Over recent weeks I’ve devoted some of my early morning ‘me time’ out on the veranda following up on the legal dispute involving Tropic Air and a guy by the name of Brett Feinstein who is one of the two directors of Benny’s Enterprises Limited.
For those not aware, Tropic Air is the larger of the two Belizean airlines, the other being Maya Island Air, and with its fleet of 15 aircraft operates around 1,000 flights a week to 16 domestic airports and 6 international destinations. And this service offer keeps growing to the benefit of those of us living in Belize and those that come to visit.
Integral to Tropic Air’s operation is the ability to service and maintain its aircraft and to do so in the most timely and cost efficient way. Because of this need the company took the not insignificant decision of committing to a major investment (reputed to be as much as BZ$ 6 million) to build a new, and much larger, high tech maintenance facility in San Pedro. It’s spiritual and operational home.
The dispute concerns a small strip of land 100 by 100 feet which is adjacent to the San Pedro airstrip and forms part of the area on which Tropic Air, believing it had a thirty year lease, commenced the build in December last year.
All was proceeding to plan until last month when Construction Depot Limited, a company owned by Brett and Sean Feinstein, filed a court action against Tropic Air. They contend that Title to the land in question was granted to their company by the Lands Department in April this year (yes, this year) and as such the lease held by Tropic Air is null and void.
The action was held in court and Construction Depot Limited was granted a ‘cease and desist order’. Following this all work on the facility on the land under dispute was immediately halted. And that’s how it remains whilst these two leading Belizean companies try to reach a compromise.
If one were of a skeptical nature (oh, I am) one might wonder why a company believing that it owns land on which another company has started a major investment on their land would wait so long to make legal challenge. I mean why would you allow them to ‘sink’ somewhere close to 20% of the total investment cost in to the project before crying ‘foul’? Because they’d be keener to settle? And settle quickly at any price?
I have no personal involvement with either of these two prominent Belizean companies other than as a customer (construction materials for our house were purchased from Benny’s and Rose and I are regular flyers with Tropic Air) but I am concerned by the likelihood of a compromise not being reached.
Tourism (directly and indirectly) accounts for around 33% of Belize’s GDP and the number of people employed within the country to support this runs at a similar level. And both sets of figures (and the importance of tourism) have increased over the years as Belize’s appeal to tourists and overseas’ investors has grown. Tropic Air has played no small part in making this possible.
Now imagine the effects on tourism if Tropic Air were to be unable to service its fleet and keep it in the air. Tourists having booked their flights to Philip Goldstein International Airport would find themselves unable to quickly get to their chosen destination in Belize. They could get there of course by boat or bus ((but there would need to be an immediate major investment (for additional boats and busses)) but both would add time to their journeys. Not the thing you want if you are coming for a short stay (as many Americans do).
Of course this dispute could be settled very quickly. Tropic Air could pay a hugely inflated price and buy the land. A likely consequence though could be that ticket prices increase so that Tropic Air could recoup the cost that it didn’t envisage or budget for. So who pays ultimately? The traveller. Or do they all? A sharp increase in prices might have a knock on effect and passenger numbers decrease. Hotel bookings drop. Restaurant and tour operators are not as busy. And then all prices increase in an attempt to recover the deficit. A vicious circle.
I find it ironic that the opening of Benny’s Mission Statement reads:
” Benny’s is committed to continuously improving and developing the economy and lifestyle of Belize.”
As an outsider looking in I hope that they remind themselves of this when they sit down to try to reach agreement with Tropic Air. A healthy, vibrant and profitable tourism industry and ultimately the economy is essential for the well being of Belize and everyone (and I mean everyone) who either lives or visits here.
I like it that Tropic Air says “Come fly with me” and I want it to continue to be that way. And at prices that I find affordable.
Below are some shots of the land and development in question.
The headline for today’s edition is based on the title track of the album released by Frank Sinatra in 1958 which reached number 1 in the US Billboard Hot 200 chart.