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Low-Impact Tourism in Belize

Posted July 2, 2007

For years, Belize attracted scuba divers looking to explore the famous Blue Hole and beachgoers seeking the laid-back disposition of the island town, San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye.

Today, low-impact tourism in Belize reaches new heights, focusing on individual and small group activities to give travelers an intimate view of nature and authentic local culture. Advocates of ecotourism have marketed their industry as offering financial and social support to disadvantaged communities while at the same time providing incentives for conservation.

Already on the radar of curious travelers are the lush Cayo District and the beachside town of Placencia, where Francis Ford Copolla and other foreign investors have spent the past decade building resorts catering to outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs.
Other regions of Belize, ‘green’ with envy, are getting in on the action and hoping to make Belize an appealing top destination for the eco-conscious tourist.

Holy Toledo!

Probably the hottest new region for low-impact ecotourism is the Toledo District, 200 miles from Belize City on the southern tip of Belize. Enshrouded by one of the county’s most pristine rainforests, the calls of howler monkeys outnumber those made to hotel reservationists, and seven-foot iguanas are considered “big local attractions.”

Punta Gorda, the main town in the Toledo District, can be reached via four-hour car ride from Belize City or a one-hour flight aboard Tropic Air or Maya Island Air. Most visitors prefer to avoid the heavier downpours in June, July and August, visiting Toledo during the driest months of November through May.

In recent years the Toldeo District has captured the attention of fly-fishing aficionados, with promises of plentiful tarpon, bonefish, permit and snook.

Five miles outside of Punta Gorda within the Big Hill Range, many anglers caught a good night’s sleep in one of the 12 individual cabins at El Pescador South Adventure Center.

In 2006, a few traveling conservationists brought home more than a fish tale, purchasing the lodge and a whopping 11,000 acres of land surrounding the property, renaming it Machaca Hills Lodge. Reopened just before the New Year, the lodge added an array of luxurious accoutrements, such as fine linens, more attentive service and art-clad interiors. A classically trained chef upgraded the dining experience, and plans for a spa are in the works.

But the new owners didn’t catch and release the founding principles upon which this property rests. Machaca Hills Lodge is firmly rooted in the belief that eco-tour providers must operate under strict codes of ethics and practices to limit environmental and cultural impact to preserve the resources they are promoting.

This is the first hotel in Belize to meet the stipulations set forth by the international Rainforest Alliance and will train other hoteliers on how to operate in accordance with this conservation methodology.

Next Seek Blue Creek

The Rainforest Alliance's Belize-based partner, Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), was founded in 1997 to ensure preservation of the ecology.

They work with local communities to promote sustainable means of generating income. For example, locals are trained to guide low-impact fly-fishing excursions, nature walks, canoeing and birding expeditions as alternatives to partaking in illegal hunting and fishing, which threaten the health of the estuary.

TIDE succeeded in getting Port Honduras declared a Marine Reserve in 2000 for the protection of endangered coral and marine life, and a central reservations service of local eco-tour operators was developed to help travelers design the perfect itinerary.
Within five designated wildlife reserves, tours can be tailored to seek out 2,000 species of flowering plants and 500 species of birds or explore numerous caves, sinkholes and waterfalls.

For example, adventurers can hire a guide to lead them through the caves at Blue Creek, one of the largest underground cave systems in the world, which can take up to two days to explore. Hokeb Ha Cave at Blue Creek, about a 20-minute hike from the village, provides a wonderful afternoon for swimming and picnicking at an open-sided camp station along the way.

Be Maya Guest

Toledo’s diversity stretches beyond the variety of flora and fauna, with five indigenous groups living here: Maya, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian and descendants of Civil War Confederates that sought refuge in Belize.

In 1990, the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) formed and soon afterward developed the Maya Homestay Program to expose travelers to the rich cultural heritage found within this region.

Eight villages offer traditional thatched-roof accommodations for under $10 per night in order for visitors to spend a day-in-the-life with a Mopan or Ketchi Mayan. Or, one can simply spend an afternoon weaving baskets or enjoying a home-prepared lunch.

Hosting is done on a rotation basis for equitable distribution of benefits, with 80 percent of the profits going to the village and the remaining 20 percent funding health, education and conservation initiatives. The number of visitors is kept to a minimum, and the community-controlled infrastructure reinforces the low-impact tourism concept. Yet, these nominal tourism efforts have immensely helped the villages to prosper, especially after the devastating setback from Hurricane Iris in October or 2001.

One ponders the catch phrase "low-impact tourism" to define the approach Belize is taking to reveal the country’s beauty. Anyone who’s experienced tours striving to “tread lightly with intention” will tell you: personal impact is great and leaves the best impression.

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