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 ToledoEcotourismAssociation. 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, TideTours, 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.