Guyana: Tourism recovery after COVID-19 – By Annette Arjoon-Martins

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On certain occasions, I use the space in this column to deal with a pressing subject using the expertise of someone proficient in that field.  Today, as we contemplate what Guyana will be like after COVID-19, the column presents the viewpoint of my wife, Annette Arjoon-Martins, knowledgeable in matters of travel and the environment in Guyana.

By Annette Arjoon-Martins

Guyana’s tourism product is largely dependent on international visitations so the international travel ban for COVID-19 has hit the industry really hard, virtually bringing that sector to a halt.

There are realities here facing us.  Our major tourism attractions are mostly located in the deep hinterland, where road connectivity is not in place, and even in the limited locations where they exist they are always at the mercy of inclement weather.         

Only this week we are reading of the roadway to Lethem being cut off completely. The brave souls who would venture to set off anyway would have to endure harrowing potholed trails – not exactly conducive to enjoying the various attractions on offer.            

That Guyana had enjoyed its highest visitor arrivals in the past two years during which it also won two International Eco Tourism Best Destination Awards is especially painful for the lodges and tour operators who saw such accolades as providing the international visibility that the country could not afford in its annual marketing budget and was like a light at the end of a long tunnel.

HEALTH PRECAUTIONS

However, COVID-19 changed that, and while the relevant health and aviation authorities will need to ensure all the essential health precautions are in place to assure international tour operators and visitors alike that the country is safe to visit once more, the needed recovery will not be achieved in the short term. The expensive and painful lesson to the country that it should not be solely dependent on international tourists has made it clear that there is urgency to stimulate and grow our domestic tourism market. But to do so it will need the enabling support from the relevant stakeholders, especially the new Government, and the removal of VAT on local tourism visitations would be a good place to start.

Just this week I was on a conference call with environmental colleagues speaking of the opportunities that the COVID-19 had opened up for creative tourism development and our focus was specific to growing the domestic market through the development of a niche which we refer to as “travel with a purpose”.

The idea was to use our familiarity with the hinterland to custom design and lead tours of small manageable groups for various segments of the market ranging from corporate clients to tertiary students. For those who do not want to travel long distances, we can offer the Mahaica River Tour. Within one hour, you pass through the spectacular rice fields to arrive at the De Hoop landing, where visitors are given a talk on the rich agricultural sector and have an option of touring a farm and picking fruits that are in season before heading off on the river journey.

MAHAICA RIVER TOUR

During a three-hour round trip by boat, the visitors see giant river otters, Canje pheasants, howler monkeys and over 60 species of birds. Stops at farms along the way provide refreshing coconut water straight out of the shell, and when watermelons are in season you can pick your own and have it cut up right there in the middle of the watermelon patch. An extension tour, which would take an entire day, could be to St Cuthbert’s Mission, the indigenous community which is at the origins of the headwaters for the Mahaica River and which produces some of the most beautiful tibisiri craft and wooden sculptures.

I have seen snippets of video and drone footage taken recently of this trip, and it is astonishing to know that less than twenty miles from the main east coast corridor one can be totally immersed in a completely tranquil setting which is comparable to being on either the Waini or Rupununi River, with only nature as your company.

We have also started promoting what we call a Linden Lunch getaway. Earlier, when my husband’s family from Canada were visiting, we took them to the Watooka Guest House for lunch and on the return journey stopped at a 150-acre nursery on the highway which was an oasis in the middle of sandpits. David’s niece could not stop speaking of how enjoyable it was and most of all that it could be done within a few hours from Georgetown. Our plan is to provide educational talks at the Guest House on the history of Bauxite and to take the visitors after lunch on a drive through Wismar, where the remnants of the Aluminum Factory are still visible and the 1853 Christianburg Water Wheel is now a national monument. The empty sand pits are perfect for zip-lining but that is another story for another day.

DISASTER RESPONSE TRAINING

COVID-19 has shown us that we need to think outside the box when developing even our domestic tourism product. And as jungle survival training is a niche that has developed in Surama over the past decade, a location such as Linden, which has all the elements such as waterfront, jungle, sandpits and an airstrip, is perfect for an academy to train youth and hinterland residents in disaster response such as floods and droughts once the technical expertise to do so can be sourced and the relevant financing is available. The natural disasters from climate change regionally and nationally require specialist capacity and Guyana, as the only English-speaking country in South America, offers a unique opportunity to take advantage of the opportunities from this. Such development should be supported once the investors with the requisite background, expertise and history pass all the necessary background and other checks.

ORGANIC PRODUCTS

To complement our purpose-driven travel tours, we are also developing a sustainable enterprise line of organic products where the raw products, such as cashew nuts from the Rupununi, cocoa from Hosororo Hill in the North West, and carambola from the Pomeroon, will be used to produce rum-infused fudge.  Creatively packaged, this can become a very attractive item for visitors as well as residents.

These “green products” will be helping communities that have the capacity to produce the ingredients but do not have easy access to transportation nor production facilities that meet the phyto-sanitary standards that are required. A percentage of the sales will be reinvested in the communities by assisting aspiring tour guides from the producing communities to be provided with internships in hotels, tour operator’s offices and lodges to gain the relevant experience to become eligible for employment, thereby coming full circle.

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