Responsible Tourism in Belize, Guatemala, and The Yucatan Peninsula

This past May, World Progress Now’s cofounders (Alec and Nicole Griffin) traveled to visit friends, explore new areas of the ancient Maya world and test out the possibility of responsible tourism (not using one-time-use plastic water bottles), with the goal of learning whether or not the formation of a responsible tourism infrastructure was needed or not.

The preparation for the avoidance of plastic water bottles was easy enough-two Klean Kanteen water containers and a SteriPen (ultraviolet handheld water purifier) were purchased for the trip.  At least, we thought it was easy enough.

We arrived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico at 6:00pm and had five hours before our overnight bus ride to Belize City.  We landed at a restaurant where we ate and hydrated.  The water in most of these restaurants was filtered and drinkable.  We moved on after dinner, and as our departure time approached we decided that we needed to stock up on water, so we dumped our glasses of water from the restaurant into our canteens, repeating this action until we had two full water bottles.  We felt good about ourselves as we had managed to get enough water for the journey ahead, or so we thought.  We also bought a pack of ciprofloxacin (antibiotics for stomach bugs) just to be safe.

The heat and humidity of Central America can be daunting.  We arrived in Belize City hot, sweaty, and almost out of water at 7:00am.  From there, we caught a bus that was not equipped with air conditioning.  Four hours later the bus dropped us at the city center of San Ignacio, Belize.  It was close to a thirty-hour journey door-to-door and we had run out of water.  We arrived at our hotel and dropped our bags.  Our first priority was hydration.  We found a restaurant and quenched our thirst.  We stocked up on Club Soda in cans and used our SteriPen to cleanse the tap water in our hotel bathroom. San Ignacio has a center plaza that would have lent itself to a hydration station, but was lacking the infrastructure.  Tikal, Guatemala would have also benefitted from a filtered hydration station for tourists, as they all carried plastic water bottles through the park, tossed the old, and continued to buy new ones from local venders.

Tourists are attracted to the safety and convenience of plastic water bottles.  This attraction has caused the plastic waste to pile up in the rivers, along the roads, coastlines, and in random fields throughout this part of the world.  Many countries simply lack the recycling infrastructure, but offer these goods because tourism is driving their economies.

Without the convenience of plastic one-time-use water bottles, water becomes the quest of the day.  As we worked our way to the coast of Belize we stayed at a hotel that offered a refillable five gallon water jug as part of the hotel cost.  This helped us get through the rest of our Belize trip and on through the border of Mexico.  As we worked our way up the Yucatan, plastic water bottles became more prominent.  The plastic fields hidden behind the forest canopy became more numerous as we headed north towards Tulum.  We spent the night and had a harder time with the water there as it was not filtered for the sand.  We relied on restaurant water once again as the SteriPen does not filter small sand particles and we failed to bring along an appropriate filter.  We searched high and low for any kind of water outside of plastic.  In the end we settled on large, refillable, five-gallon water bottles.  We luged the large water containers around with us all over the Yucatan for the next nine days.

We successfully completed our goal of not using one-time-use plastic water bottles on our seventeen day journey, but it was not without its inconveniences. We did, however, feel accomplished as we did not add plastic waste to the local environment.  Our quest left us feeling the need to get the Responsible Tourism Infrastructure (filtered water refilling stations) installed in highly touristed areas. World Progress Now feels that providing the option to tourists worldwide will lead to a reduction in physical pollution worldwide and will leave the host communities with more money to reinvest into its own people and community rather than clean up the mess left by travelers.

Tourism Waste
Caye Caulker battles excessive trash on their small island.
Reusable plastic jugs in Caye Caulker
The island supply of reusable water jugs, washed and ready to redistribute.
Responsible tourism canteens
Packed and ready for our journey with plenty of water.
Plastic-free hard to find
Only plastic-free hydrating option we found along this bustling street was a can of Vitamin Water and paper-packaged coconut water.
Nothing but plastic filled containers at this bus waiting area.
Nothing but plastic filled containers at this bus waiting area.
Water towers
Water towers are a good option for hotel guests.
plastic pollution
Trash and plastic piles up along the roads with little infrastructure for recycling.
Plastic-free beaches
Let’s keep our beaches clean!
Only plastic option at high end restaurant
Unfortunately, this high-end restaurant ONLY served water in plastic bottles based on consumer preferences. We need to change consumer demand for plastic-free!

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