Travindy has partnered with Responsible Travel, organisers of the annual World Responsible Tourism Awards to showcase this year’s finalists, and in particular learn about how they market and promote sustainable tourism.
As the last in the interview series, Anula Galewska speaks with Jose Manuel Heredia Belize, Minister of Tourism and Culture of Belize, the sponsor country of this year’s Awards.
Anula: What are the main challenges Belize is facing in terms of balancing tourism development with the needs of locals and nature conservation?
Jose: Belize has innately and functionally evolved its tourism sector based on having access to an unparalleled mix of cultural and natural resources. Naturally our industry has embraced the principles and pillars of sustainable tourism, first through its ecotourism branch and subsequently with a reinvigorated interest along the lines of Responsible Tourism. As a result, our challenges have principally remained in strengthening and organizing the governance framework in Tourism to ensure that there is proper representation, proper procedures for development and coordination, and there exists a comprehensive policy and legal framework, that is maintained and adhered to.
Anula: How are you trying to overcome these issues?
Jose: For decades Belize has embraced sustainable development as its ethos and approach for growth and expansion of its tourism sector. However, Belize had never articulated the true vision of tourism development for the country until the first ever National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan (NSTMP) was approved and endorsed in October of 2012. This NSTMP has set the strategic vision and framework for sustainable tourism development in Belize, providing specific objectives and strategic actions along the lines of Marketing, Quality Assurance, Product Development, Infrastructure Development and Governance. Since 2012, both the Ministry of Tourism and its Belize Tourism Board, along with private sector partners have been actively engaged in advancing the recommendations of this National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan. One of the key activities that align with the governance challenge above, is that there has been a restructuring of the Belize Tourism Board, and the Ministry of Tourism to better serve the sector. Related, was the recent evolution of the Belize tourism brand, which embraces further the uniqueness, authenticity, and sustainability of our resources and assets countrywide.
Also, the Ministry and the BTB have been successfully able to leverage over $40 Million Dollars in Public Investments into the Tourism Sector since 2012, with the objective of developing our sustainable tourism product, building inclusion of local communities in the tourism sector, and ensuring an equitable distribution of tourism benefits across the length and breadth of the country. Two of the flagship investment programs are the IDB supported Sustainable Tourism Program I and II, the latter currently being implemented with a focus on developing new emerging tourism destinations in the country.
Lastly, the Ministry and the Belize Tourism Board have been engaged since 2012 in a proactive campaign to integrate our sustainable tourism development goals and principles within key sectors, and have successfully ensured that our NSTMP principles, guidelines and commitments are also reflected in major sector and governance strategies for the country, namely the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan, the National Climate Change Policy, and the Growth and Sustainable Development Strategy for Belize. This has led to tourism becoming one of the leading and central sectors across the development agenda for the country.
At the local level and with our partners, the Ministry and BTB have continued to engage in various initiatives, as prescribed by the NSTMP, to build capacity of our local community, tourism entrepreneurs, and stakeholders. Through grant scheme programs carried out by various investment initiatives, Belize has provided access to our local business for the development of new tourism business initiatives as well as enhancement of already existing local businesses that support and serve the tourism sector. In one such investment opportunity, a two year program to integrate local communities economically and socially to nine of our archaeological sites was well received and successful, and even led to the development of a line of authentic Belizean artisanal products produced by our local artisans. Under that same program, a new initiative was born, and the concept of establishing community based tour guides at our key tourism destinations continues to evolve and continues to provide for socio-economic inclusion of our local citizens.
On the side of our private sector, they have truly been the stewards of ecotourism and responsible tourism in Belize. Many have been established from the onset with a deliberate model of business that considers fully the sustainability pillars, and indeed have become leaders in their own right in the realm of best practices and standards in the hotel and tour operating sectors. Some even have invested heavily in the adoption of international sustainable tourism standards, via various certification programs that are available.
Anula: How do you communicate sustainability to potential visitors?
Jose: Based on the recommended development framework of our National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, Belize has rebranded and reengineered its marketing strategy and communication initiatives to fully embrace the pillars of sustainable tourism development. As a result our marketing strategy to our guests includes ensuring an equitable distribution of the tourism equity being delivered, meaning that all geographical regions in the country would receive a fair share of marketing efforts.
