18 Aug Natural gems entice tourists
Perched on the frontier of new tourism experiences, Guyana offers travelers a host of fun adventures
Guyana broke all visitor records in 2022 as more than 660,000 people arrived to enjoy its incredible natural assets, cultural charms and growing selection of business and investment openings.
That substantial figure was up 25% on arrival numbers prior to the pandemic, but officials expect more than one million leisure and business passengers will visit annually by 2026. According to the Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, Oneidge Walrond, the majority will relax and unwind on pristine sandy beaches or by pools at luxury hotels and resorts.
However, many more will look to explore its mix of rare flora and fauna among steamy rainforests or impressive savannahs. Others will opt to take boat trips along rivers and tributaries, view raging waterfalls, climb mountains and enjoy some of South America’s most diverse cuisine and cultural treasures dotted about its towns and villages.
Considered one of the most beautiful places in South America, the majestic Kaieteur Falls in the namesake national park is almost always the highlight of any trip. Following the course of the Potaro River, the falls tumbles 741 feet; almost five times as tall as Niagara and twice as tall as Victoria Falls, Kaieteur is one of the most powerful single drop waterfalls in the world, and one of the top natural attractions.
Another popular eco-destination is the Arrowpoint Nature Resort which can only be accessed by boat along a network of blackwater creeks. Tucked away in the jungle near an ancient Amerindian settlement, activities open to guests include kayaking, swimming, mountain biking and hiking.
Exceptional ecosystems hum with life
Guyana’s ecosystems sustain vibrant populations of some of the world’s largest species, including the jaguar, giant anteater, giant river otter, black caiman, anaconda and the arapaima. As a result, it is often referred to as “The Land of the Giants” by intrepid wildlife enthusiasts and with more than 820 bird species, the nation is very much a bird watcher’s paradise.
Guyana’s expanding tourism and investment offering has not flown under the radar of leading international airlines, who are taking advantage of runaway demand for business class flights as well as economy class seats.
Earlier this year, British flag carrier British Airways announced the return of scheduled flights to Guyana after a 42-year hiatus. The twice-weekly flights from London will add up to 33,000 seats annually and provide travelers with connections to other European destinations and the Caribbean and Central America.
The arrival of the inaugural BA flight in April was followed by an ASA being signed with the Dominican Republic, a move which is expected to bolster tourism and facilitate travel between the two Caribbean countries.
“We have been proactively preparing for this influx of visitors and as you move around Guyana, you notice a lot of construction activities some of which are associated with the hospitality sector,” Minister Walrond says.
Hinting that other commercial airlines are seeking to launch new routes to and from Cheddi Jagan International Airport, the senior official notes while the tourism industry lags behind more established names on the continent, this means its ripe for investment.
“We are in an infancy compared to all of the other countries who’ve been at this for decades,” she explains. “We are still looking for investments in the product, such as eco-friendly resorts where people can have a luxury experience, but still be eco-friendly. We are also looking for investment for more adventure tourism like ziplining, car racing and building out our landing facilities for yachting and boating. So, we are looking for that kind of investment and with Guyana being the fastest growing economy, it’s a no-brainer that such investment will be worthwhile because more people will certainly come here. My message to investors is to come and see our suite of incentives for those who wish to invest in our tourism product. We are looking to expand it, but have only just started, so now is the ideal time to come on board.”
Turning to some of the experiences that await tourists in her highly hospitable country, the experienced politician is quick to highlight some of its natural and cultural delights. “Guyana is extremely beautiful, peaceful and very safe,” she adds.
“We’ve had tens of thousands of tourists visit us without trouble and we want more people to come and experience it. The pictures don’t do it justice. You have to come. There are 10 administrative regions and each one of them is beautiful in its own right. For example, there are 365 islands in the Essequibo River, so you could visit an island every day of the year. There’s just so much to explore and see. Guyana is more than oil and gas; tourism is what’s happening here right now.”
Tourism offering reaches new audiences
Rather like the ambitious republic’s economic diversification drive, the hugely important tourism sector is looking to optimize returns by using high-profile advertising channels to promote its assorted segments. Tourism bosses have also been concentrating on marketing its multitude of riches to local people as well as to travelers in foreign markets.
One such campaign focused on domestic tourism during the period of COVID-19-related disruption when many international borders were closed. The promotional push persuaded many to travel to other parts of the country in a trend that supported different communities.
“We have encouraged people to become a tourist in their own country and that has caught on,” Minister Walrond adds. “We have extended that to the diaspora as well and they are coming to support us, but we’ve also built out other kinds of tourism products, like sports. We are great cricket enthusiasts and have the CPL cricket tournament hosting rights for the semifinals and finals for three consecutive years.”
In mid-2023, the Diaspora Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation engaged travel agents and tourist officials from the UK, US, Canada and Guyana. The reunion focused on partnering with travel agents, promoting Guyana as a tourist destination and developing attractive tour packages.
