Friday, May 9, 2008

A Slow Boom in Belize: One Island Stays Funky

South of the Yucatán, community balances growth and atmosphere
- By Kevin Brass, International Herald Tribune, Published: May 1, 2008

AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize: This island was a sleepy destination for divers and fishermen 15 years ago, when the singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker and his wife, Susan, built their house on the Caribbean waterfront.

These days, high-end residential developments dot the island and it is possible to find a good bottle of French wine in San Pedro, the island’s main town. But Susan Walker, who is based in Texas, is convinced that Ambergris will maintain its distinct island charm.

“This place is just funky enough to keep the people away,” she said. “Funky” is a word often used to describe Ambergris and finding ways to maintain that funkiness is a frequent topic of discussion.

Only a few hundred yards from one of the world’s largest barrier reefs, the 25-mile-long, 4.5-mile-wide island is Belize’s most popular tourist destination. Since 1993, the island’s population has jumped to 12,000 from 2,500, including a wave of Americans and Canadians who bought second homes or retired on the island.

But the water is too shallow for cruise ships and megayachts, and there are few of the all-inclusive resorts that lure the spring-break party crowd to destinations like Cancún or Jamaica.

At the other end of the tourist spectrum, some visitors are disappointed by the dearth of top-end restaurants, spas and glitzy discos. The nearest golf course - and the only 18-hole course in Belize - is on Caye Chapel, a low island about 20 minutes away by boat.

Ambergris is “booming, but it’s booming nice and quietly,” said Chris Allnat, a real estate agent with Pelican Properties here.

Most of Ambergris’s new development is north of San Pedro in an area most of which is only accessible by boat. Last year, a small bridge was built over “the cut,” the nickname for the channel that separates the much larger northern part of the island from San Pedro and the south. But cars are still banned on the one bumpy dirt road that stretches up through that northern section of the island.

There is talk of paving the north road but limiting its use to golf carts, which are still the main mode of transportation on the island. “We do not want it to be suitable for carrying cars,” said Diane Campbell, a local developer. “We’re trying to decrease the number of cars.”

Campbell and her husband, Bob, have built six small residential projects on the island. Their latest is Solaria, a collection of three five-story waterfront houses with wide verandas, priced roughly between $900,000 and $1 million.

Most of the developments on the island are in the 20- to 70-unit range. Government restrictions limit buildings along the waterfront to three or four stories.

“They don’t want to change the feel of the place,” said Macarena Rose, president of the Belize National Association of Realtors, a fledgling group that partnered last year with the U.S.-based National Association of Realtors.

Agents say prices for houses have spiked 20 to 30 percent on Ambergris in recent years, but are still relatively inexpensive compared with those on other Caribbean islands. A two-bedroom, waterfront condo typically sells for $300,000 to $500,000, compared to the $1 million-plus price tags found on islands like St. Bart’s.

With few pristine lots available - many parts of the island are swampy and only stretches offer white sand - in the last three years, waterfront land has jumped from $3,500 to almost $6,000 a linear foot for developable beachfront property in the north, agents say. (In Belize, land is priced by the length of its beachfront and prices are in U.S. dollars.)

For foreign buyers, Belize offers many attractive features. English is the primary language and the currency, the Belize dollar, is fixed to the U.S. dollar. It also offers a liberal retirement program, simplifying the process for foreigners to establish residence and transfer possessions.

Tony Newshel, a New Jersey resident, said “the ease of being in Belize” and the island’s “laid-back” atmosphere played large roles in his decision to buy on Ambergris. Three years ago, Newshel, an avid scuba diver, and his wife, Ginny, paid about $500,000 for a two-bedroom waterfront condo in a development called The Phoenix, in San Pedro.

From an “investment standpoint,” the changes on Ambergris have been “completely for the better,” Newshel said. “The town is able to handle more people, more conveniently.”

Changes include paved roads around San Pedro, two supermarkets and a bevy of new restaurants.

The Phoenix, where the Newshels bought an apartment, is billed as the first upscale development in San Pedro. The 30-unit complex was built by Jerry and Linda McDermott, who ran a popular bar and hotel on the site for 20 years. “We’re trying to create a new niche in the market,” said Mark Maggiotto, the Phoenix’s general manager.

Twenty-four of the 30 condos have been sold since the project went on the market in 2005, Maggiotto said. The six remaining units range from a one-bedroom for $399,000 to a three-bedroom unit for $589,000.

In recent weeks, agents on Ambergris report a slowdown in buying activity as the troubles in the U.S. economy ripple through the market. But sales could get a boost if direct flights to Belize City are initiated from Europe, as is widely anticipated. Last year the main runway at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City was expanded to accommodate bigger jets.

Few on Ambergris doubt that more development is in the future. “I think it’s inevitable,” Susan Walker said.

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