A Rebirth for Central America Tourism
By Greg Custer
October 15, 2012 11:45 PM
Let's face it, if there's any region of the Western Hemisphere in need of an image make-over, Central America would be near the top of the list. Lingering leeriness from civil wars, political instability and “banana republic” oversimplification have conspired to take the region off the radar of many southward-bound sun seekers and culture hounds.
But if this year's edition of the Central America Travel Mart (CATM), which took place in Honduras, Oct. 4-6, is any indication, the region is poised and optimistic for a rebirth of interest from North American visitors. Announcements at the Mart ranged from airline rebranding (the TACA-Avianca merger), new flights (like Tropic Air starting Cancun-Belize non-stops), and Mundo Maya initiatives to an swarm of deluxe boutique hotels ready for American visitors. Many exhibitors touted how CATM has bounced back as the best show in years.
As a first time attendee, I can't really say that’s true, but there was certainly a robust and enthusiastic cadre of hotels, attractions, destination management companies and tourism bureaus all clamoring for business from North America. The 2013 edition of CATM, which will be hosted by Costa Rica, will be hard pressed to exceed the San Pedro Sula showcase in Honduras. But travel agents want to be wowed by Central America's resurgence should mark their 2013 calendar for this premier event.
Three days of conferences, business meetings and Honduran-infused social events in San Pedro Sula were followed by post-tours to any of four key Central America nations. My time was spent in Belize on a four-day itinerary that took in toucans, Tortugas and tranquility. Starting in western Belize and a jungle lodge sleep at The Lodge at Chaa Creek and ending beachside in Placencia at Robert's Grove, the trip encapsulated just a glimpse of the Belize experience. Formerly known as British Honduras and only independent since 1981, Belize offers some of the great Mayan sites in the region. A dozen excavated sites are open to the public (where there's nary a gringo to be spotted). They include Classic Period Mayan cities that few have heard of before.
Whether we were rafting through underground caves, snorkeling along the world's second longest barrier reef or chilling in Ambergris Caye at the brand new El Secreto luxury resort, our group was reminded again and again of one key feature of Belize: there is almost no one here! The entire country (roughly the size of Massachusetts) has just 327,000 residents. Some 25 percent of the country is in protected areas. While the population may be small, however, the ethnic diversity is simply unparalleled in the Americas. While the British imprint is hardly seen, other ethnicities have flourished. Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Jamaican, Indian, black Caribe (Garifuna), Amish, Mennonite and American baby boomer have all found their place in Belize.
What you won't find here are mega-resort international brands and all-inclusive resorts. In fact, all the properties we toured were under 30 rooms. Owners were onsite and vested in client happiness. The Lodge at Chaa Creek is a pioneer in eco-lodge sustainability. The owners raise and release blue butterflies, build room furniture onsite, and educate local school children about ecology. On the secluded north coast of Ambergris Caye, El Secreto welcomed our group (arriving by boat from San Pedro) to Belize's newest boutique option. Sustainable luxury is the resort's calling card. It features a truly unique “spa suite” with its own ocean-facing massage room and built-in in sauna/steam room. At Robert's Grove, the vibe of laid-back Placencia was everywhere. Guests often combine a Placencia stay with two private island retreats (with just four luxury villas) at Robert’s Grove.
When not being hosted at three of Belize's signature resorts, our group explored Mayan archaeological sites, forded a river by hand-operated car ferry, went tubing in a sunless underground river and floated above a pristine reef off Silk Caye. Make sure your clients understand that everything here is “close,” often thanks to Tropic Air shuttle flights that average 20-30 minutes. Also be ready for “multi-modal” travel: air to bus to boat is a common path to any Belize discovery program.
With convenient U.S. flight options (a two-hour flight from Houston), enthusiastic Belize suppliers, Mundo Maya majesty and a Belize Tourism Board focused on agent education, Belize will not be “nature’s best kept secret” for long.