Tourism is vital to Belize’s economy. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, it makes up approximately 41 percent of Belize’s GDP and provides just over 37 percent of direct and indirect tourism-related jobs. In 2019, the country reported 503,177 overnight visitors, up 100 percent since 2010.
But Belize was among the last group of Caribbean destinations to reopen when it began welcoming visitors back to its shores on Oct. 1, 2020. Although its international airport was initially scheduled to reopen on Aug. 15, 2020—after successfully squashing the pandemic for over 50 days—that plan quickly changed when cases reappeared. The number of active COVID-19 cases in the country now stands just over 1,000, with the Orange Walk District leading (primarily due to porous borders with Mexico), followed by the Belize District, which includes the popular island escape, Ambergris Caye.
In an attempt to protect its small population of 400,000 while bringing back tourism to safeguard its economy, Belize has put in place some of the most restrictive visitor safety measures in the Caribbean. With a “tourism safe corridor;” “Tourism Gold Standard” certification program for hotels, tour operators, and attractions; and comprehensive Health & Safety guidelines for visitors to follow, the government continues to balance public health during its “Phase 3” reopening. Considering that Belize’s GDP was valued at $4,815 per capita in 2019—over $60,000 less than that of the U.S.—it stands to reason that the Caribbean country provides a strong set of standards for the U.S. and other countries to emulate.
Tight Pre-Entry Protocols
At least three days before their flight, travelers wishing to enter the country need to download the Belize Health App—used for daily health monitoring and contact tracing in case of infection—and fill out the information before their departure date. The app issues a unique QR code that they can present to the airline when checking in for their flight.
At Belize’s International Airport, arriving passengers then go through seven checkpoints before being escorted directly to their pre-booked “Gold Standard” certified hotel. While optional, they can present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of boarding to be “fast-tracked” through the airport on arrival, although they might still be selected for secondary testing. Those who don’t have a PCR test can receive a $50 rapid test at the airport, after which they will have to wait for results at their hotel.
Should a visitor turn out to be positive at the airport, they will be taken to a designated hotel in Belize City or a government facility for a mandatory, minimum 14-day quarantine at their expense.
A Tourism Safe Corridor: “Gold Standard” Certified Hotels and Tour Operators
On Oct. 1, Belize introduced its “tourism safe corridor,” a network made up of “Tourism Gold Standard”-certified hotels, restaurants, tours, and attractions that had been approved to welcome tourists while keeping them on a monitored travel track during their vacation. Travelers were not allowed to leave their hotel grounds unless they were on a certified tour, and they were required to wear a “safe corridor” wristband.
However, as of Oct. 19, the “tourism safe corridor” restriction is optional; visitors are otherwise free to move around in Belize, although they still must use Tourism Gold Standard-certified providers for tours and hotels. Whereas previously visitors could only be taken to and from their hotel by an authorized driver, car rentals are now permitted; those who choose to rent will be asked to submit a clear itinerary, and their car will have an installed GPS tracking device.
To receive Tourism Gold Standard certification, businesses had to go through a nine-step program to confirm that they were equipped and abiding by established safety protocols and guidelines developed by the Belize Ministry of Tourism, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.
The requirements of the nine-point checklist include appointing a Gold Standard Program Manager, implementing guest monitoring with temperature checks, ensuring local distancing protocols are observed for staff and visitors, enhanced sanitization and cleaning procedures, installing sanitization stations, and having a response plan in place in case of a suspected COVID-19 case.
“We had to identify anything [in the hotel] that could be touched by more than one guest and make modifications,” said Barbara Hall, Vice President of the Belize Hotel Association and co-owner of the Tourism Gold Standard-certified beachfront Belizean Nirvana boutique hotel in Placencia Village. “When you arrive, we sanitize your luggage, and you will be escorted immediately to your suite. We used to have an information guide in the room - now when I confirm your reservations, I send you an e-guide, which explains all the hotel’s procedures, including wearing a mask at all times, as well as your restaurant and tour options.”
So far, just over 100 hotels have been approved to reopen to visitors, which the Belize Tourism Board has placed on a continuously updated list. Other standard national health protocols in the country include mandatory mask-wearing in public and observance of social distancing in public spaces. Hotels will also be in charge of organizing and managing their guests’ activities daily, either on-site or with a “Tourism Gold Standard” certified tour operator.
“It’s good for the Toledo District to have independent tour operators, not only tour operators who are attached to a hotel,” said Bruno Kuppinger, a veteran independent tour guide and owner of Toledo Cave Adventures. “More are coming: It’s a lot of paperwork and some financial investment to buy all that’s needed to make sure you can protect yourself and the visitors.”
The process for licensed tour guides is similar to hotels; they must also observe a one to 15 ratio of tour guides to visitors. “It’s a new norm. Under this current Phase 3, we could go to an archaeological site, for example, but we have to make an appointment with the park ranger to make sure there aren’t other people there,” said Kuppinger, who recently received his Tourism Gold Standard certificate. “We don’t have to wear masks once we’re hiking outdoors. But if not from the same hotel, we wear masks if we can’t guarantee six feet of distance. Inside the vehicle, everyone must wear their masks. We provide all the sanitizers and wipes and masks.”
While archaeological sites are open and caves and offshore marine excursions, cultural experiences in Mayan communities remain closed for now.
Enjoying Belize’s Outdoors Amid COVID-19
Known for its dedication to environmental preservation, Belize has won praise for many initiatives in recent years. In 2018, the Belize Barrier Reef was removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, and a countrywide grassroots campaign halted oil companies from drilling offshore. In January 2020, just before the global pandemic, a single plastic and styrofoam use ban was turned into legislation.
As in other parts of the world, however, the absence of tourism has negatively affected Belize’s conservation efforts and wildlife. “We’re having an increase in hunting and logging,” said Amanda Burgos-Acosta, executive director of Belize Audubon Society. “In St. Herman’s, we had signs of hunting. Behind St. Herman’s, that forest connects to the whole Maya Mountain Massif. The pressures are there, [because] people don’t have jobs.”
Meanwhile, the Belize Audubon Society is preparing to reopen Cockscomb Wildlife Basin Sanctuary or Jaguar Preserve to Tourism Gold Standard tour guides and their customers, which they expect to happen any day now. “At least 50 percent of our income is from tourism,” Burgos-Acosta said. “We’ve put in COVID-19 measures and put in place standard operating procedures for all of our staff. We have three different meet-and-greet palapas, and your group cannot be larger than 10.”
Supporting Belize as a Visitor
From medicinal rainforests and caves ideal for hiking to snorkeling and diving off its 180-mile long Reef, Belize will likely top destination lists as travelers safely seek out the outdoors, away from large crowds. But whether you’ll be able to enjoy these spaces in absolute freedom, however, will depend on the pandemic’s progress.
Main Photo: Courtesy of Belize Tourism Board; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang