Yesterday our news team went on a tour of two Southern Villages that are trying to make a name for themselves in the tourism industry. Now, Punta Negra and Monkey River aren't Placencia or San Pedro, and they aren't trying to be.  These laid back villages in Toledo offer visitors an immersive experience far different than the plush packages found at traditional tourist destinations.  Alex Courtenay found out where tourism meets everyday life ...

Located on the remote shores of the Toledo district, the villages of Punta Negra and Monkey River offer tourists with different, off the beaten path experiences. In recent years, both villages have been receiving help to market and develop themselves as alternate destinations that offer the same natural beauty, with a more rustic ambience...

Caroline Oliver - Sales & Marketing Mgr, TIDE Tours
"So TIDE does a lot of work with communities in sustainable livelihood development and diversifying economic income opportunities; so in these two villages in particular we've been looking at diversifying more in the tourism market. So in Punta Negra we've helped to develop this restaurant, we've provided all the equipment and training necessary for the villages here to manage it as their own business because there is a lot of tourist who come in this area for snorkelling and things like that. So it's a perfect stop off for fishing tourist and snorkelling tourists. Up in Monkey River we've help to develop their nature trail, improving the pathway there, building boardwalks and a wharf."

The villagers have used the natural resources around them to develop tourist attractions that you may not be able to get anywhere else. In Monkey River, they use the wildlife, and in Punta Negra, it's coconuts…

Doyle Garbutt - Monkey River Tour Guide
"There's lots of different animals in this area most of them are nocturnal but animals like monkeys and raccoon, opossums; sometimes wild pigs, deer, jaguars if you're lucky."

Susette Jacobs
"Usually we start from picking up the coconuts and then we'll take it and peel them and then I'll chip them and sometimes they will try. Then we will grater, we squeeze together and I'll skim it up and we and we'll cook it together."

The goal is to increase tourism traffic, but special care is being taken to make sure these villages don't lose their authenticity...

Caroline Oliver
"The kind of tourism that is being developed is very nature based and cultural based. Those two types of tourism in themselves should remain sustainable. The point at which you start attracting mass tourism is when it becomes unsustainable but the tourists that are interested in these kind of tours are very off the beaten path, very like cultural; they're going to be smaller groups with much less kind of environmental impact. So that's exactly the kind of tourism these destinations are attracting."

It's the sort of homely charm that is only possible when the tourism attraction is the village life:…

Leonardo Castro - Secretary, Monkey River Village Council
"We live off fishing or tourism so you get up, you go fishing or you wait for a tourist boat to come from Placencia. We have the Howler Monkeys, we have a jungle tour, and we have a manatee watch. We have jaguars - you could see jaguars, you have all sorts of birds. Well the main attraction is the monkeys so."

And as these villages continue to develop, the residents have hope for expanding into the future..

Leonardo Castro
"We don't have a, we live off mostly overnight tourists from Placencia, we don't have tourist that really come and stay in the community for overnight so that I would really like to see happen, tourist come and stay for the overnight. You know it's hard to get people to put up business in these area, to invest when you have bad erosion b because we have a bad erosion problem."

Calling it a bad erosion problem is an understatement. In the last few years Punta Negra and Monkey River have lost dozens of feet from their shoreline to coastal erosion…

Ivan Williams - Chairman, Monkey River Village
"Well erosion is affecting us for maybe for the past 10 years and then we have problem - it's not getting better. So we don't know what to do, we are asking for help from all about. Government does give us a little help but not much but now something is going to happen, a different organization said they were gonna give us a hand, help us out."

Leonardo Castro
"Yes it has been a real problem, like I said it's hard for investors to come in and invest because the main attraction is right along the beach and we don't have any beach anymore. Houses are going down you know it's very hard to tell but we will see what we can do because we don't want to move from home but if we don't get any help very soon we will probably have to move - but we'll try to."

And while the residents continue to battle erosion with the help of the government and some other organizations, they will also fight to promote Monkey River and Punta Negra on an international scale…

Caroline Oliver
"We're currently doing a lot of international marketing to try and bring people not just to Belize but specifically Toledo and these sort of tours that we use to attract people to this area, it's a very niche market and Toledo is perfect for this kind of off the beaten path 0pportunities for those tourists."

Reporting for 7 News, this is Alex Courtenay

Punta Negra will be celebrating its 8th Annual Beach Bash this Sunday, and everyone is invited.

Channel 7

Discovering Monkey River and Punta Negra’s Tourism Value

The pristine sandy beaches of San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia and the inland destinations, such as the Cayo District, are known to attract visitors from all over the world. But there are other locations lesser known, that have the attributes to beckon those looking for niche tourism. This week, TIDE, invited the media for a first-hand look at the inroads the organization has made in areas such as Monkey River and Punta Negra in southern Belize. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

There’s a lot to see along the Monkey River, as it winds its way lazily downstream from the foothills of the Maya Mountains.  The northern headwaters of this grand course begin in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where the Swasey Branch empties the East Basin in that nature reserve.  Further south, the Bladen Branch discharges the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.  Together, they combine to form Monkey River, one of Belize’s major tributaries.

