I often think of Belize as, as much of a rainbow nation as one is likely to find!
Rob Hirons was born and raised in England and left immediately upon completion of a degree in History and Russian Studies from the University of Keele. He began by teaching English as a Foreign Language in Thessaloniki in Greece and spent the next twenty-five years as a teacher, teacher trainer and a manager with the British Council in Iran, Portugal, Kuwait, Syria and Egypt. He moved to Belize in 2001 to establish the Lodge at Big Falls, one of the first lodges in what was at the time the most remote and inaccessible part of the country. He has served as Chair of the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association and has written and edited The Toledo Howler since 2007. The paper tells stories about the south of Belize aiming to give more people reasons to come and discover Toledo's natural attractions, the rich cultural traditions of the Maya, Garifuna and East Indians as well the opportunities for adventure in the rainforest or under water on the hundreds of offshore coral and mangrove cayes.
ECOCLUB.com: You are a member of an elite global group of expats who have succeeded in founding and operating an award-winning Ecolodge in harmony with the local community. How or why did you choose Belize and that particular location for your Ecolodge?
Rob Hirons: My wife and I originally came to Belize for a vacation that she had organized. We were looking for a place where we could go snorkeling and diving and also do some bird watching in the rainforest. Belize was the ideal location for both and we visited five or six times before finally moving in 2001. So we chose Belize for its natural attractions; its stability as a functioning democracy, the fact that it is English-speaking and because of its proximity to the huge north American market. Locating inland fitted more closely to our particular interest in birds and nature and we decided at that time that the market in Cayo district about 160 miles north of here was already fairly crowded and that we would prefer to establish ourselves in a new destination. That was not the best business decision and the lodge has grown slowly partly because of the lack of infrastructure in Toledo and because as a result it was less well known.
ECOCLUB.com: You have been instrumental in organising your tourism industry peers in the region, in launching numerous festivals and producing and editing The Toledo Howler, an excellent Tourism Newspaper. How easy is it to coordinate and cooperate with supposed business competitors, is it easy to explain that it is a win-win situation?
Rob Hirons: Having made the decision to base ourselves in Toledo we quickly realized that we would not only have to market the lodge at Big Falls but also Toledo itself. Visitors would be coming to stay at the lodge because of what we offered access to rather than for the lodge itself. So, for myself, it seemed obvious that time spent in working to develop the destination would directly or indirectly be helping the lodge as well as other local businesses. What may seem blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily so to anyone else and the Belize Tourism Industry Association has a core of members who roll up their sleeves and work on behalf of all and others who keep a very narrow focus on the their own enterprise.
ECOCLUB.com: What are in your view Southern Belize's unique attractions for tourists and how satisfied are you that they are being protected?
Rob Hirons: Tour operators always want to know why they should send their clients to one's destination. In Cayo the answer is for access to Tikal, Caracol and other Mayan sites. On the coast and cayes the answer is snorkelling and diving. The answer in Toledo is less obvious. We have small Mayan sites in Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit and the reef is 35 miles offshore here compared with half a mile offshore in Ambergris Caye. What has come into focus over the past few years is the rich diversity of cultural experiences in both the Maya, Garifuna and Creole cultures that is unique to the south of the country. It means that even if it rains there are indoor activities like learning to drum; making hand-made chocolate and tasting local chocolate flavors from salt to ginger to chili chocolate; trying their hands at traditional craft making or learning about the traditional Mayan lifestyle and household culture. These have come about through some well-directed small projects through the Belize Tourism Board's Sustainable Tourism Program with funding from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). They had great success because the projects aimed loans at motivated local individuals and families with no requirement that the benefits be communal. This kind of small enterprise is "self-protecting"; the family focus avoids conflict within a vestigial business; the focus on culture reinforces for the younger generation how their own culture is valued and of interest to visitors.
ECOCLUB.com: Accessing Southern Belize used to be a small adventure in itself, but improved road and air links have changed all that. Is this a mixed blessing?
