by Richard Simpson
This paper explores the positive and negative impact of tourism on the Belizean natural resources and residents. Ecotourism is important to the survival of the natural resources and the Belizean tourism industry. Tourism that is sustainable benefits the natural resources, the tourists who seek out such resources, and the locals who provide the tourism services. Belize must pay close attention to the increasing impact of tourism. Developing a fee structure that goes directly to maintaining the natural resources and enforcing regulations is one significant step that can be taken to ensure ecotourism is successful in Belize. Tourism is important to the Belize economy, and the survival of the ecosystems that attract so much of the tourism to the country is critical.
Global Leadership: Sustainable Tourism
Belize is a sparsely populated country on the eastern coast of Central America. The largest city in Belize is Belize City where a fourth of the nation’s population lives. Belize City is also the country’s major port and commercial center. Outside of Belize City, the country possesses a variety of natural resources and ecosystems that drive tourist to visit each year. Many of the areas are protected. The ecosystems provide a rich diversity of wildlife, vegetation and flora, and one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.
Located at the south end of the Placencia Peninsula is the small village of Placencia. Like many coastal towns in the region, the economy was once largely supported by the fishing industry. As business declined, residents mostly transitioned to formal and informal tourism enterprises (Wells, Zarger, Whiteford, Mihelcic, Koenig, & Cairns, 2013). The area has become a prominent destination for tourist from around the world.
In the peak season, tourists come from all around the world to explore the variety of natural resources and ecosystems located near Placencia. They stay and play at relatively small resorts, such as Robert’s Grove. Daily tours take guests to some of the most spectacular natural reserves, such as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Laughing Bird Caye, and the Blue Hole. Also, tourists have access to the world’s second largest barrier reef, Mayan ruins, and several terrestrial parks and reserves (Lindberg, Enriquez, & Sproule, 1996). The tourism industry has come both positively and negatively impacted these natural resources and residents.
Ecotourism, sustainable tourism, or responsible tourism are important to the survival of the natural resources and the Belizean tourism industry. According to Blersch and Kangas (2013), ‘Ecotourism is a form of development in which income is generated for local people and/or governments from visitors attracted by natural ecosystems’ (p. 67). Tourism that is sustainable benefits the natural resources, the tourist who seek out such resources, and the locals who provide the tourism services. The concept of ecotourism has changed over the years as conservationists have recognized its potential to assist in the protection of sensitive environments and to support the local economies (Blersch, 2013). According to Honey (2008), ecotourism possesses the following seven characteristics:
- Involves travel to natural destinations
- Minimizes impact
- Builds environmental awareness
- Provides direct financial benefits for conservation
- Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people
- Respects local culture
- Supports human rights and democratic movements
Tourism, especially tourism that expands rapidly or is unplanned, can hurt coral reefs, other ecosystems, and keystone resources such as water and energy (Diedrich, 2010; Wells, 2013). Moreover, potential negative impacts of tourism in natural areas include pollution, direct contact, anchor damage, sedimentation, and over-development (Diedrich, 2007). Conversely, ecotourism can create progressive changes toward the conservation of the natural resources (Blersch, 2012; Diedrich, 2007; Lindberg, Enriquez, & Sproule, 1996).
The ecosystems or environmental resources of Belize that draw tourists include both the inland rainforests, the coastal environment and the barrier reef. A recent study focused on the shifting values and perceptions of coral reef conservation found that some communities in Belize are in various stages of a socio-economic shift from dependence on fishing to dependence on tourism (Diedrich, 2007). Many of these areas have no real on-site management presence (Lindberg, 1996). In the study conducted by Diedrich (2007), locals ranked the coral reefs as the highest in importance to tourism. This same study also found that the reef was the primary motivation for tourist choosing to visit Belize. Lindberg (1996) notes, ‘Tourism at protected areas generates a wide variety of impacts, including financial, economic, social, and ecological’ (p. 548).