Doyle Garbutt, Tour Guide, Monkey River Tours

“There’s a lot of things out here to expect, you know, there’s jaguars, pigs, deer, coatimundi, raccoons, opossums.  Lots of different animals out here that you could see.”

On either side of this meandering waterway there is an abundance of wildlife.  In fact, it is teeming with flora and fauna.  A short distance away, a night heron is perched on a mangrove branch overlooking the murky water below.  It is among several species of freshwater birds found in the area.  Perhaps, what Monkey River is most famous for is its many troops of Guatemalan black howlers, an order of primates that live in this tropical evergreen forest.

[Nat Sound of Doyle’s monkey call, followed by monkey howling]

It’s a call and response that our tour guide has mastered over time.  Many years spent in this dense wilderness has taught Doyle Garbutt the language of the baboon.

Doyle Garbutt

“We do different calls and they don’t respond to it and so as we go along, you know, I try and try until eventually I get it, you know.  Not everybody could do it.  It’s just the monkeys that react to certain calls.”

The expanse of jungle in these parts serves as an ideal location for nature lovers.

Isani Cayetano

“Along the banks of the Monkey River sits the Payne’s Creek National Park.  We’re here at a monkey trail which spans four hundred yards in diameter.  Inside the thick canopy are black howler monkeys and other forms of wildlife, including wild bamboo shoots.”

This protected area in the Toledo District encompasses a hundred and fifty-two kilometers of land, including the dominant broadleaf forest which stretches along the lower reaches of the Monkey River.

Visiting the eponymous coastal community for the first time is an American family that has flown into the country from the state of Virginia.

Janine Pirkle, American Tourist

“The experience was fantastic, really interesting.  So our guide took us up the river and showed us… It’s phenomenal what he can see that’s right in front of us that we weren’t able to see without him; but he showed us iguanas and howler monkeys and a tarantula next to a bamboo area.  It’s really remarkable.”

Isani Cayetano

“In terms of the biodiversity that you guys have been able to experience here, is this something you’re gonna go back and talk to your friends in United States about?”

Kevin Pirkle, American Tourist

“Absolutely, absolutely.  And I think the nicest part of it for us is the tour guides.  Like, I mean, our [tour guide] Alex, grew up on the Monkey River.  So he grew up here.”

It’s that sense of familiarity that is being packaged along with the sights and sounds, as well as the homeliness of this seafront locale.  Monkey River is the northernmost village in Toledo District and stands as one of the last remaining Creole communities in Belize.  The livelihoods here are fishing and ecotourism.

Caroline Oliver, Sales & Marketing Manager, TIDE Tours

“We’ve been looking at tourism development.  So in Monkey River we’ve helped to develop nature trails and trained local guides in tour guiding.”

The Toledo Institute of Development and Environment, TIDE, has been instrumental in assisting residents of Monkey River to create a visitor experience unlike any other in this part of the Jewel.

Caroline Oliver

“The more tourists we can get down here the better.  We’re also, at TIDE Tours we’re diversifying our tourism market and we’ve started bringing in volunteer groups, study-abroad groups down to Toledo and when possible we bring them down into these villages too.  So we’re beginning to set up kind of student projects, social projects and so through both of these new enterprises we’re able to kind of expand and open up into even more markets.”

And that’s the kind of economic stimulus that is so desperately needed in the remote seaside villages of Monkey River and Punta Negra.  Once a booming town that was mostly engaged in the lumber and banana industries over a century ago, Monkey River has since been reduced to a small population of roughly two hundred and eighty-five persons.  According to Garbutt, tour guiding has become the livelihood of choice.

Doyle Garbutt

“My dad, he first started this guiding into this area.  First, I started out as a captain, you know, and as I go along I get to like this so I decided to take a course and do the tour guiding, you know.  And I really love it.  I like this job.”

Elsewhere on our tour, we visit Punta Negra, a fishing village with an even smaller population.  There are only ten primary school students enrolled in a multi-grade system here.  Adults, for the most part, have migrated to other parts of the country for job opportunities.  Those who have stayed are looking at alternative livelihoods which include the manufacturing of coconut oil by fire hearth.

Martin Ack, Tour Guide, TIDE Tours

“Many people have moved out because of opportunities.  There are no jobs around so they move out.  So visiting these sites today, they still have lots to offer in terms of tourism.  As we noticed earlier, we saw a lot of visitors in Monkey River and Punta Negra, it has a potential of that type of activity as well, especially the beach.  If you may have seen the beach it’s really welcoming and then the people of Punta Negra are welcoming as well.  They are more into fishing but tourism could be an alternative for them.”

The experience for these first-time visitors has been invaluable.

Janine Pirkle

“We’ve got two girls with us, our daughters, ten and fourteen.  And so Alex was able to tell us stories of what they did in the jungle, in the rainforest as they were playing and, you know, using the leaves as shields and showing the kids how to make it more relevant to them which was awesome.”

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

Channel 5