Belize Insider: Kind of Familiar, But Without the Chain Stores (Part II)

By Jeff Pappas Even if you’re a world traveler with a bazillion frequent-flier miles, chances are that you’ll be fascinated by your first glimpses of Belize, the little English-speaking …

By Jeff Pappas Even if you’re a world traveler with a bazillion frequent-flier miles, chances are that you’ll be fascinated by your first glimpses of Belize, the little English-speaking country on the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Hundreds of travel-poster islands dot the turquoise sea along Belize’s 200-mile coast. Just offshore is the longest barrier reef in the Northern and Western hemispheres, with an undersea world of fantastic color and diversity. The diving and snorkeling are world-class, and the fishing is so good that it usually takes just a few minutes to catch a sea bass or spiny lobster for your lunch.

Its location on the map would make many individuals believe that Belize is a small, Spanish-speaking country and you would be half right. Small, yes. Spanish, hardly. I arrived at the Philip S. Goldson International Airport and did not see one single sign in Spanish. If that doesn’t tell you something, maybe try batting zero in finding a Mexican restaurant in town.

It used to be said that expatriates from the United States, Canada, Asia, and Europe living in Belize had to get used to living in a country with many of the conveniences of modern life, such as Internet connections and air-conditioning, but without the franchised fast-food restaurants and chain stores that have come to dominate our frenetic consumer culture. Belize has no Walmarts or McDonald’s.

In Belize, culture shock is sometimes masked by the surface familiarity. Most Belizeans speak English, albeit a different English. They watch American television. They drive big old Fords and Chevrolets. They even accept U.S. currency. While this lack of homogenization is in Belize’s favor, it also means that you can’t go down to your neighborhood convenience store and select from 20 kinds of soap or 10 brands of underwear.

Rum may be US$8 a bottle, but Doritos may be US$3 a bag. Every stereo, nearly every piece of plumbing or electrical equipment, every car and truck, every bottle of aspirin, is imported, and often shipped thousands of miles from one port to another before it gets to Belize. Some items simply aren’t available in Belize, or supplies may be spotty.

I asked Malcolm Sobers of Belize’s investment agency Beltraide why McDonald’s couldn’t survive in Belize, and the answer was quite startling. The Belizean wants his fast food “bigger, cheaper and faster,” he explained. Chinese shop owners are a majority in Belize because they can build you a burger bigger than McDonald’s for half the price.

Jeff Pappas is the Executive Vice President of Arledge Partners Real Estate Group, in Dallas. Arledge Partners focuses on international site selection, labor analytic studies, incentive negotiations, and real estate identification and acquisition for the contact services/BPO industry.

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