San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Can you be convinced to visit Belize?

Rand Taylor, 54, picked his favorite dive spot as a place to semi-retire 10 years ago. In Placencia, Belize, Taylor can walk from his home to the beach. He never worries about crowds. The world’s second-largest barrier reef awaits each dive.

Earlier this month, Taylor and a another Placencia business owner, came to Costa Rica to promote what it labels an unspoiled destination – Belize is home to only 314,000 people. In 2010, as the tourism industry bounced back from the global economic crisis,  Belize received 240,000 overnight tourists and 800,000 tourists from cruise stops.

The country is squeezed onto a thin strip of land east of Guatemala and south of Mexico. The Belizean border shares rain forests with Guatemala, which provides a habitat for jaguars and exotic birds. The Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of the Caribbean coast ending right before Honduras. It only takes several hours to go from one side of the country to the other. In between, visitors can experience a wealth of adventure and ecotourism activities.

Despite similar credentials at other Central American tourist destinations – Mayan ruins, thick jungles and miles of beaches – Belize does not have the money or the experience to compete with larger, more organized tourism industries in Costa Rica, Panama or even its neighbor Guatemala. How can Central America’s tiniest country compete in a crowded market?

Placencia, the city Taylor lives in, could play a large role in solving that riddle. For the first time a Belizean company, Splash Dive Center, located on the Placencia Peninsula, hosted a booth at Costa Rica’s popular annual tourism fair ExpoTur last May.

“We’re really glad that we’re here because we are the only company representing Belize,” Taylor said. “And Belize is a place that’s largely undiscovered at this point and we’re trying to change that.”

The Splash Dive Company paid its own way to San José. The quasi-government body the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) chose not to fund the trip, instead focusing its promotional efforts in the United States and Europe. Taylor also needed to hop a flight to El Salvador before flying to Costa Rica since no direct flights from Belize to Costa Rica exist.

Belize 2

One of western Belize’s many Mayan archeological sites, the Xunantunich Ruins, near San Ignacio, 10,000 kilometers north of San José. Courtesy of Belize Tourism Board.

Placencia could be Belize’s best shot for growing its tourism market. Ambergris Caye is the country’s most developed tourism market. Arriving at the island in northeast Belize requires only a quick ride from the international airport in Belize City. However, Ambergris’ location makes it a sort of boutique town and can limit what tourists experience. Vacationers can stopover there for a few days and beat it back to the airport for their flight home.

The capital, Belmopan, and the country’s biggest city, Belize City, are seen as more hubs than tourist spots. Punta Gorda, in the dense rain forest of Toledo, is also growing but lacks the infrastructure of other major destinations. San Ignacio is a popular destination in western Belize, in close proximity to the Mayan ruins. Placencia added new roads to make accessing the southeastern city easier. Tourism businesses are growing fast, but not so fast to outrun the area’s still-improving infrastructure.

Placencia Representing the Future

Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) President Jim Scott notices Placencia’s  growing buzz. He pointed to online statistics showing that no place in Belize receives more Internet searches than Placencia. The largest chapter of the BTIA is in Placencia, with more than 120 of the BTIA’s approximately 600 members. The group has worked on a focused vision for Belize.

“Belize has always had a fabulous product,” said Stewart Krohn, chairman of the BTIA’s Placencia chapter. “I’ve been involved in it for almost 40 years. When it comes to the product, the authenticity is here. And the problem is how to take advantage of that authenticity that the country has as a whole and market it.”

Krohn spent 35 years as a broadcast journalist in Belize before becoming a land developer for a residential and resort community called Cocoplum. He and other members of the local BTIA chapter want to see the region marketed as an ecotourism destination, not a high-end luxury resort or simply a relaxing beach town.

Mary Toy, who owns a wholesale retail travel agency in Placencia called Destinations Belize, said much has changed in Placencia. A decade ago, residents could only buy one bottle of wine in town and the largest hotels had 12 rooms.

Some feel the government and the BTB – which is funded by private sector taxes – seem too scattershot with plans, trying a little bit of this and that while not maintaining focus.

“One of Belize’s problems is that we have a lot of plans but [many] don’t get implemented,” Toy said.

However, that should change at the end of the month. The BTB plans to roll out its new National Tourism Plan, said Seleni Matus, president of the BTB. That information will serve as a guide for Belize tourism over the next two decades, with research on how to improve infrastructure and publicity in a way that benefits the environment and tourism. One in seven jobs in Belize are tourism-related, she said, emphasizing the plan’s importance.

Until those new strategies are revealed, the BTIA is backing new regulations for the peninsula. Issues include a limit on the height of hotels and more support for small, locally owned budget hotels that make up much of the tourism industry.

The BTIA in Placencia even managed to circumvent the government, securing funds from the World Wildlife Fund. The resources will go toward sustaining the country’s protected regions, which make up about one-third of Belize.

The BTB and the BTIA hope to lower the cost of flights to Belize. The cost of living in the country runs more expensive than most of Central America. Flights from the United States to Cancún, Mexico, can cost hundreds of dollars less than Belize City, even though 200 miles separate the towns.

The BTIA division is well organized, and not afraid to butt heads with the BTB. The port issue has been particularly contentious. Krohn said research shows that cruise tourism has few benefits for local businesses and can have a negative effect on the environment.

Krohn acknowledged that the BTIA needs to make more compromises with the BTB if the push to attract more tourists is to succeed. Matus said past staffs at the BTB had been accused of making decisions behind closed doors. She said in the last year the tourism board and the private sector have worked to promote more open dialogue. Matus added while cruise tourism is important to certain parts of the country, like Belize City where it creates many jobs, she’d like to see the country’s overnight tourist and cruise numbers reversed over the next 20 years. She believes the National Tourism Plan will create that possibility.

“It’s possible and necessary that we mend fences,” Krohn said of the BTB.

In Costa Rica, Taylor illustrated the potential of Belize. In the spring, snorkelers can swim with enormous whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. They graze near the reef in Placencia in April and May. A short trip from the coastline brings vacationers in contact with monkeys, toucans and crystalline waterfalls.

Tourism business owners from as far as Sweden and Australia listened to Taylor’s presentation on Belize. The buyers planned trips to Belize to check it out as a possible destination to promote in the future.

Said Taylor: “When they read about it and see [our] video they say, ‘Wow I didn’t know that,’ and we say, ‘Yeah we know, that’s why we’re here’.”

Correction: The person who accompanied Rand Taylor on the trip to Costa Rica was not a member of the Belize Tourism Board. The Splash Dive Center paid for the trip.

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