Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2022. 7:45 pm CST.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
By Ambassador F. Daniel Gutierez: There is a unique serenity on top of El Castillo at Xunantunich. From that vantage point, the rolling hills of western Belize are dressed with distant farms that appear manicured and to the west, Benque Viejo and Melchor slumber on opposites sides of the border. If you have never visited the archaeological site of Xunantunich you should. Bring your family, you will not be disappointed.
Many Belizeans and foreign tourists visit sites all around our country each and every year. Their curiosity, their financial contribution, their positive word of mouth and ultimately their respect for our national heritage is welcome.
The Maya whose legacy is literally engraved in rock throughout this jewel, originated before and lasted longer than the western Roman Empire. Nuf respect, nuf said. But this piece is not about the ancient Maya civilization, its accomplishments its astounding mathematical precision, its successes, its ultimate evolution or failure or any of the unfolding areas of knowledge about it that are carefully and painstakingly revealed by archaeologists.
The idea behind this article is to underscore the value of our Maya sites – those much beloved national monuments that we hear about from our early years in the Belizean school system and that people travel thousands of miles from all over the world to visit. Despite their undeniable status as national treasures, did you know that the cost of a ticket is cheaper than some items on the menu at McDonalds. This practice of knowingly undervaluing our archaeological heritage expressly to the servitude of one vocal industry, is self-defeating and bad for business for the sites themselves and the country of Belize. It must stop.
First, it would be unfair to suggest that everyone in the tourism industry accepts and promotes the thesis that literally “devalues the experience” of our archaeological heritage. I am sure there are many who see this for the insult it is. But if you have ever been tickled by the argument for unreasonably cheap access, it goes something like this. “Belize is already comparatively expensive, how dare we charge a little more for the access to archaeological sites, it will make us uncompetitive, people may not want to pay”
Let’s unbundle this tired argument. It basically says that people will not want to pay to access these world class sites. If the data produced by the BTB is to be believed, the visitors who come to Belize are not what we would call the poorest of the poor, these visitors will have been to other countries boasting their own world-renowned destinations. In other words, they have interest in sites of the type we have in Belize. I did a quick search online for access fees to Machu Pichu, Versailles, The Alhambra, Angkor Wat, the pyramids at Giza and yes Tikal in Guatemala. Unequivocally none of them lower their national treasures to the price of a cheeseburger. Why should anyone have the gall to expect us to do so in Belize? Worst yet, why should Belizeans accept this hollow argument?
From a marketing vantage point, the argument for cheap access no longer holds credence. If we are to accept that the sites are as culturally and archaeologically significant as the sites I mentioned previously, then any price point that deviates significantly from similar company is flawed. So why is a frappuccino at some coffee shops more expensive than entry fees to Caracol?
Then there is the obvious, ridiculously low fees are also self-defeating. The sites need staffing, protection, maintenance and improvement. Let’s remember, as Belizeans we do not own these sites, we are merely custodians of the physical remnants of a culture that provokes awe world over. We are custodians of the greatest inheritance of our ancestors. When we struggle to protect, staff, maintain and improve heritage destinations, at the very least, we fail in our most basic duty. When we choose to live with this failure fearful of baseless arguments of supply and demand employed by a self-interested minority, shame. Damn shame.
I do want to make the point that there is one aspect of the current pricing regime that I support. Free access for all Belizeans every Sunday. Although access at 5 US Dollars is cheaper than a fancy drink, it is important that the opportunity exists for all Belizeans to have free weekly access to their heritage sites.
There is a new boss now at the Institute of Archaeology, and we wish her well as her job as the head caretaker of the nation’s most precious inheritance is paramount. We ought to support any attempt by the Institute to divorce ourselves from the status quo when it comes to access pricing.
There are other areas that also need examination too though – Universities and research partner institutions and organizations, for whose work we are grateful, must be compelled whether by persuasion or by law, to leave copies of the results of their research in Belize. Needless to say, this must be done in a way that protects the academic in his/her ability to publish and guard the results of the work for the institution that has invested in the research. But the research must also be housed in Belize, period. I bring this up because as custodians it is also our responsibility to properly partner for and house the results of scientific research, after all it adds to the visitor experience we have been discussing.
About two weekends ago and after sitting for a few minutes on top El Castillo on the halfway point of my usual weekend walk, I started my walk back down to the ferry. On the way I passed an enthusiastic archaeologist from Northern Arizona University working hard on his Masters Degree. I asked a few questions and he eagerly shared a little about the work they have been doing. Like me he saw tourists all over the site and no doubt I was not the only one to stop and ask questions. Just imagine where else in the world of Mayan archaeology do you get to ask an actual practitioner about their work as they unearth the past. For Belizeans and the thousands of tourists who visit, access to the archaeological sites is a privilege. For practical reasons of good management, for pride and for the fact that we are responsible for their upkeep, 5 US dollars is by any reasonable argument simply unacceptable. We must immediately stop this practice of devaluing our archaeological heritage.
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