It’s 2012, and Belize is trying to lure visitors to the Mayan end of the world.

By Seth Stevenson for SLATE Magazine

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.

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.

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