Belize EcoTourism: Taking a Proactive Approach to Education and Awareness

With tourism one of the country’s top sources of revenue, Belize’s livelihood depends on nature. And although it’s never easy to balance tourism with environmental preservation, Belize has realised that ignoring the latter means endangering the former. From the BBC.

Belize, South America. 9 February 2012. Belize’s livelihood depends on nature. Thirty-six percent of its landmass enjoys protected status. Thirteen percent of its waters, including significant portions of the world’s second largest coral reef system, are protected as well.

Belize offers some amazing wildlife - that only comes out at night in some casesSince the 1980s, the government has encouraged Belizeans to be stakeholders in their own tourism industry, supporting community-based projects. It offers spectacular teeming jungles, lush rainforests, dry pine savannas, tangled mangrove swamps, and dynamic coral reefs. It is truly one of the best examples in the New World Tropics of a species rich, biologically diverse country and is a leader in conservation initiatives.

One community-based tourism venture is the Community Baboon Sanctuary, an experiment in voluntary 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 in, partly because they stand to benefit from the tourists attracted to the sanctuary.

In 1997, a local grassroots campaign against illegal logging, fishing and poaching in Toledo District also boosted the ecotourism industry. Within the Belize Barrier Reef, for example, the Glover’s Reef atoll has been established as a “no-take” marine reserve where fishing is prohibited. In a place threatened by illegal fishing and overfishing, this unique stretch of reef helps promote natural biodiversity – and visiting diver tourists.

Pristine environments need preserving. Reefs and jungles are delicate ecosystems

Even with these improvements, Belize faces 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. Luckily, local communities are taking an ever increasing interest in these issues.

The town of Placencia, for example, has been turning away Belize’s dramatically increasing numbers of cruise ships, despite the money they bring. This is because they see the potential damage cruise ships cause to the local environment, and because cruise tourists who only spend a short time on land, could interfere with traditional tourism. The Placencia Tour Operators Association has fought against the Royal Caribbean cruise line to stop the “cruise exploitation” visits in the area.

Even thoughtful tourism causes its own problems. Belize produces some 350,000 tonnes of waste annually from domestic and commercial establishments, and illegal dumping has become a serious and growing problem. Fortunately, dozens of universities and higher education facilities from around the world have partnered with local governmental and corporate entities to foster “experiential learning” opportunities to help local people understand the value of a protected ecology.

Cruise ships have proved a mixed blessing - they bring money, but plenty of rubbish tooOne eco-tourism based team developed a manual crusher for metal cans that are then used as fill material in concrete buildings. The design of this device was donated to the Belize Ecotourism Association which promotes it as a recycling tool – and sells it as a fund raiser.

Experiential learning goes further than crushing cans. It uses project-based, hands-on, community level field courses in watershed ecology, forest ecology, marine ecology and intercultural ecology. It helps visitors understand and explore jungles, rivers and reefs while viewing them with binoculars, cameras, and computers.

Chaa Creek resort is among those leading the way in this effort through their diverse educational programs and tours. Guests are given tips on how to best interact with the natural beauty of the resort and learn how they can make a difference even after they return home. Chaa Creek's guides know their jungle - but bring smiles along with dangerous animals!It is, says the Belize Ecotourism Association, “reconnecting with the Earth through sky, rock, water and life and learning to live within our means while respecting the lives of others no matter what race, gender, age, nationality or species.”

Travellers who do visit Belize, whether on a short or longer stay, are encouraged to do their part to minimise their environmental harm and maximise the economic benefit. So everybody wins.

Photos : Belize Tourism, Chaa Creek