Newswise — Belize is an unforgettable mix of tropical waterfalls, ancient Mayan ruins and deep limestone caves, making it one of the world's most popular destinations for ecotourists. Peter Kumble of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is working with the government of Belize to limit the environmental impact of ecotourism on these sensitive natural wonders.

According to Kumble, one of the main things that ecotourists need to remember is how fragile these lush, tropical sites can be. "On a recent trek through underground caverns, which required swimming into the entrance, my students and I were asked to wear socks when we came out of the water," says Kumble.

"Just the oils on our feet would have been enough to coat the rocks and prevent stalagmites and stalactites from growing on their surface."

While this tour was led by licensed guides, many caves that are not as well managed have suffered damage to natural rock features, such as stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the theft of ancient Mayan artifacts. "The Mayans viewed the caves as a connection to the underworld, and left offerings of pottery, food and human sacrifice," says Kumble. "In some locations it is fairly easy for a tourist to pick up a shard of pottery and take it home, not realizing that they are disturbing an important archaeological site."

Rio-On Pools, a network of cascades and pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge region listed in the Rough Guide to Belize, has also suffered damage from overuse and minimal site maintenance. Water quality is becoming degraded as heavy rains wash sediments from dirt paths and parking lots. Poorly maintained pit toilets can also be a source of pollution. During field research over a 30 month period, Kumble observed significant erosion on trails, trash and debris left behind at many sites, and the displacement of wildlife and plants.

"Ecotourists expect pristine natural environments and an element of challenge in their experience, but they should adopt a "leave no footprint" policy, which means staying on existing trails instead of creating new ones, and packing out whatever they carry in," says Kumble. "Local managers and the government of Belize do not have the funds or manpower to manage and repair the damage by ecotourists, which is mostly unintentional."

According to Kumble, ecotourists also need to be aware of how important they are to the economy of Belize. "One of the main advantages of ecotourism is that most of the money paid for food, lodging and guide services goes directly to the local economy, unlike fees paid by tourists on cruise lines and in big resorts," says Kumble. "Ecotourists have a responsibility to make sure that prices paid for handicrafts are fair and sustainable for local people, and that guides are not persuaded to bring visitors to areas that are off limits in order to earn a large tip."

A veteran of nearly 10 trips to Belize, Kumble is currently working with the government of Belize to identify areas that can sustain visitation, while at the same time determining which locations should remain closed to visitation by the general public. He will travel to Belize in late June 2008 to present a master plan for developing a remote mountain village to better accommodate ecotourism, a project being done for the Belize Ministry of Forestry. He will also follow up on a redevelopment plan for the Belize Botanic Garden.

In March of 2008, Kumble led a field studies trip to Belize for UMass Amherststudents, designed to measure the impact of visitors on the cultural and natural resources at several ecotourism sites. In a separate project, Kumble recently completed a survey of how satisfied tourists in the Pine Mountain Ridge area were with their visit to Belize.

"Ecotourism is the largest industry in Belize, since they have very little agriculture or manufacturing industry," says Kumble. "We need to establish a framework to identify sites that can handle visitation by ecotourists, and learn how to develop these sites to limit damage to cultural and natural resources, making ecotourism sustainable."