Think of a major tourist destination in a tropical paradise that is a gateway to pristine land and water adventures, and most readers of The San Pedro Sun will think of Belize.
Other people from around the world would more likely think of Honolulu, Hawaii. And, what might come as a surprise, is that along with this description of paradise comes a prestigious accolade, The World's Most Livable Community, recently awarded to Honolulu by the International Awards for Livable Communities (LivCom). This would not have been the case just two decades ago, according to Jeremy Harris, the recently term-limited mayor of Honolulu. "We had chosen the easy route, taking tourism at all costs, without looking at the long-term impact," Harris recently told The San Pedro Sun.
Harris was recently in Belize as part of the Friendship City relationship between Belize City and Honolulu that was established on July 4th, 2004. Harris was staying at Journey's End Resort on Ambergris Caye for a few nights before venturing to the mainland and meeting with Belize City Mayor David Fonseca. Gerhart Walch, a Belize developer, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BelizeA, has been working as liaison between Harris and Fonseca.
Harris described many of the tough decisions Honolulu leaders had to make recently to overcome poor decisions made decades earlier. The city tore out roadways and streets, and restored waterfalls and tide pools. "We had destroyed the very thing tourists were coming to Hawaii to see," reflected Harris. As part of the Friendship City program, Harris is offering his expertise to Belize policy makers, working closely with Mayor Fonseca. "In terms of tourism, we can offer Belize City what and what not to do," said Harris. He sites that Honolulu and Hawaii have a long track record with tourism. "We've made every mistake that, as a tourism destination, you can make. And, over the past 20 years we've been trying to correct those mistakes."
Harris said that one thing Honolulu did 30 and 40 years ago was assume that simply more tourists meant better tourism. "We focused on quantity rather than quality. We went after the low-end of the tourist market," said Harris. Bringing in millions of tourists was having a real environmental impact. "It was diminishing the quality of the experience for everyone, and it was costing the city a great deal of money in infrastructure to support the tourist population." said Harris. "We were cheapening the Hawaiian experience with the plastic hoola skirts and the canned luau and we were paving over paradise for more and more tourism," he said. That all changed when Harris was mayor. "Our goal now is to be a model for sustainable tourism, to focus on quality rather than quantity. To insist that everything we do is sustainable, that whatever we do have a Hawaii sense of place."
Harris readily admits that he is not an expert about Belize, but hopes that sharing these experiences will help prevent Belize from making many of the same mistakes.
"It's never easy to fix mistakes … once the infrastructure is in, it's very difficult to rebuild," said Harris. "In the case of Belize, most of the infrastructure is not yet in, it has not yet happened. And, if it can be done the right way the first time, it can be a model for the rest of the world."
Harris said that with proper planning, "Belize City could be the most livable sustainable small city in the world." Harris, initially a marine biologist, also holds a degree in urban ecosystems. His advice to a growing metropolis is to invest in sustainable infrastructure. He is a huge supporter of recycling systems instead of landfills. The use of gray water systems for irrigation instead of using potable water, and simple investments in low consumption light bulbs can save a city millions of dollars over a few years.
Ultimately, Harris stresses that it comes down to good land-use planning. Many of the modern cities are designed to accommodate the automobile, which is a poor design when pursuing sustainability. Harris concluded his interview with The San Pedro Sun by offering some advice. "I think Belize needs to focus on the high-end tourist," he said. He mentioned the increase in eco-tourism as an example. He also suggests offering world-class facilities and "provide the kind of experience that you can't find anywhere else, because there is only one place like Belize in the world."