Capitalism is alive and well in Belize. There are certain economic sectors that the government meddles in more than others, but for the most part it is a free market. Generally speaking the economy is driven by agriculture, tourism and recently oil. However, it appears that the future of Belize will be in the former two. Belize is also one of the best jurisdictions for off-shore corporations and financial industries, but only a small amount of revenue from those sectors flows into the local economy.
When you think of the economy of Belize you have to remember that the scale is very small compared to the US and many other world economies. However, certain similarities can be drawn to the U.S. like Crony Capitalism. In the US, at their larger scale, major corporations hire lobbyists to get laws passed and contracts granted. Here, even small businessmen have to try to play that game. Once again, because of the scale it affects the entire economy.
Whenever I think of this situation I recall when I left my hometown in the Midwest at the age of 18 and relocated to the South where I was immediately introduced to the “Good Ol’ Boy” (GOB) system. Funny thing is I didn’t realize what a tight GOB I had left behind in my hometown. It’s generally the same everywhere and Belize is no different. Not that everyone is a xenophobe, but they tend to be a bit leery of newcomers until they have proven themselves. I must say, I do find it amusing that in Belize the “Government of Belize” is referred to as the GOB.
Nonetheless, Belize is a developing country and what was once a “wild west” environment is becoming more sophisticated and more regulated. Some people like it, but many do not. Regardless, change is afoot and when there is change there is opportunity. The opportunities will continue to be small scale, which can favor the small businessperson.
However, it is wise for the budding entrepreneur to understand that due to the relatively tiny population in Belize there isn't room or need in the market for several different companies serving any one particular segment. There just isn’t that much demand for any particular product or even category of products to justify many differentiated companies serving what would be considered a small quantity of customers. As a result, you will tend to see just one or just a few companies in each of these particular niches; subsequently there will be less competition among the few providers that exist.
So, while it is possible for the “little guy” to be successful in business here in Belize, it depends on the business that is chosen. As an example, it is very difficult for a little guy to try to get into the beverage industry. It takes so much start-up capital and it’s a very difficult business to begin with. Also, keeping with this example, the beverage industry in Belize is an established enterprise that’s been here for generations, so that’s a tough business. However, there are lots of other types of businesses that can be successful and we are now seeing emerging businesses that didn’t exist before.
Regardless of the business it is important to note that there is a very elaborate system of import duty in Belize covering just about anything you can think of. As with most import duties, the government is trying to protect a local market. While it happens in every country in the world and it is understandable, it can cause a lot of economic endeavors that import goods to be choked. Often times it doesn’t make sense to import something for resale because the import tax drives the cost too high.
As tourism becomes more and more a major part of the economy, it brings with it a demand for products and services that didn’t exist. While large companies that are already importing may have an advantage with certain products the small businesses may have an advantage with certain services since they can be more flexible. Small businesses can react to market changes quicker than a large company can. So there’s certainly opportunity.
Belize is a still a developing country in which you can still identify niches that need to be filled. Often times it’s a smaller niche that the big boys or monopolies aren’t filling, a “mom and pop” type business.
It’s common when people come on our tours that they ask us questions about business opportunities in Belize. We tell them that if they think like an entrepreneur in the 3 days they are on our tour, if they keep their eyes and ears open, they will come up with at least half a dozen ideas that could be implemented and make a good businesses. And sure enough, when the tour is over they have a list of 5-10 ideas, which we sit down and go over with them.
A few of them are good, but to make it in Belize, you probably need to have 3 or 4 businesses because the domestic market rarely supports one new business at the level that someone would need to be comfortable or to support a reasonable lifestyle. We see that amongst Belizeans they will do construction work, raise tilapia farm and grow some citrus or some other crop. The successful small business people in Belize tend to have a few irons in fire. There are so many niche markets that exist or are merging, that if you have an entrepreneurial view of things, you’ll find a way to make it.
(Tourists to Belize who have camped and kayaked together, pictured.)