In many places around North America, it’s getting cold. It’s natural to dream about warm places as you bundle up in your winter clothes. So is planning a dream vacation to a tropical location, where you can lay on the beach and relax, escaping from the cold and stress of day-to-day life. Sounds pretty nice, right?
I’ve now lived Belize, one of those vacation “getaways”, for almost a year and a half. It’s a place lots of people want go on vacation. It is a privilege to live every day in such a beautiful place. Yet, as an outsider, but no longer a tourist, I have learned a lot about living in a place where tourism makes up a large portion of the country’s income. Many people in Belize depend on tourism to make a living. So while tourism means Belize is one person’s vacation destination, tourism is also the way many Belizeans feed their families. This has led me to take traveling more seriously, paying attention to the way I travel.
As a follower of Christ, everything you do matters - including how you choose to travel! <<Click to Tweet
The first time I thought about traveling well as a Christian was when my husband Josh and I went down to Placencia, a beautiful peninsula on the southern coast of Belize. We decided to use a local tour company to do a boat tour of the lagoon, hoping to see some manatees (which we sadly did not). The Belizean man who drove our boat was in his 60s and throughout the years, has watched his small village turn into a touristy beach town.
As we cruised along, we asked him questions about his experience of growing up there. What had it been like? How had it changed? At one point, he paused and pointed to the distance. “See that island over there?” We nodded, “It’s condemned,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?” we asked quizzically.
Our guide went on to explain what he meant - a cruise ship company bought the island and planned to make it a cruise ship port. He saw this as equivalent to being condemned, a sad change with many negative repercussions for the community and the earth. For instance, mangrove forests are often cleared to make way for sandy beaches. The mangroves, trees, and shrubs that grow in tropical saltwater areas serve important ecological purposes. Some of these purposes include protecting the coast from extreme storms and weather, carbon sequestration (trapping excess carbon from the atmosphere), and acting as a home for fish, birds, and other wildlife. Other trees throughout the island that were prime habitats for birds and fish would be destroyed as well. While local tour guides like ours, could possibly benefit, there was no guarantee that the cruise company would hire them to guide the tours, as they could easily bring in outsiders or larger companies to do so. It would greatly change the culture and dynamics of the small village of Placencia, and he lamented these changes. The overnight tourism industry, currently brings in most of the town’s tourists. Overnight visitors stay for a few days to a week, eat meals and buy food locally. These tourists are typically interested in learning about and experiencing the culture. They’ll likely spend money in local places instead of on the ships whose money often goes directly to the cruise ship company and the government. Increasing the cruise ship tourism would certainly boost the local economy, but at what cost to the nature and wildlife, our tour guide wondered.
While I’ve been in Belize, I’ve discovered more about two types of mindful tourism. Ecotourism is a form of tourism that focuses on enjoying the local resources, beauty, and what a destination has to offer, while also trying to preserve and care for those resources rather than taking away from them. “Responsible tourism” goes a step further, and focuses on traveling in a mindful way, that takes into account the impact of tourism not just on the earth, but also the locals who live there and the culture they represent. A great resource I’ve found on this topic is a book called, Wild and Wonderful: Tourism, Faith, and Communities, by Stan LeQuire and Chantelle du Plessis.
One positive example of responsible tourism I’ve come across is an ecolodge called Chaa Creek. While quite an expensive place to go (though it does offer some lower budget options as well), it is an organization that is committed to caring for the earth and the locals. It was started by a British and American couple who moved to Belize in the 1970s to live off the land in “the bush” (a.k.a., the jungle). They began having a steady stream of visitors, and decided to build a guesthouse. The lodge has grown since that initial time, and is now one of the top resorts in Belize (i.e., Prince Harry stayed there when he visited the former British colony). But they still haven’t lost their commitment to the earth and people in Belize.
Chaa Creek employs 125 local Belizeans. They encourage their employees to learn new skills, and take ownership of their job. They give at least 10% of their proceeds to improving the local community. They engage in many conservation projects and are committed to running in an environmentally friendly way. They run a camp for local kids each summer, who spend a week learning about their environment and gaining an appreciation for Belize’s wealth of natural resources, from blue morpho butterflies at their butterfly farm, to Maya culture in their Natural History Center, to horses at their stables, and local and organically-grown foods at their on-site farm. Supporting a place like Chaa Creek can help support the many positive things they are doing in Belize.
Questions to ask before you travel:
- Are my travel choices helping or hurting the local economy?
- Am I choosing hotels and restaurants whose proceeds benefit the locals in the place where I am visiting?
- Am I traveling thoughtfully, learning about the culture and people who inhabit the location?
- How does my travel impact God’s creation? Are there ways I can impact the earth in a positive way when I travel?
Traveling can be a relaxing, enjoyable activity, and it can also be a time to learn about God’s creation and different cultures, gaining appreciation for the earth and broadening our worldview. It all depends on how you approach it. Next time you go on vacation, ask yourself some of these questions before you go. It takes a little more thought and planning, but the rewards for you and the place you go are plentiful.
Micalagh Beckwith Moritz is a social worker, writer, wife, sister, daughter, community member, continually learning how to do a better job at each of these roles. She is always contemplating how to love others better and to enjoy the small things of life; to see God in everything and everyone. She is passionate about caring for the environment, experiencing new cultures, and also important, eating cheese. She currently lives in Belize and has the privilege of teaching and learning from college/university students! She works with a Christian study abroad program: Creation Care Study Program (CCSP). Micalagh blogs at Only Small Things.