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Heritage Tourism, Archaeology, & Ecotourism: An Example From Lamanai In Northern BELIZE

Cultural tourism, public archaeology, heritage tourism, ecotourism, or whatever vocabulary you believe best describes this growing segment of the tourism sector and the field of archaeology, is made up of a global industry that has significant magnitude. The Travel Industry Association of America and Smithsonian Magazine (2003) revealed that 81% of traveling adults from the United States were considered historic/cultural travelers – a 13% increase since 1996. And according to Belize’s Immigration Department, in 2004 over half of 230,000 visitors to Belize were from the U.S., and a good portion of them certainly would be part of that 81% who consider themselves cultural travelers.

Although heritage tourism can have a negative impact on a community and its surrounding area, if it is planned, executed properly, and numerous partnerships are established it can provide many benefits including:

~ creating jobs and businesses;

~ increasing tax revenues;

~ diversifying the local economy;

~ creating opportunities for partnerships;

~ attracting visitors interested in history and preservation;

~ increasing prehistoric and historic attraction revenues;

~ preserving local traditions and culture;

~ generating local investment in historic resources;

~ building community pride in heritage;

~ and increasing awareness of the site or area’s significance.

FROM: www.nationaltrust.org, National Trust for Historic Preservation, October 2006.

Through emphasis on the integration of cultural education, archaeological interpretations, community health, and tourism these benefits can be accomplished.

Although the benefits are numerous and there have been obvious positive effects of heritage tourism in the Lamanai area in northern Belize, every effort must be pursued to not destroy what attracts visitors in the first place. Although today’s travelers are seeking a more authentic experience, this experience should not be contrived. A good program should find the fit among the community, the archaeological project, and tourism. There should be a healthy balance between the needs of both visitors, researchers, and local residents. Finding this balance is the challenge.

All parties must be well briefed in the importance of approaching cultural tourism in a sustainable manner; this includes education and planning for preservation and protection of prehistoric, historic, cultural, and natural resources of an area. These are irreplaceable resources and this fact needs to be stressed by and to all members including guides, archaeologists, educators, students, and individuals in the tourist industry.

As suggested by J. Carman and S. Keitumetse (Talking About Heritage & Tourism, May 2005, The Society for American Archaeology, The SAA Archaeological Record), where tourism and culture interact, communities will always be a portion of the equation and are necessary subjects for any heritage research. Realizing that culture is about differences and tourism is about the experience of the cultural differences “emphasizes that the nature of the experience should be focused on, not how cultural processes could be saved from the impact of tourism”. Certainly there is a need to be aware of “the impact of tourism” but to concentrate solely on this aspect misses the point of cultural tourism and the positive influences it can have. This impact of tourism is often viewed as a negative and sometimes is thought to destroy or modify the authenticity of an area. But one must keep in mind that culture is not pure, it is not beyond impact; very few communities or areas are beyond influence of some sort or another.

Through the coordination and forging of alliances with numerous organizations the negative side of cultural and heritage tourism as well as ecotourism can be balanced out by the positive effects of these partnerships and programs. The Lamanai Archaeological Project along with its affiliates: the local residents, archaeologists, tour operators, government officials, and non-profit organizations hope to continue to foster the positive impacts of heritage tourism in the area surrounding Lamanai, in northern Belize. We will continue to seek expertise and assistance from individuals within these organizations to further our efforts.

Laura J. Howard holds a Masters of Science degree in Anthropology with a specialization in Maya archaeology. After researching in Belize for five years after her graduate work she now splits her time between south Florida and Belize. She has been active in Belize tourism and Maya archaeology since 1996, and now has a unique ecotourism company, Beyond Touring, that focuses solely on Belize, the ancient Maya, and natural history. Beyond Touring also offers an authentic cross-cultural experience that allows clients to 'give back' to the wonderful areas they visit in Belize. The projects Beyond Touring supports aim to provide sustainable economic endeavors for local residents of Belize, specifically Indian Church Village, located in northern Belize and adjacent to the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

Belize or Travel Information: http://www.beyondtouring.com