Thirty-six percent of Belize’s landmass enjoys protected status. Thirteen percent of its waters, including vast portions of the world’s second largest coral reef system, are protected as well.
With tourism being one of the
country’s top sources of revenue, Belize’s livelihood depends on nature. And while
it is never easy to balance tourism growth with environmental preservation, the
small Central American country has long recognized that ignoring the latter
means betraying the former.
Since the 1980s, the
government has encouraged Belizeans to be stakeholders in their own tourism
industry, occasionally supporting community-based projects, according to the travel
book Insight Guides Belize. Because residents have a vested
interest in protecting their own communities and environment, they are the
natural leaders of the ecotourism charge.
In Punta Gorda, Belize’s
southernmost town and capital of the Toledo District, Mayan and Garifuna
villagers started building
guesthouses from available materials in the late ‘80s. Though they
had minimal funding at the time, their efforts eventually became the Toledo Ecotourism Association.
With help from local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the group
expanded into a network of eco-lodges and cultural tours that provide tourists with
an authentic experience in local villages and the rainforests that surround
tourism venture is the Community Baboon Sanctuary,
an experiment in voluntary citizen conservation, founded in 1985. It began with
12 private landowners in the northern Bermudian Landing area agreeing to
preserve their land as a habitat for endangered black howler monkeys (called
“baboons” by locals). Now 200 landowners in seven different villages have
joined the cause, in part because they stand to benefit from the tourism pulled
in by the sanctuary.
In 1997, back in the southern
Toledo District, a local grassroots campaign against illegal logging, fishing
and poaching also eventually became a part of the ecotourism industry. The Toledo Institute for Development and Environment
works today with villagers to conserve natural resources and biodiversity. The
NGO also runs a sustainable tour operator, Tide Tours, which trains locals to be tour guides. Trips
range from kayaking excursions to Mayan ruin expeditions, and proceeds support
the local community.
In addition to community-based
projects, successful efforts in the public sector have helped boost sustainable
tourism in Belize. Within the Belize Barrier Reef, for example, the gorgeous atoll of Glover’s
Reef has been maintained as a “no-take” marine reserve, a sanctuary where fishing is
prohibited. In a place threatened by
illegal fishing and overfishing, this unique stretch of reef helps promote
Other lands are protected by
private organizations, including the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area
in northwest Belize, managed by the nonprofit Program
for Belize. Set within the Maya Forest, Rio Bravo is the largest private
reserve in Belize, with more than 260,000 acres of tropical rainforest that is
home to endangered ocelots and jaguars, more than 400 bird species and 200 tree
species. Rio Bravo also houses La Milpa, a Mayan
archaeological site. The Program for Belize has been working with the
international Nature Conservancy, particularly on efforts to battle climate change.
Even with these strides,
Belize faces daunting challenges in managing the developmental and
environmental impact of tourism. Some of the biggest ecological risks come from
cruise tourism, deforestation, overfishing and oil exploration. What remains
heartening, though, is how engaged local communities tend to be in these
issues. The town of Placencia, for example, has been turning away Belize’s dramatically
increasing cruise industry, both because of the potential damage cruise
ships may cause to the local environment and because the influx of cruise
tourists, who do not bring nearly as much economic activity as overnight visitors,
could interfere with traditional tourism. Specifically, the Placencia Tour
Operators Association has fought against the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
Travellers who do visit
Belize, whether on a cruise or on a longer stay, can do their part to minimize their
environmental harm and maximize their economic benefit. Bear in mind these tips
for a responsible trip:
community-driven tourism enterprises. Attractions such as the
Community Baboon Sanctuary and the Toledo Ecotourism Association are beautiful places to explore. As a bonus, visiting them helps drive economic
activity in rural areas.
- Save water and
electricity in your hotel. Electricity costs are high
and water is a valuable resource, especially in times of drought. Try to stay
in an eco-lodge that recycles rainwater and uses solar panels.
- Minimize your
carbon footprint. Opt for snorkelling, kayaking, hiking and other
activities that don’t require the use of fuel-heavy modes of transport. When
swimming or boating, be careful not to touch the coral reefs as they are very
- Take advantage of
Belize’s natural landscape. Visit the many nature
preserves and wildlife sanctuaries in Belize. Your dollars make it possible for
them to exist in the first place.
- Buy local. Choose local produce and locally-made goods in markets and shops rather
than their imported counterparts.
- Shop carefully. Although it is illegal to sell products made from protected species, you
may stumble upon such items. Be careful not to buy any jewellery or creams made
from sea turtles, leather goods made from reptiles, trinkets made from wild
bird feathers, furs of jaguars, ocelots or margays, or cacti or orchids sold
without special permits.