Growing Tourism Increases Need to Protect Mayan Culture

by Holly Riddle

Apr 1, 2018

Mayan Ruin, Tulum © Joao Virissimo | Dreamstime.com

Trends / History

This year, the United States and Belize signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at protecting Belize’s Maya cultural heritage. The memorandum coincides with a traveling Maya artifact exhibit, “Maya: Hidden World Revealed,” which made stops in Boston, Denver and San Diego. It’s currently on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum through May 28. The exhibit includes more than 300 artifacts and replicas. Lucy Fleming, owner, The Lodge at Chaa Creek, in Belize, says the popular exhibit is contributing to growing interest in Belize history.

However, with growing interest and rising tourism rates, special efforts are needed to protect Maya artifacts within the country.

“It’s no exaggeration to say Belize is teeming with Maya artifacts,” said Fleming. “Modern technology such as LiDAR imaging is leading to new discoveries every year. At Chaa Creek alone we’ve recorded some 70 ancient Maya archaeological sites, including the temple of Tunichilen, within the 400-acre private nature reserve we’ve established. It seems like every time we dig a hole for fencing, improve roads and trails or do any sort of construction, we’re contacting the Ministry of Archaeology to report we’ve found yet another artifact or underground structure.”

Not everyone is as honest as Fleming, though. There’s a burgeoning illegal trade of Maya artifacts, with many of the country’s impoverished selling artifacts to private collectors and less-than-exemplary museums.

“Back in the 1970s and 80s, enforcement was more lax, and as a tourist or visitor, you’d be hard pressed to sit in one of the downtown bars without someone approaching to sell you a jade bead, piece of pottery or other artifact,” said Fleming. “Fortunately, through education and enforcement, and with the growth of sustainable cultural tourism, people are more aware of the importance of preserving Belize’s Maya Heritage. Even schoolchildren are taught that artifacts are more valuable where they are, rather than in some overseas collection.

“Living in the heartland of the ancient Maya civilization, with Chaa Creek having once been a thriving agricultural and trade centre linking the highlands of Guatemala with Caribbean trade routes via the Macal River, has given us a love of Maya history and culture, and it’s great to be able to share that with people from all over the world. And with today’s Maya making up some twelve percent of Belize’s population, we’d like to see them benefit more from Belizean tourism, through village visits, homestays and the promotion of Maya art, crafts, music and culture.”

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