Blueprint points the way to sustainability as nation seeks to boost tourism.
The views in Belize have always been extraordinary: the expansive Belize Barrier Reef, the white sand beaches of Placencia, the lush Toledo rainforest.
And now, add to that list of tourist attractions a spectacular blueprint, where the views are not just panoramic but, planners are hoping, prescient. For the next two years, the Belize Tourism Board will be following the blueprint’s outline to balance growth of a vibrant tourism market with the need for conservation and sustainability of the nation’s precious resources. Working with partners including ecotourism consultant Megan Epler Wood, the Planeterra Foundation, of which Wood is executive director, and the tour company, Gap Adventures, a founding partner of the foundation, the board is hoping to successfully sell investors and tourists the very same treasured assets it is duty-bound to protect and conserve.
“I think the big issue for countries like Belize is how they are going to take advantage of their beautiful location and all the wonderful conserved lands they have,” said Epler Wood. “Belize has put a lot of their land under protection, there are a lot of national parks, their famous barrier reef which is not only their No. 1 selling point but the most important place they need to conserve. There is always that double-edged sword.”
Epler Wood said the action plan being shaped with Belize tourism board director Seleni Matus will seek responsible investment, especially in locales such as Belize City, a business center that is also a docking point for the more than 800,000 cruise-ship passengers every year. Belize City serves as their departure point for more popular attractions, such as San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, but has not evolved yet into a destination in its own right. Epler Wood believes a market in overnight stays could ultimately be cultivated here.
At the same time, to spread the word about Belize’s varied offerings to interested parties, a digital marketing plan has already been sketched out by the blueprint: Students from Matador University, a media school for travel professionals, will be traveling throughout Belize, blogging as they go. This will create, planners hope, some Internet magnetism while providing a critical window into the nation’s finest offerings.
“Any country is always looking to diversify and create some hubs that will benefit local people,” she said, but the planning for Belize is especially critical because the natural resources are so valued. Working with the Planeterra Foundation, Epler Wood is also focusing on San Pedro, a top destination already – accounting for 40 percent of Belize’s tourism dollars. But like other environmentally sensitive areas, San Pedro, she said, needs to be conserved for the long term in the face of growth.
Although Belize is “on the path to sustainability,” she said, it needs to pay particular attention to coastline conservation, on a regional level, as new investment begins filtering in. “The more the coastline of Belize is built up the more danger there is of runoff,” she said. “That’s why we are sending people down now who have a strong understanding of the decision-making process for new building development of any kind.”
Epler Wood spoke recently about Belize’s tourism potential at a consular meeting in Brussels, representing Matus and the Belize board, to spark more interest in investment as well as travel from Europe to Belize – a route that has been obstructed by the lack of convenient connecting flights. This is the tourism growth that she hopes will follow naturally from all the planning under way now.
But before the European tourists arrive, the right kind of private investors have to be in place, she said, “the ones who have an understanding of the need for protection.” The model for this, she said, could well be the luxury resort, Chaa Creek, where private investment almost 30 years ago in a delicate, yet-unspoiled ecosystem, attracted a cluster of subsequent hotels in the region. Chaa Creek opens its doors to the rainforest with all its wildlife, the Barrier Reef and the natural treasures to be found on the coastline
“Chaa Creek set the standard for how you build hotels around protected areas,” she said. “You don’t want to ruin it.”
Epler Wood calls it an ecofriendly model that is, itself, another kind of blueprint too – one planners will be looking at as well.