Wedged snuggly between Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea's western shore, Belize is both of Central America and the Caribbean and at the same time, not. Rich in pre-Columbian archaeological sites yet English-speaking. Popular with honeymooners and divers but largely devoid of expansive, all-inclusive resorts.
And the Belize Tourism Board wants to keep it that way. Unique in its charms and once largely a diving mecca, the country is increasingly popular with U.S. vacationers, who now account for 60% of visitors, according to Seleni Matus, director of tourism. In fact, the Belize Tourism Board reported annual growth rates of 2.5% and 8% in overnights and cruise arrivals, respectively, last year and predicts an overall 4% increase for all of 2011, she said.
Belize specialist agent Barbara Kasak, owner of Barb's Belize in Stuarts Draft, Va., has noted the uptick. "I'm very busy booking a lot of honeymoons, destination weddings and family vacations to Belize," she said. "But it's the full range; I also work with a lot of backpackers and budget travelers spending $25 to $35 a night."
The growth is welcome, but Belizeans want to develop, sustainably, on their own terms.
"Belize has always aspired to keep an authentic feel and ensure that tourism benefits local communities," Matus said. "With larger, all-inclusive resorts, there's less trickle-down and so, by design, we have not ... pursued branded development."
In fact, the only two so-called "branded" hotels, a Best Western and a Radisson, are located in highly urban Belize City.
"From a destination standpoint, our focus is on stewardship," Matus said. "We're being strategic in how we're growing cruise tourism and the overnight sector. In our growth there will be a bias."
When it does court international partners, the tourism board turns to brands -- such as a Four Seasons or cruise lines sailing smaller ships -- that "are more aligned with [our] philosophy," Matus said.
"The resort developers who have been meeting with us over the last five years have been unique luxury brands focused more on authentic, upscale experiences," she said.
That said, most of Belize's 600 or so existing hotel and resort properties could be categorized as midrange. But upscale or not, most of the country's accommodations share one thing in common: community integration.
"Interaction with nearby towns is pretty vibrant," Matus said.
For example, the Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort -- recently voted the No. 2 hotel in Central and South America, and No. 10 in the world, for guest service in TripAdvisor's 2011 Travelers' Choice Awards -- lies near Hopkins, a center of the Garifuna culture. The Garifuna, of mixed African and Arawak-Carib Indian descent, boast a colorful culture and language.
"Hamanasi is located right on the edge of that community, and you're able to get the best of that [culture] while still experiencing Belize in a relatively exclusive manner," Matus said.
Turning to recent growth in cruise arrivals -- for which Belize was "ill-prepared," said Matus -- the government is upgrading the Fort George port zone in Belize City and building a boardwalk and water taxi terminal in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.
And in June, Belize will unveil a sustainable tourism master plan to manage new growth. Meanwhile, under its two-year action plan the board is partnering with the Belize Hotel Association and the Belize Tourism Industry Association to engage "in more aggressive outreach to the travel trade, especially in companies that have been good partners to Belize over the years," Matus said. "The trade continues to be very important to Belize."