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Tourism in Belize

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For many reasons, Belize is a wonderful place to visit. In fact, the list of positive reasons to do so is a good deal longer for this small Central American nation than for most other, comparable spots. Aside from the obvious - the country's scenic beauty coupled with the fun and adventure involved in exploring an exotic, tropical locale - Belize consistently offers ecotravellers interesting, full, and thought-provoking trips. Mainly this is because Belize was "discovered" only recently as an ecotourism destination and, therefore, is in the midst of developing the areas and sites that attract foreign visitors.

The part of this process of interest to environmentally concerned travelers is that, by starting its ecotourism development later than some other countries, Belize is able to evaluate successful and unsuccessful programs elsewhere, to be able to copy the best, reject the worst, and innovate using the trial-and-error learning of others. If it does things right, Belize may avoid some ecotravel mistakes and build a solid, sustainable, nature tourism industry.

In addition to a rapidly developing conservation ethic and associated ecological attractions, Belize has many other features to recommend it. Belize is a quiet, peaceful, relatively safe, politically stable, democratically governed, English-speaking place. Small in size, Belize has a correspondingly small population (perhaps, in 1998, 250,000 people, half of whom live in six larger towns, most of which are located along the Caribbean Coast - see Map 1) and hence, a low human population density. In fact, it is the most sparsely-populated nation in Central America. The country's infrastructure (roads, bridges, hospitals, tourist facilities) may, in some regions or instances, leave a bit to be desired, but that is, of course, part of the fun and allure of serious ecotravel.

For the most part, Belize is easily and fairly safely navigable - by bus, car, airplane, and boat. Infrastructure is slowly being upgraded, with financial help from the USA's Agency for International development, the United Kingdom, Canada's International Development Agency, and the European Union (EU). Most of the local people you meet are very friendly and helpful. Importantly, and in contrast to many other Central American countries, most Belizeans seem now to be enjoying a moderately high rate of improvement in their standard of living. Education is compulsory to age 14, and the adult literacy rate is thought to be between 80% and 90%. The government has made good progress in providing electrical service and adequate health care to even fairly remote villages, and sanitation is improving.

The main attractions of Belize to foreign visitors are its tropical rainforests and associated wildlife, its good number of highly accessible yet lightly-visited Mayan ruin sites, and its long barrier reef and associated small, tropical islands. Actually, this small country contains a richly varied set of habitats, many of which will be encountered in your travels (unless the sole purpose of a trip is beach sunbathing and coastal underwater exploration). There is the flat coastal plain along the Caribbean Sea, much of it masses of mangroves and swamps and wet coastal marshland. Flying into Belize City and looking downwards as the airplane descends, you see amazing, glistening colors - pastel greens, blues, oranges - as sunlight reflects off these varied aquatic habitats. Much of this area is accessible only by boat or air.

The northern half of Belize has many agricultural districts (sugarcane is the main crop), with much of the wild habitat consisting of tropical palm savanna - a very open, attractive, soothing-looking habitat. The southern half of Belize is divided fairly evenly between coastal low-elevation rainforest (where citrus fruits are increasingly grown in agricultural sections) and inland mountainous areas that include a striking, quite beautiful habitat - tropical pine forest. Most famously, Belize is the site of the Western Hemisphere's longest barrier reef. This tropical coral reef, alive with thousands of kinds of fish and other reef-associated organisms, and the many nearby small, sandy, palm-treed islands (cayes, pronounced keys), increasingly attract divers, snorkellers, reef aficionados, and beach denizens from around the globe.

Excerpts from the author's Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide, (Academic Press, 1998).

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