Expat Advice on Starting a Business in Belize
Belize is all the buzz these days for expats looking to downsize their expenses, live the simple life and retire in a picturesque setting sure to be the envy of their friends and family. So you’ve got the itch to pack your bags, but maybe you’re not ready to hang your hat or your nest egg isn’t quite ready to hatch? If you’re considering the good life in Belize and wondering what it takes to start a business, here’s some advice from 4 expats that took the plunge and brought their entrepreneurial spirit with them.
Bob Jones first traveled to Belize in 1977 while enlisted in the British Army. Retiring in 1982 he decided to leave England and return to the jungles of Belize. What started out as “something fun to do,” Bob opened Eva’s in San Ignacio in 1983. Eva’s served as an expat resource for local activities and traveler’s questions while offering budget-friendly food and drinks. In 1995, Eva’s began offering internet access to their guests in what is widely proclaimed as the first cybercafé in Central America. In 1998 Bob sold Eva’s and teamed up with local caving guide, Emilio Awe, to start Pacz Tours.
Today Pacz Tours has expanded their services to caving, birding, canoeing, tubing, zip-lining, horseback riding, and jungle tours throughout the Cayo/San Ignacio area. Bob shares that he hasn’t experienced any challenges with the government in Belize, “If you keep to the rules, and don’t try and cut corners, everything will be fine.” The Belizean government requires that tour guides be Belizean citizens. Guide certification can be acquired upon completion of an intensive 3 month program that costs roughly $1,000 USD. It is very rare for an expat to be given the opportunity to become a guide, even upon acquiring their citizenship. Bob goes on to share his advice, “These days you are required to employ Belizeans for any professional guide services offered by tour companies. My advice would be not to let that stand in the way of your dream of owning a tour company.”
When asked what gives his business a competitive edge, he states, “Our goal is to provide a phenomenal service to our clients, never mislead them and always be truthful of what they should expect to receive from us.” Bob’s definitely doing something right — National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Caribbean Life and Travel Magazine, ABC Los Angeles and F1-TV (a French television station) have all featured his services.
In the mid-70’s Bill Reynolds didn’t have the money he needed to complete the research he was conducting in Grad School. He set a personal goal to one day set up a facility for future grads to continue their education. While attending a field course in Belize in 1984, with the help of his colleagues, Bill laid out a plan for a Belizean Field Station. In 1985, he and his wife Madeline (Maddy) purchased 100 acres of land along the Belize River.
Over the course of the next 20 years, they built the infrastructure for the Lower Dover Field Station while using the property for a family vacation spot. In 2008 the couple decided to leave the windy city of Chicago behind and live full-time in Belize. To supplement their income they put together a plan to build an inn to host travelers. When asked if they had to do it all over again what they would do differently, Maddy explains, “We would have done more checking on contractor references. It has taken quite a while (and a lot of money) to find a reliable electrician, plumber etc. who truly knows what they are doing. Everything would have been built at one time instead of the ad-hoc construction that took place. We had a conceptual plan but only money for one building at a time. As a consequence, Lower Dover looks like a colorful hodge-podge of buildings and it’s still not done!” As it relates to her advice to others, she offers, “Come with lots of money and patience. Do your homework. If the deal is too good, it isn’t a good deal. It’s worth paying more for a clear land title. Most land transactions are messy because the Belize Land Department has historically been a hotbed of corruption.”
In 2012, Bill’s dream came to fruition with the discovery of Mayan ruins on the property. The inn closes for two months each summer while the field team’s visit to continue the excavations. What gives their business a competitive edge? Maddy proudly explains, “There is no other Belizean hostel in the jungle; on a Maya ruin; that is close to the ATM Cave; that is accessible by public bus; that is surrounded by clear water with hiking and medicine trails; that serves healthy homemade meals; grows and bottles its own estate hibiscus wine; that has a reputation of safety and clean accommodations and is rated #1 by both TripAdvisor and Hostelworld.”
When ask if they have faced any governmental challenges with their business, Maddy offers, “In America it’s called lobbying. In Belize it’s called corruption — at the highest levels. If you are going to be a big business in Belize wishing to launch your business in a hurry, you better be prepared to face corruption to get things done. But ours is a tiny business, with little interaction with the big sharks. Instead, what government challenges we usually encounter are the lack of efficient civil servants. Belize is a young government and it will take time to transition from a system of British colonial bureaucracy to streamlined, integrated governance. Glory be the day when paper logs and carbon copies are finally replaced by computers!”
Fed up with the weather and daily grind in the UK, Dean and Jacqui Clemison sold their two shops in North Wales, packed up their two children and moved to Belize in the fall of 2015. Upon arrival they found it very difficult to find a rental house that suited their needs. Recognizing the need for broader real estate services in the Cayo region, the two established Belize Realty and Management Advisors. The company provides real estate and property management services, including advising both expats and locals on current real estate trends and opportunities.
Jacqui explains, “We are able to help people when they first arrive in the country. Visiting is different from day-to-day life. There are things people may not think about like knowing where the grocery store is, knowing the banks shut at 3pm each day, there are different lines for different services at the bank, and a realistic idea of how long things take to get processed.” What have they learned since moving to Belize? “We have learned that patience is required in this country with every aspect of life and business. Computers aren’t readily available; paperwork, staples and photocopies rule. This also leads to copies being lost,” Jacqui further explains. Would they do it all over again? “Most definitely. We enjoy having our family life back. We get to spend more time playing and going on adventures with our children. We now have dinner together every night.” she adds.
Born and raised in Sicily, Luigi Lungarini migrated his family from Montreal to the British Virgin Islands to follow his dream of opening an Italian restaurant in the Caribbean. When the British Virgins Islands declined to extend a work permit to his wife, the family packed up again and headed to Belize where they say they were welcomed with open arms. In 2004 the family settled in Unitedville where Luigi began constructing his dream restaurant, Casa Sofia, on a piece of frontage land parallel to the George Price Highway. Not only is Luigi a chef, but he is a sculptor. Over the years his restaurant continued to grow, as did his building, which is designed in the image of a jaguar.
He has since built a hotel that is connected to the restaurant, added his daughter to his culinary team, and is currently building an in-ground pool, inclusive of a walk up bar, to further add to the property’s amenities. His advice to others looking to start a business is pretty straight forward, “Start slow and take your time to build your business right,” he offers. What does he enjoy most about living in Belize? “The many amazing people I get to meet. Also, as a chef who prides himself on fresh and all-natural ingredients, my garden in Belize is one of the best I’ve had. The climate allows for the plants to grow very quickly and hearty,” Luigi remarks. He continues to grow his business via word of mouth and online reviews. When Luigi isn’t busy in the kitchen he offers architectural design and contractor services to residents and businesses. The biggest reward Luigi has discovered in owning his business in Belize is that, “I get the freedom to create with my imagination, both my culinary inventions and my art, while not having to pay rent.” Luigi hosts an annual New Year’s Eve party that attracts both locals and expats from miles away. If you get the opportunity to stop and say hi, don’t miss out on the homemade pasta and cheese sticks!