Rob Hirons: Not so far. Since 2001 we have been linked to the rest of country by a modern 80-mile highway. We have been linked to the national electricity grid. We have mobile phone service now. In 2001 we had to drive 18 miles to make a phone call. Not having that infrastructure was a problem. We have ten flights a day in and out and hourly buses from Belize City. But growth has remained slow and "organic". In 2016 there will be a new southern border opening between Toledo and Guatemala forty miles west of here. I expect that to be a mixed blessing. There is likely to be an increase in cross-border crime and illegal logging in areas that are now more inaccessible. Balanced against that is a general economic stimulus for Toledo and for tourism. Until now Toledo has been a cul-de-sac for tourists who came down here and returned the same way. Next year we will be able to co-ordinate with Guatemalan tour operators for tours that enter Belize via Toledo and go on to the coast and Cayo.
ECOCLUB.com: In particular, there have been ongoing protests, from local people, environmentalists but also the Belize Tourism Industry Association, against the expansion of Cruise Tourism in Southern Belize and in particular the creation of cruise infrastructure near the quaint and fragile Placencia area, to no avail it seems as works for a dedicated cruise port in Harvest Cay started late in Autumn 2014. Do you consider the expansion of the cruise sector as a environmental threat or as an economic opportunity, or both perhaps?
Rob Hirons: I think cruise tourism down here is a huge environmental threat and there are still many questions to be asked about water and waste management on Harvest Caye. It is unlikely to be an economic opportunity for the Belize government. The per person head tax is low and unlikely to yield more than a few million Belize dollars. That might be eaten up by the cost of the infrastructure maintenance that will be demanded by the cruise operator. Belize will pay for the environmental degradation caused by hundreds of thousands of cruise ship visitors. Local Mayan sites will benefit from increased visitor entrance fees and local cultural experiences may also benefit from being visited by the cruise tour operator. Overall it is not really enough to justify the threat to the environment and to the much more valuable overnight tourism business. BTB figures a few years ago gave cruise ships around 80% of the total visitors to Belize and generating just 14% of the income from tourism. So the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) would guide the rational planner to focus on growing overnight tourism.
ECOCLUB.com: Unlike many of its neighbours multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Belize has traditionally avoided violent race and class violence. Still, ethnic tensions may be rising as reports indicate notable income and occupational differences among ethnic communities and little intermarriage between different ethnicities. The rural poor are reportedly mostly Mayans, the original inhabitants. From your experience and with reference to Southern Belize, is tourism and ecotourism in particular currently providing sufficient opportunities for the local Mayan people?
Rob Hirons: My initial reaction is that it is much more complicated and nuanced than that. I often think of Belize as, as much of a rainbow nation as one is likely to find. My colleague Catarina Choco is a K'ekchi Maya with an East Indian partner. We both think that there is much more intermarriage than you suggest and that the Garifuna are another group who have been considered poor. Poverty is relative. Many a poor Mayan has their own 20-30 acre plantation from which they can subsist and produce cash crops. Being poor in the city or town is an entirely different level of poverty. Tourism will never benefit everyone. Those people who live along paved roads or not far from them have the potential to benefit as do those who live close to resorts and lodges. For many years Mayans have found work in tourism elsewhere in Belize and are highly sought after employees. Now they have the opportunity to work in tourism and stay in Toledo. All our staff is K'ekchi Maya who live in Big Falls and walk or cycle to work.
ECOCLUB.com: In the course of a few years peaceful Belize has come to be ranked, unfairly perhaps, by the UN as the 6th most violent country in the world, with about 95% of murders relating to gangs and the international drugs transshipment trade. Following a related incident, the mayor of the best-known Belizean island destination of Ambegris Caye, is quoted in a recent report in Vice magazine as indirectly linking crime to tourism, arguing that "The big hotels, the big condos, the big restaurants are all owned by foreigners" and that this creates a large wealth discrepancy between foreigners and locals. Do you share this view, and is Belize's overall tourism model really worsening as well as threatened by the crime rates?