As well, the Belize Tourism Board, charged with the tourism marketing mandate for our country, ensures that our communications at all times represents fully the authentic and unique nature of each destination, our ecology, its people and its traditions. Additionally, the tourism sector has from its inception enjoyed a fruitful and deliberate relationship with the environmental and cultural sectors, and through our various nature and cultural– based tourism products continue to have presence in conventional and social media, locally and internationally.
On the ground, many of our hotel and tour operators sectors, along with the supporting services sector have over the years also adopted sustainability measures in their daily operations. It is noted, that these standards of operations, such as minimizing waste, usage of resources and promoting green technology in their installations have without a doubt been a visual and experiential reaffirmation of Belize’s commitment to sustainable development.
Anula: How are you engaging local communities in sustainability?
Jose: The Ministry of Tourism and the Belize Tourism Board have established a new initiative in the development of Local Tourism Planning Committees, which it has currently been able to successfully convene and have these Local Tourism Committees engage in developing Destination Level Development Plans. These committees are comprised of public, private and civil sector partners, and they also serve to provide oversight and guidance on tourism-based works happening in the destinations. This model has been deemed highly successful and therefore will shortly be rolled out countrywide as a platform for locals to have a say in how tourism develops in their communities.
It is important to note, that the work of these committees are at all times guided by the sustainable tourism framework established in the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan. A part from this, our work with local communities are integrated within our day to day activities, and through various mediums, whether it be through our destination planning teams, our planning and project development team, or our policy and business development teams, we continue to enjoy a healthy relationship with our local stakeholders and partners.
Anula: How are you engaging local tour business in sustainability?
Jose: The Ministry and the Belize Tourism Board, first and foremost continue to encourage tourism businesses that seek certification in a related sustainability program (currently there is a regional sustainability certification program being developed). However, through the work of our Quality Assurance team, activities such as the revamp of our minimum standards for hotels, development of new industry standards for specific type of tour activities, and so on, remain central.
In addition, our annual training plans by the Belize Tourism Board, for our Tour Guides, for our industry workers also serve as opportunities to reiterate and strengthen the embrace of sustainable tourism by our local partners. The country is also at this moment working with our partners in the Central American Region, as well as with our partners in business development in Belize, to continue to build access of funding and support for MSMEs, as this type of business remains the stronghold in our tourism sector.
Anula: What is the sustainable tourism initiative in Belize that you are most proud of?
Jose: Without a doubt the development and national endorsement of the National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan is by far one of the most notable achievements that Belize has been able to accomplish, along with the development of the very first Responsible Tourism Policy for Belize. The second initiative would have to be the current works that have materialized with the development of Local Tourism Planning Committees in four emerging destinations in Belize, and working with the communities in developing plans that integrates fully environmental, social, economic and governance concerns from the onset. This initiative has served as the seed for a $15 Million Investment in these emerging destinations, and has also led to the development of new models of planning and product development in Belize.
Anula: Why did you decide to sponsor the Responsible Tourism Awards?
Jose: Responsible Tourism is one of the main axis along the sustainable tourism paradigm, and Belize has made a concerted effort to establish its development framework along this approach of development. In 2011, parallel to the process of developing its first National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan, Belize also developed its first Responsible Tourism Policy after successfully celebrating the Third International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Belize.
As a result, while Belize has always organically embraced the ideals of sustainable tourism, the implementing framework of responsible tourism is being considered as a more effective means of achieving our sustainable tourism goals. As a result, currently the Ministry of Tourism is about to begin a process in which it will revise its current National Tourism Policy along the lines of Responsible Tourism, and this will be paired with a Responsible Tourism Agenda for 2021, which will serve as the Ministry’s Strategic Plan to execute the NSTMP for the next five years.
This is in an effort to give full consideration to the principles of Responsible Tourism, in particular that of ensuring the inclusion of local communities, the equitable sharing of responsibility across the sector, the maintenance of the integrity of our natural and cultural resources, and the ensuring of the economic viability of tourism for the local economy.
Based on this strategic direction being embraced by the Ministry of Tourism, we saw the opportunity to server as sponsors to the RTAs as a wonderful opportunity to not only highlight Responsible Tourism internationally, but to also showcase Belize’s approach towards sustainable development via a Responsible Tourism approach.
This article was the last in the interview series with the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 finalists, with whom we explored the best practices in marketing and sustainable tourism communications. You can find interviews with all finalists under World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 category.