“Without prices being set, nature becomes like an all-you-can-eat buffet – and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t overeat at a buffet.” (Richard Sandor)

As someone  who loves adventures and the outdoors, I was more than thrilled about the tourism slogan “Belize: Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret” and, as soon as I touched ground at the International Airport in Belize City in 2011, I started to explore this tiny English-speaking country located in the heart of Central America. Roughly the size of Massachusetts or New Hampshire, with a population of only 350,000, I was clueless as to what exactly to expect. According to a tourism advertisement “Belize offers travel experiences unlike anywhere else in the world where visitors have the opportunity to experience a tropical country boasting an abundance of diverse ecosystems ranging from coral reefs to rainforest all in one visit!” I was in fact able to check quite a few activities off from my bucket list: the ancient caves and pristine mountains, the lush rainforest, the tranquil beaches. Yes, I certainly agree:  Belize has it ALL – and even more.

But the true “Best Kept Secret” of Mother Nature was revealed to me when WRI and WWF published their assessment demonstrating that the value of ecosystem services generated by Belize’s coral reefs and mangroves are worth US$ 395 million to US$ 559 million per year, or 30 to 45% of its GDP. The same authors estimate that reef- and mangrove-associated tourism contribute US$150 million and US$196 million, respectively, to Belize’s economy each year, while reef- and mangrove-dependent fisheries contribute between US$14 million and US$16 million. Furthermore, coral reefs and mangroves respectively provide $120-180 million and $111-167 million in avoided damages and coastal protection each year. This reminded me that, between 2000 and 2011, seven extreme weather events affected Belize including tropical storms and floods, and the tourism industry was adversely affected by four of these events. Indeed, these economic values plainly revealed to me that Belize’s biodiversity and terrestrial and marine ecosystems have substantial measurable value which constitutes a “new price tag”.
A very important step towards estimating this “new price tag” was taken by the Natural Capital Project application of the tool InVEST. This tool identified, in 2010, three ecosystem services to evaluate management goals of high economic and cultural importance, such as catch and revenue for the spiny lobster fishery, tourist visits and expenditures, and the provision of land protection and avoided damage from storms.

Only a few days ago, the Natural Capital Project, through the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science (PNAS), published results of its ground-breaking efforts to use ecosystem-service values and models within a coastal planning process, demonstrating that ecosystems in Belize including oceans and coastal environments provide people with diverse benefits, from fisheries that sustain livelihoods to recreational opportunities that generate economic value through tourism.

Knowing the health of Belize’s economy is closely related to the health of the tourism industry, which was responsible for 40 percent of total exports of goods and services during the period between 2008 and 2012, the results of the Natural Capital Project’s efforts brought to bear for me how ecosystem-service science is now shifting towards application to “real-world decisions”. This represents a clear call for stakeholders and policymakers to redefine zones of human use, reduce risks to ecosystems, and enhance delivery of multiple ecosystem benefits by directing actions that protect ecosystems and their benefits for people.

My current work at the IDB Office in Belize is now providing me with an unprecedented opportunity to apply this science to tourism policy and investments through the design and preparation of our new Sustainable Tourism Program (STPII), which aims to increase the tourism sector’s contribution to socioeconomic development, promote opportunities to mainstream natural capital, and improve local economic resilience. And yes, although it sounds very much like “science”, it is about people. Mainstreaming biodiversity in tourism development will contribute to a shift from an unsustainable “all-you-can-eat buffet” approach towards informed management of social and ecological systems to sustain the delivery of ecosystem services, which leads to better outcomes for people and nature.

by Sybille Nuenninghoff

Sybille Nuenninghoff is a Natural Resources Specialist with over 25 years of experience in developing countries, mainly in Africa and in the Latin America and Caribbean Region. As regional lead specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, and based in the Country Office in Belize since 2011, she is team leader of IDB financed programs in the agricultural, environmental and tourism sector, implemented in several Bank member countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Sybille holds an agronomic engineering degree from the Faculty of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences from the University of Kiel, Germany and a MBA in environmental management from the same University.