Belize Update

Belize has always had immense appeal for divers and nature lovers. As the tourism product continues to develop, the country's appeal is widening. A room at Mata Chica in Belize

"Resorts in Belize are offering expanded amenities and spas," says Therese Rath, director of marketing for the Belize Tourism Board. "We're trying to capture the luxury market—that can only help the other markets grow."

There was quite a stir in 2005, when Leonardo DiCaprio plunked down $1.75 million for Blackadore Caye, a 104-acre island off the coast of Belize. There was talk of DiCaprio planning to build an eco-resort within a 25-minute boat ride to the Belize Barrier Reef. At present, there's been little activity, although the marquee value DiCaprio would bring to the island is highly anticipated by Belize's tourism players. Belize Dolphin Encounters

In 2006, Belize welcomed more than 150,000 U.S. visitors, a 4.5 percent increase over this past year. The country is currently receiving 80 percent of its arrivals from the U.S., primarily east of the Mississippi.

"California is a growing market for us," says Rath. "There's an increased awareness of Belize, and direct flights from the west coast on American, Continental and Taca have been a big help."

Belize's PhilipGoldsonInternationalAirport is currently undergoing a major expansion that will lengthen the runway, expand the apron and enlarge the terminal building. Construction on the Airport Development Project is expected to be completed by mid 2007.

When you ask Rath about Belize's attractions, she takes a deep breath and answers in one long, run-on sentence: "What we have is authentic English-speaking Caribbean flavor, security and comfort, Central American culture, a barrier reef, three atolls, the Blue Hole, whale sharks, one thousand Mayan sites and ruins—from unexcavated to restored, the largest cave system in Central America, the first jaguar preserve, and ten different cultures, which include Mayan, Colonial, Mexican, East Indian, Garifuna, Chinese, former slaves and Mennonites."

Resort News Mata Chica, a 14-villa beach resort on Ambergris Caye, recently completed an upgrade, adding such amenities as free wireless Internet service, iPod-Bose music systems in each guest room, and iPod usage during a guest's stay. The resort also upgraded its bar and lounge area.

Mata Chica has introduced all-inclusive packages, including dive, yoga and fishing packages.

The beach front casitas give guests the best view of the Caribbean Sea and the Belize Barrier Reef. Rates start at $205 per night.

Agents may contact the travel agent liaison, Burga Pattinson at info@matachica.com.

Belize Tourism Board: 800-624-0686, www.travelbelize.org.