We’re all familiar with various brands of shoes and shampoo. But what about the brands of sovereign states? In the fierce competition for tourist dollars, nations are brand names, too. They have public images that change over time and can be shaped by marketing. They can turn suddenly trendy, or hopelessly uncool, in the minds of travelers daydreaming about future vacation spots.
A little while back, I accepted an invitation from the Belize Tourism Board to take an all-expenses-paid tour of that country. This is what we in the media term “a junket.” The BTB hoped that by bringing me down there, and showing me a decent time, they could nudge me into writing a travel story for American readers—a story reporting that Belize is a gorgeous, climatically temperate place populated by friendly, law-abiding people.
I’m not going to write that story. (Even though I loved the country. The fact is, you’d be rightly skeptical of any positive assessment given that I accepted free airfare and accommodation from the Belizean government.) More interesting to me—and the reason, in addition to wanting a cheap escape from New York’s winter weather, that I agreed to go on the junket—was the business story lurking beneath the travel story. I wondered how, other than by brainwashing foreign writers, Belize goes about marketing itself to potential visitors as a better choice than, say, Mexico, or Peru, or Namibia.
At a dinner on Ambergris Caye—full of Belizean dignitaries, travel industry types, and a team from an American advertising agency that was hoping to win the BTB account—I met Yanick Dalhouse, the Belize Tourism Board’s director of marketing. She explained that the initial challenge for Belize is simply awareness. “In surveys, people are hazy,” she says. “They only vaguely know where we are. If they’re familiar with us, it’s as a scuba diver’s haven.”
Awareness levels ticked up in January when the reality series The Bachelor used Belize as a setting. Dalhouse says Web visits to the BTB’s online portal doubled the night that episode aired. But it’s an ongoing struggle to put the country on travelers’ radars. In large part, this is a consequence of the BTB’s limited budget: It spent just $6 million on marketing last year—even though tourism, at 28 percent of GDP, is a crucial segment of the Belizean economy. (When I spoke with a marketing expert who is familiar with various tourism board campaigns, he told me that the Dominican Republic, by comparison, spends about $70 million annually.)
Since Belize can’t afford to saturate the market with its message, it has instead tried to attract particular types of tourist. According to Dalhouse, the key target for Belize is 35- to 64-year-old travelers who have previously visited Mexico or the Caribbean and are “ready for something more adventurous than an all-inclusive resort. People who want a more emotional and authentic experience, without throngs of other tourists.”
Who’s the competition? Costa Rica is the big dog when it comes to Central American leisure travel. Like Belize, it has spectacular outdoor attractions, great weather, and ocean coastline (in its case, both Pacific and Caribbean coastline). Costa Rica has long owned the “green,” eco-friendly niche among yuppie American travelers. But the BTB hopes that when these folks get bored of one spot, and look around for novel ports of call, they’ll notice Belize’s unspoiled forests, rivers, and beaches.