Rob Hirons: There are some people who will always characterize inward investment as the foreigner taking over and others who will welcome it. There is an increasing number of Belize owned accommodations and a vast majority of Belize owned restaurants outside of hotels. But it was kick-started by inward investment. That created jobs that created wealth and gave the employees experience and skills enough to begin their own enterprises. The BTB's own advertisements used to claim that direct employment in tourism accounted for 25% of all jobs. Employment reduces wealth inequality between those who have work and those who do not. Nationality is not the issue. On a per capita basis (murders per 100,000)Belize City is one of the most dangerous in the world. Most travelers pass briskly through Belize City to rural areas that are among the most peaceful.
ECOCLUB.com: According to recent reports poaching, including the poaching of endangered scarlet macaws - just 100 pairs remaining - and illegal logging of mahogany and cedar are a problem even within Chiquibul, Belize's largest national park. The average annual deforestation rate has been estimated at 0.6% between 1980-2010, while most extractable timber reserves are in private hands and with no tax incentives to preserve the forest. Beyond funding more park rangers, what more should the tourism sector, environmental NGOs and the government be doing to protect Belize's pristine natural beauty which after all is the biggest attraction for visitors?
Rob Hirons: Belize needs a legal regulatory framework relating to sustainable forestry and responsible stewardship of natural resources. This is needed to allow the export of finished wood products to European markets, for example. Without that wood is exported as logs mainly to China with no value added here in Belize. With such a framework an export industry, focused on fine finished wood products, would create jobs and give owners a vested economic interest in reforestation etc.
ECOCLUB.com: As an employer, what is your position and experience in relation to volunteer tourism? Some argue, rather sweepingly perhaps, that their only real impacts are stealing jobs from the local community and removing the need for local training infrastructure.
Rob Hirons: I tend towards the sweeping generalization. We do get individual requests from people who want to volunteer at the lodge but since we are almost always staffed with the people we need have so far declined such offers. Guests have asked us to arrange volunteer assignments but only for a day or two. It is very difficult for them to make much of a contribution in such a short time. In fact briefing and training volunteers creates work for the host. WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms/ Willing Workers on Organic Farms) do seem to carry out work that in their absence would be done by a paid local employee. An organization in Punta Gorda focused on volunteers has done some useful small infrastructure projects around the district. So voluntourism seems to work better in organizations focused on this niche but does not really fit my own market. And the point is moot whether the volunteer or those being volunteered upon get more out of the transaction.
ECOCLUB.com: What future plans do you have at The Lodge at Big Falls and beyond, perhaps in connection with some of the topics we have discussed in this interview?
Rob Hirons: I have high hopes that the new road from Guatemala will provide a stimulus to really boost tourism in our area. With a larger market we would invest in more cabanas, probably up to a total of fifteen and a multi-purpose space for workshops and seminars, meditation and yoga or educational groups. That would go hand in hand with developing the birding market which is one of our specializations. And when I am exhausted I will shuffle off into retirement.
ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what advice, if any, would you like to offer to those pondering operating an Ecolodge and in particular those mistaking it for owning a summerhouse in the tropics?
Rob Hirons: I do take exception when visitors ask when I "retired" here. General pearls of wisdom would include: do lots of research especially financial and make sure that your projections are very conservative unless living by the sea that sells itself; talk to people who have already been through it but are not necessarily direct competitors; listen to local advice but not the advice of the first person who takes hold of your elbow and wants to be your friend; use local suppliers if they are of the quality you require and avoid duplicating and competing with existing services; focus your business primarily on quality for the customer and not fairness for the community where you live. Do not underestimate the strain it can put on a couple and make sure that both partners are equally committed to the adventure. Understand that in creating skilled jobs that make women economically independent you may be subverting the established order in your community. And never forget that it's no fun if it's not fun. So enjoy yourself.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, we are certain that our readers will enjoy this interview!