Improving financial sustainability through conservation based tourism in protected areas in Belize

Published: 26 September 2018
Last edited: 01 April 2019
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The Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) manages and co-manages 160,000 acres of land and seascape in southern Belize, fostering community participation in natural resource management. TIDE identified an opportunity to diversity funding and become more financially sustainable, in the face of increasing demand for conservation and development programs. A pay-to-participate program, Ridge to Reef Expeditions (R2R), was launched in 2014. R2R engages different sectors of the travel market in TIDE’s work, through tourism based conservation volunteering activities. This has a three-fold benefit. 1) Participants pay a fee, and all profits are donated to TIDE. R2R has already contributed $30,000 USD to TIDE. 2) Volunteer fees offset some of the costs of TIDE, by covering the costs of the activities they take part in. 3) The program creates economic opportunities locally for guides and service providers within the tourism industry.


Central America
Scale of implementation
Coastal forest
Coral reef
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Grassland ecosystems
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Open sea
River, stream
Tropical deciduous forest
Tropical grassland, savanna, shrubland
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Science and research
Sustainable financing
Sustainable livelihoods
Other theme
Tourism in Protected Areas
Increasing temperatures
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Sea level rise
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Invasive species
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 14 – Life below water
SDG 15 – Life on land


Toledo District, Belize
Show on Protected Planet


Social: There is a high population of graduates/soon to be graduates in Belize, so unemployment and pressure on resources is increasing. R2R is creating employment opportunities and supporting TIDE’s community development and livelihood programs.


Economic: There are few economic opportunities within the Toledo district, and many business struggle to survive. With increasing unemployment of youths, R2R is bringing sustainable employment and tourism dollars to the area.


Environmental: Climate change, alongside pressures of social and economic challenges, mean there is increasing pressure on natural resources and ecosystem services in Belize. R2R allows TIDE to continue/expand its current environmental programs to protect these resources into the future. These benefit the environment and community through sustainable fisheries, stable and clean rivers, coastal protection, and healthy ecosystems for eco-tourism.


Direct: Those receiving employment, service providers, and TIDE.

Indirect: Beneficiaries of TIDE programming: The ecosystems and those dependent upon them, e.g. fishers, tourism stakeholders, coastal communities, riverside communities. 

How do the building blocks interact?

Without the success of all four building blocks, the R2R program would not be possible.


Developing program infrastructure and capacity building are essential in planning and delivering high quality, marketable, programs to participants and potential volunteers.


Building business relationships is crucial in ensuring that potential volunteers are aware of the programs offered and to generate bookings.


Developing volunteer programs is essential to knowing what infrastructure, staffing requirements, and in knowing what can be offered to visiting groups. At the same time, developing programs relies completely upon how they will be marketed, strong business relationships, and ensure how staff’s capacity can meet the program’s needs.


R2R has fully invested into each of these building blocks from its conception. Without one, the others would not be possible, and the program would not be successful. For example, building accommodation that can host 100 students would be pointless without building relationships to recruit volunteers, having trained staff to ensure proper functionality, and having conservation programs for those students to participate in.


To date, 250 volunteers have participated in R2R. Revenue is reinvested in infrastructure, capacity building, and marketing, and from 2016, $30,000 USD has been donated to TIDE. The program is currently running at 10 – 20% occupancy. Investment has been largely supported through grant funding. 


R2R has created three permanent jobs, and part time opportunities for guides, boat captains, cooks and service providers. Spending on local services and tours, and in shops and restaurants has increased. Analysis of a 2014 program estimated that a group of seven participants contributed $25,000 USD to the local economy.


R2R participants offset some costs incurred by TIDE. With current occupancy, TIDE cannot rely on this for priority projects, but with program growth, it will become significant.


In 2019, for the first time R2R will host international groups that will subsidize local groups, so Belizean students have opportunities to experience R2R.


R2R participants have contributed to many conservation programs in TIDE protected areas. These include tagging a Hawksbill turtle, reforestation, community livelihood development, and manatee research, all of which benefitted from, or would not be possible without, volunteer participation.



Southern Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in 2001, which caused major damage to homes, and uprooted hundreds of trees. In the village of San Pedro Columbia, a group of concerned individuals formed the Xucaneb group, which is a Community Based Organization. For over ten years, the group has been replanting trees along the riverbank, in an effort to re-stabilize the banks, ensure a clean river ecosystem, and mitigate against the effects of climate change.


Since 2015, R2R has been supporting the Xucaneb group by sending groups of volunteers to assist in their ongoing efforts. The group is operated on a voluntary basis by its members, but when hosting R2R groups, they receive a stipend for the days spend with participants. In addition to this, R2R purchases the trees from the Xucaneb nursery, to contribute to operational costs. Meals are purchased within the local village, and women display crafts which the volunteers can purchase.


To date, R2R participants have planted over 1000 trees along the Columbia River. A group of students was so inspired during their 2017 visit, that upon returning home they organized fundraising events and were able to purchase a laptop which was later donated to the group.


Mr Hilberto Co, Chairman of the Xucaneb group, says  


“We greatly appreciate the help from the Ridge to Reef Program. We are looking forward for the continuous support from the group. It’s harder and harder these days to get the number of volunteers we need—but you made time in your busy schedule to get volunteers together and find ways in which you can help the Xucaneb Group here in the beautiful village of San Pedro Columbia.


Please accept our sincere gratitude for everything your volunteers have done, and how thankful we are by your donation.


Over the past years the Xucaneb group has been planting trees along the San Pedro Columbia River side and with partnership of R2R and TIDE we were able to continue. One tree planted by each volunteer means a lot to our community. These trees planted along the riverbank help with erosion and clean water. Whenever these volunteers come to our village, they will be able to share their stories back to their family and friends. We pray and hope that more volunteers are able to visit and plant more trees in our Belizean soil.


Thank you R2R we appreciate to share our stories and we value these trees that have been planted over the past years in partnership with R2R and TIDE. Once again thank you!!”

Contributed by

Caroline Oliver Toledo Institute for Development and Environment