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 them.
Another community-based 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 natural biodiversity.
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:
Support 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 delicate habitats.
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.