There are social, economic, and environmental benefits to tourism communities when there is a structured plan in place (Diedrich, 2007). Tourism can be a source of financial support for ecosystems, but it can also generate a financial cost and the ecological or social impact is difficult to assess in financial terms (Lindberg, 1996). Diedrich explains, ‘Conservation support may be more contingent upon perceived benefits than environmental concerns’ (p. 994).
Residents. Although the locals can view tourism as a conflict to conservation measures, including the loss of control and access to natural resources, the alternative is that tourism and the associated benefits can promote awareness and support for conservation measures (Diedrich, 2007). Additionally, residents benefit from the increased tourism. One study showed how residents view the overall quality of life improving because of tourism (Diedrich, 2007). With the increase in tourism comes the need for tourism-related jobs for locals, further increasing the support for conservation among residents (Lindberg, 1996). Because residents are directly impacted by ecotourism, they see the importance of sustainable conservation efforts. Diedrich (2007) found, ‘As tourism increases so do local perceptions of the overall benefits associated with it’ (p. 989). Specifically, many of the Belizean locals view tourism as positively impacting the coral reefs and marine environment (Diedrich, 2007). Residents have seen the positive effects of tourism. In particular, concerns and education related to the conservation of natural resources has increased.
The negative impact of tourism on ecosystems is significant. Even though many view tourism as positive, a significant amount of residents, particularly in Placencia, perceive the local marine environment as unhealthy (Diedrich, 2007). This author observed, as well as Diedrich (2007) that Placencia residents are going through a period of adjustment and the perception of potential negative impact is especially elevated. Specifically referenced is the direct physical impact tourism development has had on natural resources and the increased contribution to pollution. Lindberg (1996) notes the cost of ecotourism to residents in particular:
- Reduced access to resources located within the protected area.
- Injury to residents, livestock, or crops.
- Economic or social costs related to tourism development.
Diedrich (2007) notes that compliance and enforcement of regulations have become significantly more important.
Belize must pay close attention to the increasing impact of tourism. ‘On average, tourists in Belize agreed they would be more likely to visit a destination if they knew the country protected their marine environment’ (Diedrich, 2007, p. 993). Developing a fee structure that goes directly to maintaining the natural resources and enforcing regulations is one significant step taken to ensure ecotourism is successful in Belize. One case study found that to achieve ecotourism objectives implementation of even just a small fee would result in sustainable conservation efforts (Lindberg, 1996). Lindberg (1996) notes that it is reasonable for the tourism industry to pay for the protected areas used as the attraction. Maintaining healthy coral reefs and other natural resources is essential to Belize continuing to be a tourist destination (Diedrich, 2007). Fee revenues would lead to not only properly maintaining, but improving the tourism product (Lindberg, 1996).
It was clear in Placencia, Belize that the lack of infrastructure was the cause for concern for any further tourism development in the area. The locals were aware, yet seemed indifferent to do anything to increase infrastructure. There either was a lack of will or resources. Yet, the impact of tourism on the ecosystems continue whether they like it or not. Key efforts to develop and maintain a symbiotic relationship between tourism development and conservation is important by including locals directly in the discussion and decision-making of conservation efforts (Diedrich, 2010). Diedrich (2007) suggests two questions must be addressed to assess tourism policy:
- What factors may be contributing to this mutually beneficial relationship?
- What could prevent this relationship from continuing in the future?
Tourism is important to the Belize economy, and the survival of the ecosystems that attract so much of the tourism to the country is critical. One of the final objectives of ecotourism should be to increase support for conservation among residents living near the natural resources (Lindberg, 1996). For tourism to develop and continue to improve the quality of life for the local people, there must be maintained a strong correlation between tourism development and locals’ agreement that it has resulted in more jobs (Diedrich, 2007). Although a definitive standard has remained elusive, ecotourism, sustainable tourism, or responsible tourism are important to the survival of the natural resources and the tourism industry in Belize (Lindberg, 1996). Diedrich (2007) concludes, ‘Belize has the advantage of being able to learn from the failures and successes of its neighbors and should be proactive in its approach to tourism management’ (p. 995).
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