Eco-tourism marches forward

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ONE of the most important pieces of news which came out in the last week was that Guyana was named “Best Eco-Tourism destination of the world” at the ITB Global Travel Trade Fair held in Berlin, Germany. This news was unfortunately, but understandably, submerged by political news of the impending national elections.

This award is very prestigious, and opens the door to a very lucrative source of income from eco-tourism. One hundred of the topfinest destinations were reviewed by the jury, which consisted of a panel of experts. Guyana had to compete against such well-known destinations as Sierra Gorda in Mexico, Tmatboey in Cambodia and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

The award was received by Mr Brian Mullis, Director of the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA). Mr Mullis remarked on receiving the award: “It is a tremendous honour for us to be recognised globally alongside our fellow leaders in eco- and sustainable tourism.” He went on to speak of the efforts of the government and his GTA in promoting eco-tourism, saying: “Guyana has expended considerable effort in recent years, not only to develop new and innovative eco-friendly tourism products as part of the national Green State Development Strategy, but also to incorporate sustainable tourism best practices into all aspects of its Strategy, planning and programming, while educating the world about its deep commitment to maximising the positive socio-economic and conservation outcomes from tourism.”

Guyana’s tourism product is an attractive one, and the country is now positioning itself as the next must-see destination for travellers. There is the world-class Kaieteur Falls, which could enter the same league as the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids. As the only English-speaking country in South America, it has a great asset.

It is a country where travellers could experience vibrant Indigenous culture, rich history, and hospitable and friendly people who can communicate in a language both know best. And there is a bonus for those who are prepared to spend a few days on the Coast, where they could visit Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and sample Indian food without going to Asia. There are other pluses for travellers: There are daily non-stop flights from New York, Miami and Toronto to Guyana, and direct routes from Europe through sister Caribbean countries. Also, Guyana became the first country to adopt the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s International Adventure Travel Guide Qualification and Performance Standards. The adoption of these Standards is an assurance to travellers that they would be dealing with an industry which practises the highest standards.

The jury which awarded Guyana the accolade of “Best Eco-Tourism destination” reviewed Guyana’s Eco-Tourism profile, and the Surama and Rewa eco-lodges caught their attention. These two lodges have ambitious and admirable goals and successes, and they are community-owned and managed, and aim at preserving Guyana’s ecosystems and Indigenous traditions.

The Guyanese public has not so far fully grasped the importance and value of a tourist industry. If, however, they reflect on the economic conditions of the Caribbean islands, they would have a better understanding of the industry. When the sugar industries, on which the Caribbean had survived for two centuries collapsed, they found themselves on the precipice of social and economic disaster.

A case in point is Barbados, an island where numerous fortunes had been made from sugar, it faced calamitous disaster when the last sugar estate was closed. Fortunately, the Barbadians were creative, and immediately went into tourism, which became an even greater money-spinner than sugar. This was reflected in the exchange rate of the Barbadian dollar being two dollars for one US dollar, as compared with Guyana, where it was two hundred dollars to the US dollar.

Barbadian tourism, like that of other islands of the Caribbean, is primarily “sun-and-sand”, whereby tourists go to enjoy their lovely sunny beaches and well-appointed hotels and guest houses. Guyana’s tourism is different, in that it is eco-oriented, where tourists go into the interior to experience the pristine forests, the silence, the amazing rivers and falls, and to forage for strange orchids and other plants, to engage in bird-watching and catch a glimpse of the strange and exotic animals. Many also have an interest in the way of life of the Indigenous people. Such travellers prefer to camp or to live in lodges. It should be underlined that eco-tourism is far more profitable than sun and sand, and that eco-tourists are generally more affluent than sun-and-sand seekers.

Guyana has been quietly building a base for its eco-tourism industry. A degree course in tourism was started at the University of Guyana several years ago, and some graduates are already practising locally or abroad. There is a strong and able Tourism Association, which has been helping to give the industry creative leadership, and the government has been making an increasing input, with the appointment of the Guyana Tourism Authority, and giving the industry ministerial status.

The accolade of “The Best Eco-Tourism Destination in the world” has placed Guyana securely on the eco-tourism map, and should stimulate greater investment in the industry, and inspire in the government and people a greater interest and understanding of the value of the industry.