The marvelous idea of setting up the Toledo Ecotourism Association and its Guesthouse and Eco-trail Program in the rural communities of Toledo in 1990, was a good one and still is today in 2013. Unfortunately, the BTB and the BTIA have continued to neglect to support our poor people’s efforts for economic development. TEA’s Maya/Garifuna members continue to suffer from racial and economic discrimination.
The BTB and BTIA (TEA was a member) refused to market and promote our award-winning Guesthouse program. Our members believe this deliberate omission has caused a great loss of potential visitors and much needed income. Instead of promoting the Guesthouse program the Government promoted the competing “Homestay” program. Several surveys have shown that our people do not like this program and have rejected it because it benefits only one family at a time. The villagers complain that it creates jealousy and envy among community households who don’t have the opportunity to benefit. Tourists report that in the small two-room homes they feel they are being intrusive.
In the beginning many people questioned whether the rural villagers of Toledo would be able to handle the “sophisticated” tourism industry. Recognizing the dangers, the TEA put a great deal of time and efforts into educating and training our members. In 1997 the TEA won the “ToDo” award for most “Socially Responsible Tourism.” The Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization of the United Nation, at the world’s largest tourism trade show in Berlin, said that “the Maya of Southern Belize have shown the world that tourism does not have to be destructive.
I believe that this should have proven to everyone concerned that the people of rural Toledo can in fact handle the tourism industry. Today on the streets of Punta Gorda Town it is not uncommon for villagers to go up to tourists asking if they would like to come and stay with them in their homes.
We believe this is a direct result of the marketing and promotion the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, BTB and the BTIA did in the year of the Maya 2012 edition of their official Destination Belize magazine where they strongly marketed the Homestay program and completely left out the TEA Guesthouse Program. As far as we know these villagers have had no training, no set prices, no standards, no monitoring or regulation of any kind. Why would our Government and the private sector business organizations do this? We believe that it was done to ensure that our rural people would fail in their efforts to benefit from the tourism industry, thereby proving what they said originally — that the villagers could not handle the business and would in fact give tourism in Toledo a bad name.
Unfortunately we have to agree that without the type of education, planning and control that the TEA did to ensure their success, these villagers will for the most part fail. The TEA understands the poverty and suffering that our villagers are experiencing. We don’t blame them for trying to make the money they so desperately need. But we do blame and hold accountable the Ministry, BTB and BTIA who we believe know what they are doing and what will happen.
In stark contrast, the TEA Guesthouse and Eco-trail program is a community-based participatory program. The objective of the TEA is to SHARE the work and benefits of tourism as widely as possible throughout each participating village. Guides, food providers, entertainers and other service providers are rotated among member families. Tourists sleep in a guesthouse in the village, giving both the tourists and the villagers their respective privacy. TEA’s Guesthouse Program enables the local people to plan, control and profit directly from “low impact” eco-tourism in our villages.
It is important to note that the Toledo District Association of Village Councils has always supported our efforts and that in 2011 they wrote a strong letter of support asking the Ministry of Tourism, BTB, and the BTIA to help the TEA Guesthouse program.
However, the desires of our people as expressed in the letter from their democratically elected village leaders were ignored and nothing has been done to support the TEA. Our members want to know why the Ministry of Tourism, BTB, BTIA did not respect the wishes of our people. People are asking if we have a true democracy, or it is just a fantasia?
In closing I would like to ask the Minister of Tourism, members of BTB and BTIA and you the readers of this article, would you like strangers to come and sleep overnight in your house? Or would you prefer them to stay in the village guesthouse and visit your family at an appointed time? If you understand what I am saying and want to help our poor people get the support they deserve, please write the editor and do whatever you can to help them.
If you would like more information about the TEA then check out our website at http://www.teabelize.org.
(Signed) Reyes Chun (TEA Chairman)