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Worldworx Travel> Safety> Americas> Belize

Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Belize

Belize: Belize
Capital: Belmopan
Population: 262,999
Currency: Belizean dollar (BZD)
Languages: English (official), Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna (Carib), Creole
Religions: Roman Catholic 49.6%, Protestant 27% (Anglican 5.3%, Methodist 3.5%, Mennonite 4.1%, Seventh-Day Adventist 5.2%, Pentecostal 7.4%, Jehovah's Witnesses 1.5%), none 9.4%, other 14% (2000)
Borders: Guatemala 266 km, Mexico 250 km

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION ^
Belize is a developing country. Tourism facilities vary in quality, from a limited number of business class hotels in Belize City and nice resorts on the cayes to a range of ecotourism lodges and very basic accommodations in the countryside.

SECURITY AND SAFETY ^
Visitors should exercise caution and good judgment when visiting Belize. Crime can be a serious problem (see Crime), particularly in Belize City and remote areas. Road accidents are common (see Traffic Safety and Road Conditions.) Public buses and taxis are frequently in poor condition and lack safety equipment. Boats serving the public, especially water taxis, often do not carry sufficient safety equipment, may carry an excess number of passengers and may sail in inclement weather. Rental diving equipment may not always properly maintained or inspected, and some local dive masters fail to consider the skill levels of individual tourists when organizing dives to some of Belize�s more challenging sites.

The border between Belize and Guatemala is in dispute, but the dispute thus far has not affected travel between the two countries.

CRIME ^
The incidence of crime, including violent crimes such as armed robbery, shootings, stabbings, murder, and rape, is on the rise. The Embassy has noted an increase in recent years in reports of crimes against tourists at resorts and on the roadways. The incidence of crimes such as theft, burglary, purse snatching and pick-pocketing rises around the winter holidays and spring break. Several victims who resisted when confronted by criminals have received serious personal injuries, including gunshot wounds. Although the majority of reported incidents are in Belize City, crime occurs in all districts including tourist spots such as San Pedro, Caye Caulker, or Placencia.

Sexual harassment and/or assault of females traveling alone or in small groups can be a problem. Although violent sexual assault is not common, it does occur. Several American travelers have been the victims of sexual assaults in recent years. At least one of these rapes occurred after the victim accepted a lift from an acquaintance, while another occurred during an armed robbery at an isolated resort.

To minimize the risk of being targeted, visitors should travel in groups, stay off the streets after dark, in urban and rural areas, and avoid wearing jewelry, or carrying valuable or expensive items. As a general rule, valuables should not be left unattended, including in hotel rooms and on the beach. Care should be taken when carrying high value items such as cameras, or when wearing expensive jewelry on the street. Women�s handbags should be zipped and held close to the body. Men should carry wallets in their front pants pocket. Large amounts of cash should always be handled discreetly.

Armed robberies of American tourist groups have been reported near the western border with Guatemala in the past few years, several of which escalated to sexual assault. In the past, criminals have targeted popular Mayan archeological sites in that region. Visitors should travel in groups and should stick to the main plazas and tourist sites. Although there are armed guards posted at some of the archeological sites, armed criminals have been known to prey on persons walking from one site to another. Victims who resist when confronted by these armed assailants frequently suffer personal injury.

Travel on rural roads, especially at night, increases the risk of encountering criminal activities. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities can make remote areas especially dangerous. Though there is no evidence that Americans in particular are targeted, criminals look for every opportunity to attack, so all travelers should be vigilant.

Rather than traveling alone, use a reputable tour organization. It is best to stay in groups, travel in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles, and stay on the main roads. Ensure that someone not traveling with you is aware of your itinerary. Travelers should resist the temptation to stay in budget hotels, which are generally more susceptible to crime, and stay in the main tourist destinations. Do not explore back roads or isolated paths near tourist sites. And remember always to pay close attention to your surroundings.

Americans visiting the Belize-Guatemala border area should consider carefully their security situation and should travel only during daylight hours. Vehicles should be in good operating condition, adequately fueled, and carry communications equipment. Persons traveling into Guatemala from Belize should check the Consular Information Sheet for Guatemala and the U.S. Embassy web site at http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala for the latest information about crime and security in Guatemala.

A lack of resources and training impedes the ability of the police to investigate crimes effectively and to apprehend serious offenders. As a result, a number of crimes against Americans in Belize remain unresolved. Nonetheless, victims of crime should report immediately to the police all incidents of assault, robbery, theft or other crimes. Tourists may contact the Belizean tourist police unit as well as the main police office for assistance.

