New Belize official to expand ecotourism promotion

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BELIZE CITY, Belize -- Belize's new minister of tourism will focus on expanding promotion and development for the country's ecological and cultural attractions.

Minister Mark Espat used the word "upgrading" to describe the direction he hopes to take in developing travel products to attract new visitor markets and improve the tourist product in Belize. According to the minister, "our advertising and marketing will be aimed at upscale travelers and special interest groups to whom we offer discovery and adventure in our wildlife sanctuaries and among our dozens of ancient Maya sites."

Espat said some of the best archaeological finds are being made at Caracol,in the southwestern district of Cayo. One recent find was an elaborately carved altar stone that documented the once-powerful Mayan city's victory in 562 over Tikal in neighboring Guatemala.

"Caracol ruled the Maya world for more than 100 years and will be the major anchor in promoting Belize's increasing importance in the world of Mundo Maya discovery," he said.

Although the access road to the site needs improving, said Espat, other roadways in this corner of Belize have been upgraded. This upgrade facilitates such increasingly popular excursions as a day trip from San Ignacio to the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve on the south coast or the ruins of Tikal.

Another corridor of cultural discovery that Espat said will be improved joins Belize to Mexico in the north. "Mexico's Maya centers around Chetumal just north of our border are drawing increased attention from special interest travelers," he pointed out, "and with better roads and an upgraded border crossing, we can facilitate joining our ancient sites such as Santa Rita at Corozal; Lamanai, up the New River from Orange Walk, and Altun Ha closer to Belize City."

Improved roadways and good small-plane service by Tropic Air and Maya Island Air now link the capital and the interior to the southern coast beach resorts around Placencia and the 100,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the only jaguar reserve in the world.

In Belize's marketing plan, ecotourism shares the spotlight with cultural tourism in a country whose wildlife sanctuaries include those with black howler monkeys and jabiru storks in the wetlands of the Crooked Tree Sanctuary.

Espat hopes to market Belize's natural history appeal to more nature-loving travelers who will find the country home to 700 varieties of trees, 500 species of birds and 250 types of orchids, plus the many animals that occupy pristine rain forest areas. He also pointed out that Belize has an identity as both a Central American and a Caribbean destination.

"We are on the Caribbean, but we can't compete with the big traditional Caribbean beach destinations," said Espat, who noted that the accommodations infrastructure in Belize is one made up of fine guest houses and small hotels that cater to low-key resort life.

However, the minister was quick to point out that the world's second-largest barrier reef lies offshore, enabling the nation to offer visitors outstanding scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing. "We were extremely fortunate that Hurricane Mitch changed course and basically missed Belize," said Espat.

Although communities along the coast needed big beach clean-ups, and sea swells and winds caused damage to hotel and town piers on Ambergris Caye, the Caribbean resorts were back in full swing by the Thanksgiving holiday.

Espat said, "There is new seriousness to our tourism industry, which formerly was financed solely from the 7% hotel sales tax," said Espat, "but this government is making tourism a main pillar of its planning and investing additional funds from federal revenues."

For information on travel to Belize, contact the tourist board at its new Belize City-based information office. The number is (800) 624-0686.

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