My fellow Belizeans,
2014 was, by any measure, an extraordinarily successful year. Our economy grew in the first three quarters by 4.2%, which is more than double what was forecast by the IMF. This was impressive, and several sectors led the way. Chief among them was Tourism, which continued its multi-year run of annual growth with almost unbelievable numbers. Thus, overnight visitors for the first time in history surpassed the 300 thousand mark, and this represented a 10% spike over 2013. The jump in cruise calls to Belize was even more phenomenal, with 62 more ships bringing 45% more passengers. Together, then, overnight and cruise exceeded 1 million visitors from as early as October, and by November had combined for a 31.5% increase over 2013. It was, indeed, a star turn.
Buoyed by the increase in revenue from the assumption of control of the IBC and Ships Registries, Government was able to give Teachers and Public Officers the first installment of what is expected to be three successive years of salary raises. And Government's overall people-empowerment programs scaled new heights. We paid for up to six CXC subjects for every High School student that applied; we rolled out NHI to the Corozal District; we increased the numbers of those being helped by the BOOST and Food Pantry Initiatives; we reimbursed, or committed to reimburse, December's mortgage payments for all homeowners with original loans of 100 thousand dollars or less; and Government's National Bank offered Christmas and New Year consumer loans at unbeatable rates. Indeed, there was a burst of good news in December, headlined by the Mexican investor purchase of Caye Chapel; by the Southwest Airlines announcement of its Belize destination; and by the agreement that Government helped to forge between the BSCFA and BSI.
Above all, though, our success was reflected in the huge strides recorded as a result of Government's quantum spending increases on infrastructural uplift and social assistance. In every corner of the country, street, road and building rehabilitation, the construction of new and modern facilities, proceeded at breakneck speed. And every segment of our society was helped in one way or another by various forms of cost-of-living assistance; by funding for training, business and educational opportunities; and by the creation of thousands of new jobs.
The vicissitudes of life suggest that it will be hard to equal this record in 2015. But Government intends not just to match, but to exceed it.
As we continue to drive economic growth, we have for some time now been talking of how to ensure that our people can take full advantage of the new, target-rich environment. The explosion in construction, for example, requires more builders and carpenters and masons and plumbers. That is why we earlier announced the reintroduction of the Centers for Employment Training Model, designed to provide us with more of the skills needed for the way in which Belize is developing.
But whether we are talking about infrastructure, agriculture, tourism or services, at some level these days all enterprise success, all societal and cultural progress, demand increasing familiarity with, and mastery of, Information and Communication Technology. Globally this recognition has reached the status of a truism, and Belize cannot be left behind. We have already revealed plans to build, with the help of the Koreans, a Technology University in Belmopan. We intend to finalize this concept and begin its implementation in the New Year. But even as this big picture project is taking shape, there are lots of smaller things Government will also be doing to help our people overcome the digital divide.
So if 2014 was a year of infrastructure, 2015 will be a year of technology. Thus, Government is purchasing from the Asus Company in Taiwan 9 thousand tablet computers so as to be able to provide one for each Tertiary level student in Belize. As a result, every student at UB and all Sixth Forms and Junior Colleges countrywide, will be gifted one of these brand new Tablets as we prepare to march into technology's brave new world.
High Schools will also benefit, as at their level we will be making donations for the improvement of their computer labs. Again, it is every one of the forty four or so Government and Government-aided High Schools throughout the nation that will be covered by this initiative. And they will be able to use this Government funding for either the purchase of additional equipment or for help with the physical rehabilitation of premises.
Finally, Government will provide free Wifi in the Park for each of our country's Municipalities. So we will select one Park or other public space in all District Towns and in Belmopan City, and for a specified number of hours each day citizens will enjoy complimentary bandwidth from the Government of Belize. Belize City is pioneering its own program under its partnership with BTL.
It is in view of all this that I say 2015 will be the year of technology.
But I should perhaps better say that it will be the year of technology and infrastructure. Because our infrastructure drive won't stop, and indeed will increase. PetroCaribe funding will now shift its focus to rural constituencies, after having initially concentrated on Cities and Towns. And the already unprecedented local spending coming from that source, will be augmented by the foreign-financed projects such as the redoing of the Hummingbird Highway; the resurfacing of the George Price Highway from the Belmopan cut-off to Benque Viejo del Carmen; the new Roundabouts and Rehabilitated Ringroad in the Nation's Capital; the paving of the Southern Highway between Jalacte and the Border with Guatemala; the new Macal River Bypass; and the widening and resealing of the Philip Goldson Highway between its junction with the International Airport and Belize City.
I earlier cited the tourism sector's powerful statistics, and in that connection I make the following announcements. Government will spend around 15 million dollars in 2015 on three tourism road projects. We will do the additional 7 miles to complete the paving of the old Northern Highway to Altun Ha; we will build another 4 miles beyond the bridge in San Pedro to further open up North Ambergris; and we will fully resurface the 8 miles of the Jaguar Paw Access Road.
Then, one way or another, we will green light a new Belize District Cruise Port with alongside docking facilities.
My Fellow Belizeans:
I believe you will agree that I have just sketched a most exciting panorama; that I have just described prospects filled with development and social progress bounty. Therefore, the intoxicating mix of rebirth, renewal, and possibility that accompanies the advent of each New Year this time comprises an even headier brew. So firmly realizable are our goals, so easily crowned with success will be our efforts, that as we greet 2015 we must summon spirits even from the vasty deep to help us celebrate.
Unbridled optimism, then, is utterly justified and ought to lift and transport all of us as together we say "Happy New Year and God bless Belize"