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Belize's spectacular natural environment gained a noteworthy distinction this week, not to mention increased hope for an enduring future, as the nation's barrier reef system was removed from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s World Heritage List in Danger.
The reef was added to the list in 2009.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee removed the Belize reef from its List in Danger based on "safeguarding measures taken by the country, notably the introduction of a moratorium on oil exploration in the entire maritime zone of Belize," said officials in a statement.
UNESCO also cited Belize's "strengthening of forestry regulations allowing for better protection of mangroves. The site was added to UNESCO's List in Danger in 2009 due to the destruction of mangroves and marine ecosystems, offshore oil extraction, and the development of non-sustainable building projects officials said.
Belize has also launched several environmental sustainability measures including a ban on single-use plastic utensils and bags and Styrofoam, said a Belize Tourism Board representative.
Belize's Barrier Reef, the Northern Hemisphere's largest, extends 185 miles along the country's coastline and includes seven key marine reserve zones: Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover's Reef Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve.
The seven sites "illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development," said UNESCO officials, and are a key habitat for threatened species including the marine turtle, the manatee, and the American marine crocodile.
The reef also features more than 400 cayes (islands) and three atolls and is home to more than 500 species of fish and marine life and 70 hard coral and 30 soft coral. It offers world-class diving and snorkeling for adventure travelers and dive enthusiasts. UNESCO designated the reef as a World Heritage Site in 1996.
Belize's reef, rainforests, caves and secluded beaches have grown increasingly popular among adventure travelers and dive enthusiasts. Those elements, along with the country's mix of cultures, distinctive cuisine, and numerous Mayan archeological sites have generated a surge in visitor arrivals in recent years.
Belize hosted 385,583 overnight, land-based visitors in 2016 (the most recent year for which full-year data is available), a 13 percent increase over 2015 according to Caribbean Tourism Organization statistics. Belize additionally hosted 1.01 million cruise passengers the same year, a 4.9 percent increase
"Our economy is built on tourism, with reef-related tourism and fisheries alone directly supporting about 190,000 people," said Karen Bevans, BTB's director. "Belizeans know the importance of a healthy reef and many rely on it for their livelihood. The Belize Tourism Board, therefore, is thrilled UNESCO has removed the Belize Barrier Reef from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
"It's a testament to the active steps that Belize tourism stakeholders and environmental advocates have taken to protect our precious waters and our tourism resources," Bevans added. "When reefs are better, we're all better."
Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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