For many of us much of our time seems to be spent trying to figure out how we can operate in a world where Covid-19 dominates the news, shopping habits even fashion and of course our perception of safety. The travel industry is not exempt from any of this. Many people ask us how Covid has impacted our business here in Belize and what are we doing to deal with the impact. Today I would like to tell you everything I think you should know about Covid and Belize (and Cotton Tree Lodge)!
Lets start at the beginning…
Last year, like many of you, we kept an eye on the news coming out of China. For the first couple months the furthest we got was a handful of discussion that always started with “Can you imagine if that got here?”.
Then we saw the news coming from Washington State and not long after the New York City area. Real fear soon replaced our cynicism. By mid to late February cancellations were coming in far faster than reservations. Then came early March. Everyone cancelled. The worst part of this was the stories and disappointment. We knew people were wanting to go on vacation. People had been planning their trips to Belize for up to a year. They were excited. But they couldn’t go. We had one group from Canada that was extra painful. A group of high school students coming for a humanitarian project. They were at the airport with tickets in hand when Canada announced it was closing their border. These kids had done fundraisers and such to raise money for their trip. Each cancellation had a story and each was painful.
Initially we decided as a family to stay here in Belize and wait things out. Surely we thought it wouldn’t last more than a month. Right?! Besides we figured there could be no safer place on the planet than a remote jungle lodge. We thought that right up to the point they announced the international airport in Belize would be closed for an indefinite amount of time. The US embassy in Belize sent out a proclamation encouraging all Americans to leave the country. After a sleepless night we decided to go back to Minnesota the next day. Arriving back in the US we immediately met the craziness head on. The Atlanta airport was nuts. So many people trying to get back in the country before things were locked down. Tension was super high as scared people yelled at strangers to keep their distance and lines wrapped down hallways at customs and immigration. But we kept our family close and after a long day made it back to Minnesota. There we quarantined for nearly a month before going back out in the public. In rural America masks became a norm and we made the best of things.
Back in Belize things were different. Belize doesn’t have much for widespread medical support. Most rural villagers rely on bush doctors and traveling government doctors. People were terrified, what would they do if their village became infected with an extremely contagious virus? Many wondered, could it wipe out a whole village?
Some might say Belize panicked, some may say they went almost martial law and others think they did it right. In short they locked the country down. By late March no one was allowed in or out of the country. People were ordered to stay home, schools were closed, all business had to close and extreme fines were issued for anyone caught outside their home. For quite a while Belize managed the outbreak as well as anyone in the world. By August 1 they had less than a couple dozen cases. Plans were laid out to reopen the airport and country on a limited basis in August.
In the mean time we had moved some employees into cabanas so they could work on maintaining the property without fear of being caught traveling on a road. However, most of our staff wasn’t able to work until late summer. Times were very difficult for the average Belizean. No work meant no money and no food. The government announced in April that all Belizeans would receive a small financial aid package every other week to help with groceries. In order to buy groceries you had to text a grocery list to the grocer and they would text you back the confirmation. You could then travel to the grocery store and they would have your food preselected and packaged for you. Payment would be exchanged and you have to drive immediately home. This type of travel was only allowed between 8 am and noon. Times were tough in Belize.
Then we found out that the government wasn’t making payments to people as promised. No one was working and no one had money for food. By May my wife and I made adjustments to our plans. In April we contacted some former guests and were able to work together to make multiple deposits in all our staff’s bank accounts so they could afford groceries. In mid May some of the work restrictions were loosened(slightly) in Belize and we declared all our staff to be essential workers and allowed those who wanted to come back to work 2 days a week. By July it was 3 days a week. Times were tough but at least people were working and eating.
As mentioned earlier, in August the plan was announced for the reopening of the international airport. Economic distress in Belize was at an all time high. Riots and protests were occurring as some demanded tourism be reopened and others demanded it stay closed. Just prior to reopening the airport some repatriation flights and boats arrived bringing home Belizean citizens who had been stranded around the world due to the country’s complete closure. That was when things went south for Belize and COVID 19. Places like San Pedro, Orange Walk and the Cayo suddenly had dozens of cases. It wasn’t long when before the case count went from 50 to the thousands. Within a couple of weeks the hospitals in Belize were out of beds. The plan to reopen the airport was scrapped.
A few weeks later the depth of the country’s economic issues was further revealed and it was decided the airport needed to reopen so that outside cash could be brought in (from tourists spending money) to try and save some of the economy. A plan for executing tourism safety was revealed (called the Belizean gold standard for tourism) and all hotels/resorts had to certify under this plan. In mid October the first planes carrying tourists arrived in the country since March.
We decided to wait a few weeks to reopen. We wanted to observe and make sure the border stayed open before scheduling any trips. We went through the process of certifying with the new safety program and set a target date of December 1 to open. The country stayed open and things seemed to be working well enough we stayed course and opened for business again on December 1. In the month of December we had 4 people stay with us. Times were tough for sure, but we were open.
This month we have had 6 people so far stay with us and we have more than double that scheduled for February. Things were tight, but at least they were improving. Then came the newest wrinkle. The CDC announced a week ago that all passengers boarding planes for the US must provide a negative covid test prior to boarding a plane. Even though Belize has pivoted and is putting in a covid testing station for outgoing passengers, we again had to answer questions from worried potential guests. Most of our scheduled guests opted to push back to next year. This announcement was another painful blow to our wonderful staff who had worked so hard to be open and operating again. We understand the concerns, but we’re disappointed. We’ve promised our staff that if they can just hang on with us better times are ahead.
So what is Cotton Tree Lodge doing to operate in this Covid-19 dominated world? To be truthful, we didn’t change much in terms of our cleaning procedures. We already deep clean every room and cabana between groups. The main lodge is already cleaned thoroughly each day and again at night. Our kitchen is cleaned between each meal. The things we did change deal with collecting payments and following government rules.
We still collect 50% down for all reservations. However, we are more relaxed on the cancellation policy as we are allowing all deposits to be moved to a future date if any cancel due to any issue with COVID 19. We also are waiting to collect the balance til just before arrival here rather than the normal 60 days.
We do have to record your temperature everyday per government regulations as well as our staff to monitor if anyone has a fever. Masks are required when traveling with our drivers. We are fortunate to have open air dining so we are able to still serve meals on site.
If you are considering coming to Belize we encourage you to contact us directly at email@example.com with any questions. If you have a US number you can text me directly at 801-664-7564 as well. We understand your uncertainty. The good news is that we are a remote jungle lodge and you will be able to enjoy a wonderful vacation in almost total isolation from the outside world. We’ve worked hard to make it safe and still awesome here. Belize in good times enjoys a low density of people. Now you have almost the entire country to yourself. Most of our guests have enjoyed a private resort and tours while they are onsite. If you are wondering if you can safely travel to and from Belize, with us the answer is definitely a yes!