Drug use is common in some tourist areas. American citizens should avoid buying, selling, holding, or taking illegal drugs under any circumstances. Penalties for possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia are generally more severe than in the U.S. Although not common, there is anecdotal evidence of the use of so-called date rape drugs, such as Ruhypnol.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES ^
While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Belizean laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Belize are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18.

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16.

MEDICAL FACILITIES ^
Medical care for minor conditions is generally available in urban areas. Trauma or advanced medical care is limited even in Belize City; it is extremely limited or unavailable in rural areas. Serious injuries or illnesses often necessitate evacuation to another country.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS ^
Belize is a hurricane-prone country. The hurricane season is primarily June through November each year. The coastal regions and islands are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms. The islands, which have no high ground, have been cut off from communications and assistance during previous hurricanes. Extensive flooding as a result of storm activity is possible in many parts of Belize, including in those areas not directly hit by a particular storm. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at http://www.fema.gov/.

As in all countries, unforeseen disasters are always possible in Belize. Travelers should be aware, however, that many emergency services common in most of the U.S. (such as dedicated life flight helicopters) are not available in Belize, while others (such as fire or ambulance services) are very limited and can be hours away from victims in remote areas of the country. In addition, Belize lacks fireboats or other resources to handle effectively any significant crisis in/near their waters involving large cruise ships or their passengers.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS ^
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. In addition, Americans can and have been imprisoned in Belize for accidents, even where alcohol is not involved. The information below concerning Belize is provided for general reference only, and may not be entirely accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Fair
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

Valid U.S. driver's licenses and international driving permits are accepted in Belize for a period of three months after entry. Driving is on the right-hand side of the road. Buses and private vehicles are the main mode of transportation in Belize; no trains operate in the country. Roadside assistance can be difficult to summon, as there are very few public telephones along the road and emergency telephone numbers do not always function properly. The Belizean Department of Transportation is responsible for road safety.

Roads in Belize vary from two-lane paved roads to dirt tracks. The few paved roads are high-crowned roads, which can contribute to cars overturning, and have few markings or reflectors. Even in urban areas, few streets have lane markings, leading many motorists to create as many lanes as possible in any given stretch of street or road. Bridges on the major highways are often only single lanes. The Manatee Road, leading from the Western Highway to Dangriga, is unpaved and easily flooded after storms. The Southern Highway from Dangriga to Punta Gorda is mostly completed and in good condition, except for a short portion that is under construction. Service stations are plentiful along the major roads, although there are some significant gaps in the rural areas.

Poor road and/or vehicle maintenance cause many fatal accidents on Belizean roads. Speed limits are 55 miles per hour on most highways and 25 miles per hour on most other roads, but they are seldom obeyed or even posted. Many vehicles on the road do not have functioning safety equipment such as turn signals, flashers, or brake lights. Seatbelts for drivers and front-seat passengers are mandatory, but child car seats are not required. Driving while intoxicated is punishable by a fine; if an alcohol-related accident results in a fatality, the driver may face manslaughter charges.

Unusual local traffic customs include: pulling to the right before making a left turn; passing on the right of someone who is signaling a right-hand turn; stopping in the middle of the road to talk to someone while blocking traffic; carrying passengers, including small children, in the open beds of trucks; and tailgating at high speeds.

Bicycles are numerous and constitute a traffic hazard at all times; bicyclists often ride contrary to traffic and do not obey even basic traffic laws such as red lights or stop signs. It is common to see bicyclists carrying heavy loads or passengers, including balancing small children on their laps or across the handlebars. The driver of a vehicle that strikes a bicyclist or pedestrian is almost always considered to be at fault, regardless of circumstances. Americans who have struck cyclists in Belize have faced significant financial penalty or even prison time.

Driving at night is not recommended, due to poor signage and road markings, a tendency not to dim the lights when approaching other vehicles, and drunk driving. Pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists without lights, reflectors, or reflective clothing also constitute a very serious after-dark hazard. Local wildlife and cattle also are road hazards in rural areas.

For safety reasons, travelers should not stop to offer assistance to others whose vehicles apparently have broken down.

For additional information about road travel in Belize, please see the U.S. Embassy home page at http://usembassy.state.gov/belize. For specific information concerning drivers' permits, vehicle requirements, and insurance in Belize, please e-mail the U.S. Embassy at embbelize@state.gov

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT ^
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Belize's civil aviation authority as Category 2* -- not in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of Belize 's air carrier operations. While consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing, no service to the U.S. by Belizean air carriers would be permitted unless they arrange to have the flights conducted by an air carrier from a country meeting international safety standards. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the United States at telephone 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet web site at http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa/index.cfm.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, the DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the United States. Local exceptions may apply. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact the DOD at telephone (618) 229-4801.

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Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

August 11, 2004

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