Occupying an altogether different niche is up-and-comer Panama. “It’s the new ‘it’ place,” says Dalhouse. “It doesn’t have the ‘green’ angle, or the cultural heritage angle. But it has trendy shopping and fast-paced nightlife. It’s attracting a younger crowd, 20-45, more Europeans, and not just backpackers—it’s bringing in people who want to go to clubs to hear DJs. We can’t compete on that score.”
Right now, Belize lacks a sharply defined identity. Those who know the country tend to rave about the warmth of its people, but it’s hard to convey that concept convincingly in an ad campaign. The BTB’s existing taglines—“Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret” and “Be One With Belize”—are less than compelling, and Dalhouse allows that they are under review. The three attributes that seem most promising in terms of crafting a tourism sales pitch are: 1) The whole country speaks English, as it was colonized by Brits, not Spaniards. This fact is not well known among American tourists, and it alone might be enough to close the deal with some. 2) Belize boasts the second largest barrier reef on earth, behind only Australia, which makes for world-class diving opportunities. 3) It is among just a handful of countries with Mayan historical sites.
This is an especially useful year to be in possession of Mayan ruins. According to some (by which I mean total nutters), the Mayan calendar predicts that Dec. 21, 2012 will be the end of the world. It doesn’t really, of course. Scholars agree that it’s simply a round number in the Mayan counting system, with no apocalyptic significance. But this hasn’t stopped Belize from capitalizing.
Various tourist properties, in concert with the BTB, have put together Mayan-themed events. There’s a group wedding scheduled, and opportunities to spend the night camping in a Mayan ghost-town. The resort Chaa Creek—where Britain’s Prince Harry recently bedded down—is offering a special week-long December package during which guests “will receive comfortable traditional Maya attire that they may choose to wear during their stay.”
How much do these apocalypse tourism packages have to do with actual Mayan culture? That’s debatable. (Brief aside: The BTB arranged for me to do an overnight homestay with a Mayan family—yes, Mayans still exist—in a tiny hilltop village with no electricity. I saw their chocolate farm. And I talked to elders who swore they knew a man who could say an ancient prayer that would transform him into an owl. An owl. Why am I telling you this? I’m not 100 percent sure. But there are occasions when I would very much like to transform myself into an owl.)
What’s not debatable is that the Mayan stuff—in an apocalypse year or no—is an intriguing tourist hook, sure to appeal to educated, curious, sophisticated travelers. And it has a much better chance of paying off for Belize than would an effort to lure, say, the kind of spring breakers who often flock to Cancun. “We don’t even try to get those people,” says Dalhouse. “We can’t offer them what they’re looking for, and we can’t pretend to be something we’re not. Anyway, right now it’s too expensive for college kids to get here.”
Which raises what is perhaps the most important marketing obstacle of all. There just aren’t enough flights to Belize, and the ones that exist are inconvenient and pricey. “We need direct flights from key origin markets,” says Dalhouse. “If we could just get JetBlue to start flying direct from JFK, or Frontier from Chicago, it would change everything.” True. Though it might also transform this delightful gem of a country into something resembling Cancun. Which, to my mind—as a newly, successfully brainwashed admirer of all things Belizean—would be an apocalyptic event.