Belize an eco-traveller’s delight
More than one-third of the land and water is protected for conservation and tourism
BELIZE–The scenery is breathtaking – lush jungle, Crayola-coloured birds, Alice-in-Wonderland flora.
A tiny country tucked into the middle of Central America, Belize has a population of only 300,000, world-class diving, white-sand beaches and cerulean seas.
There is virtually no industry, save for tourism; trees enough, it would seem, to filter even the filthiest air; and a rich cultural mosaic. In short, it’s an eco-traveller’s paradise found.
Few, however, seem to have found it. The former British Honduras is a mostly English-speaking country, often overlooked by vacationers focused as they often are on the Caribbean’s usual suspects.
But tucked away between the sea to the east, Mexico to the north, and Guatemala to the west and south is a country that hasn’t let the siren call of tourist dollars lure it far from its natural state.
While the country is surrounded by cautionary tales where unchecked tourism has trampled nature and culture, Belize, if it continues to hold firm to its sustainable tourism principles, still has the chance to get it right.
Lucy Fleming, past-president of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, current member of its marketing advisory board, and co-owner, with her husband, of the country’s most award-winning eco-resort Chaa Creek, says “Belize is getting it as right as it’s possible to get.”
She admits that its responsible tourism intentions are compromised by the country’s poverty and its small size.
What’s more, Belize is facing a formidable foe in the cruise industry.
Belize is the fastest-growing Caribbean cruise stop with a five-fold increase in ships since 2000. Roughly a million passengers disembark in Belize City annually – more than three times the country’s total population.
While quick-thinking entrepreneurs are enjoying customers brought to their front door, long-time ecotour operators report watching tourists climb like ants over Mayan ruins – and their own customers are increasingly complaining about the crowds.
What makes this discontent alarming is that these eco-tourists generally spend a week or more in the country – scuba diving, exploring archeological sites and kayaking – spending considerable tourist dollars as they go.
Cruise ship passengers, on the other hand, spend little.
Fleming, no fan of cruise ships, nonetheless notes that the Department of Archeology has put considerable money into making its sites capable of handling large groups.
And the volume of cruise tourists has encouraged smaller operators to steer tourists toward more undiscovered sites, making it a better experience for the eco-traveller, she argues.
And no one can dispute the fact that the cruise industry has provided some income for a lot of urban poor in Belize City, the “hair braiders, the trinket sellers …” says Fleming.
But, she points out, “it hasn’t established careers in tourism.”
Nonetheless, Fleming remains optimistic.
“Cruises are not going to ruin (Belize).”
Costas Christ, global travel editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine and owner of a cottage in Belize, shares Fleming’s optimism, pointing out that Belize has historically treasured what nature has blessed it with – indeed, 36 per cent of its land and water is protected for conservation and tourism.
Marine reserves are carefully monitored and require a fee and check-in. Similarly, the country is working hard to protect its rainforests and the vast array of endangered or threatened species that make Belize home.
“(Belize) recognizes that its competitive edge is its cultural and natural heritage … and has in the past 12 months, put into place a sustainable tourism development. That’s a pretty bold step you won’t see in many countries around the world,” says Christ.
There’s little evidence to visitors that any part of Belize is under threat. The jungles are lush and verdant, alive with macaws, toucans, parrots and howler monkeys. The water is teeming with fish, turtles and sea mammals.
Meg Pier, whose website, www.aviewfromthepier.com, outlines her travel adventures, was lured to the country by its cultural diversity.
“My focus on travel is connections,” she says, “with the people, culture and landscape. In Belize, these are inexorably intertwined.”
Fleming points out that Belize is home to eight distinct cultures, from Mayans to Arabs to Mennonites. Belize, she says simply, is the most unique country in the Caribbean.
“It’s the hallmark of our success.”
Christ agrees. “In many respects, it stands as a model … It’s not a secret, but a lot of people haven’t yet discovered it.”
Leslie Garrett is a Toronto-based freelance writer.