Belize has been our briefest journey yet of all of our stops. We were in country for just a few weeks, but our experience there has left a lasting impact. I have been thinking about this for weeks, and finally decided to put thoughts to “paper”. This is more of a pensive post, so if you are looking for Mog shots and fun, maybe skip this one.
Belize has a very developed tourism industry, but a seemingly under developed middle class. This dichotomy leaves an odd vibe as every experience has seemingly been carved up into a tour with touts ready to take you there. Even if you arrive at these places on your own, you typically won’t find any Belizeans there. This is a big contrast to other countries and can’t help but leave one feeling odd. Like you are frolicking in someone’s backyard that they can’t even enjoy.
Because of the tourist pressure, a lot of “investors” have flocked to Belize and opened restaurants, lodges, etc. We encountered very few Belizean owned hotels, tour companies, etc. This furthers the mild sense of touristic imperialism in Belize, whether from the tourists themselves or the people who come to serve them. There is an evident power divide that seems widely accepted and rarely debated.
We couldn’t help but feel the divide between the locals and the “dream vacation” tourists, whose luxury buses blasted from one “natural wonder” to another. And an even greater distance between locals and the owners of said busses.
We are not naive, we understand tourism, but this was one of the few places we have gone (out of 50+ countries) where it didn’t feel like the tourism infrastructure benefited the broader population. All these eco-lodges, zip lines, dive shops, etc didn’t seem to provide greater access or ability to the locals. In Mexico, the US, Costa Rica or even China, you see locals side by side with foreign tourists experiencing their countries’ points of interest. You see proud local owner and operator tourism outfits. But in Belize it’s all foreign tourist and a lot foreign owners. When we spoke to most Belizeans, very few of them had experienced the very tours they were selling. Around the $600 per night eco lodges, the villages where the workers lived, didn’t look noticeably better than the “poor” fishing villages with no tourists. Speaking to the small mom and pop local establishments, they lamented the fact that so few of the tourists venture beyond their all inclusive resorts to experience more of Belize and to interact with the local people and economy.
Belize reminded us that we like it local and low key. Our favorite times were in the deep south of Belize in Garifuna villages, or on the backroads cruising on the motorcycles. There we found few(er) tourists and more Belizeans living their lives independent of the desires of foreign tourists.
Please don’t misunderstand me, we had a great time in Belize and loved the people we met there. Everywhere we went, we were met with kindness and positivity. Even the touts were less pushy and better mannered vs what you see in South East Asia. The problem for me in Belize was the feeling that it was all for me as a tourist. I watched Garifuna drummers dance around and drum their rhythms for a group of German tourists snapping away at sunset and I didn’t see joy on the drummers’ faces. It was a look of obligation. I hated it.
I just can’t help but wonder if we aren’t ruining Belize. Our touristic desire for the idealic beach, dive, eco destination slowly squeezing and conforming it’s masses into a position of servitude out of their sheer lack for other options.
So what does all this mean? I just think it makes us want to be more responsible with where our dollars, pesos, quetzales, go as we travel further. To be sure that every purchase casts a vote in what we value.