reversed in 2020. In our pandemic-interrupted world Americans are the new Sub-Saharan Africans, a situation that seems likely to last well beyond the conclusion of this abject year.

A vaccine could help, but as Dr Fauci says, if a third of Amuricans refuse to take it and it is anyway only 75% effective, herd immunity may not stick, and so his compatriots will remain international pariahs for longer. 

Belize and Guatemala have few 'air bridge' alternatives, having become dependent on short-haul entrants from the US sun-belt. Both nations ought to be doing the legwork now to actively promote themselves to potential tourists from beyond the hemisphere. 

One of the handicaps they suffer is international airports with runways that are technically unsuitable for larger jets. 

Back in the 90s I used to fly ‘direct’ into Guatemala from Amsterdam on the KLM flight out of Schiphol — a supersized, 1/2-cargo jumbo. 

The urban myth about the end of the service goes that eventually one Dutch pilot took a look at the runway at Aurora and chose to abort his final approach before proceeding on to El Salvador. After that the airline didn't dare force their employees to try to plonk a 747 down on that roller-coaster. These days the only people to arrive here in wide-bodied airliners are government officials from the likes of the US and Taiwan. 

So, even given the fact that many airlines have under-utilised fleets, it might be hard to establish in the short term more direct routes which cut out the sickies in the US. (One reason one can expect Cuba to lead the way in the regional tourism recovery, as they have been geared up for this for yonks.)

A European passenger complying responsibly with the Belizean guidelines on testing could have a valid certificate of non-infection before their journey commences and yet still have to run the gauntlet of a few hours in say Houston or Miami's terminals, where there is almost no proper demarcation between domestic and international travellers, plus plenty of mask-less MAGA twats to dodge. And the risk these passengers would run would become OUR risk. 

Guatemala announced its own phased re-opening plan a fortnight ago and from that moment has moved steadily further away from being able to actually commence it. 

There is talk of the main airport reopening in August, but in practice INGUAT is looking at September as a more realistic timeframe, and then at a pattern of local followed by regional in-comers, long before more northerly foreigners are welcomed con los brazos abiertos. 

Mexicans are likely to be a source of worry for a while too, especially if they plan on arriving terrestrially. 

Although Belize appears clean, Guatemala needs to remain especially vigilant in Izabál because the maritime border has a certain informality to it. 

It has recently come to my attention that at least one of the tour firms that sprung up to cater to guiding large groups of cruise ship passengers around our city has still been operating, albeit at lower capacity. Bootleg tourists! 

Where might they have come from? I cannot imagine that these individuals are foreigners that have become trapped here by the pandemic and now imagine that traipsing around Antigua in an amorphous herd is the best way to kill the time. So, that muelle at Puerto Barrios, which can be traversed without immediately flashing a passport, would tend to be the prime suspect. 

Make no mistake, La Antigua's position as both the leader in new SARS-COV-2 infections in Sacatepéquez and as the primary hub for tourist activity in Guatemala portends a particularly painful period ahead. Tourism is second only to remittances in national income terms and usually out-performs anything the country is able to export. 

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