Head of the Diaspora Unit, Rosalinda Rasul said such an initiative was necessary to discuss ideas and challenges that currently exist and how to overcome and remedy the difficulties to market more of Guyana. “There are others in the Caribbean, New York and Canada that want to do more, but they haven’t been able to get the kind of packages, so this collaboration is to hear your challenges and what you think is a good idea to sell more of Guyana,” she stated.
To this end, representatives of travel agencies shared suggestions and feedback on boosting Guyana’s tourism. Ideas included having a direct tourism representative on the ground in various countries to disseminate promotional materials pertaining to Guyana. Recommendations were also advanced on having efficient information provided to tourists who visit.
Regional partnerships benefit both sides
Guyana’s proactive approach has also seen it forge close links with other tourist hotspots in the Caribbean and South and Central America, which have included mutually beneficial agreements and collaboration on projects. This positive strategy that aims to strengthen tourism partnerships also extends to better air connectivity with nations in the wider region.
A few months ago, Minister Walrond and her counterpart in the nature paradise of Costa Rica put pen to paper on an agreement that covers institutional arrangements and an action plan for knowledge sharing, technical support and other areas of collaboration. Around the same date, the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana and the Barbados Coalition of Service Industries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to allow Guyana to benefit from ways to improve its tourism products, including accommodation, food and management.
The pact follows the formation of the St Barnabas Accord two years ago between President Ali and Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, which covers tourism and international transport. Under the agreement, Barbados will assist in the training of thousands of Guyanese for employment positions throughout the tourism and accommodation sector.
Some of those students will undoubtedly progress their career at leading hotels on home territory and in other countries. Guyana offers a broad range of accommodation, everything from basic amenities in rural eco-resorts, to high-end luxury hotels from well-established, international chains in the bustling capital.
Demand outstrips supply in bustling capital
One of the most popular choices among foreign visitors to the vibrant city of Georgetown is the Sleepin International Hotel, which blends modern and comfortable rooms with excellent cuisine and an ideal location near to many of the city’s famous sights, including Brickdam Cathedral and Stabroek Market.
Guests can enjoy a wide variety of amenities during their stay, with the outdoor pool — complete with a well-stocked bar — gym and spa especially popular. For those who have to work, business travelers can take advantage of fast and reliable Internet access and an air-conditioned conference room that is available to hire for meetings and presentations.
Founded almost a quarter of a century ago by entrepreneur Clifton Bacchus, the safe and welcoming upscale — but affordable — hotel enjoys an excellent reputation among international vacationers and business executives. With dozens of rooms and a casino, the hotel’s energy use is significant, meaning its electricity bills are substantial given the high cost of power — albeit such costs will fall in the coming years when plenty of new electricity generation capacity is scheduled to come online.
To combat these high charges and remain competitively priced — nightly rates for its 150 rooms are around half that of some rivals — the Sleepin International has embraced renewable energy through the installation of cutting-edge solar panel systems that now provide around half of its daily energy requirements.
“In a hotel the biggest expense is energy, Bacchus explains. “We spend at least [US]$30,000 per month on power alone. I need to cut that in half to [US}$15,000. We have lots of solar panels on our roof, as well as many batteries that keep us running during the night. Our room rates also have a lot to do with people who are doing business. If they are staying for a long time, they’ll look for a clean room, hot water, good air conditioning and low rates.”
Frustratingly for the owner of the popular hotel — as well as other sites within his estate portfolio — Bacchus regularly has to turn away potential guests as his accommodation is booked out for months at a time. Many of these guests are overseas investors and business people involved in oil and gas projects or infrastructure development, including new hotels.
“I have 150 rooms here at the Sleepin International Hotel and I can’t even take bookings,” he explains. “If you call to make a booking and you want five rooms, we don’t take that request; because we are full all the time. The oil industry takes over at least 60 rooms every night. Like other accommodation providers, we have a problem with room availability, I don’t think even 600 at this site would be sufficient, we would need well over 1,000 rooms here to satisfy all the demand.”
Labor shortage to ease in the near future
Capacity constraints in the hospitality sector are not an unusual occurrence given Guyana’s rapid transformation. A chronic shortage of labor and materials in the construction industry, for example, is not uncommon amid the building of world-class hotels complexes, which include facilities for global brands like Courtyard by Marriott and Four Points Marriott.
Similar challenges are also in the hospitality sector, but the government is well aware of the issue and eager to resolve it as a matter of urgency. Indeed, President Ali recently held talks with Minister Walrond and to put in place a program to recruit and train at least 6,000 workers by the end of 2024 in various areas of the hospitality sector in order to meet the fast pace of the tourism and hospitality industries.
“Six thousand people must be trained in different areas of hospitality by the end of 2024 or we will be in a crisis,” he said. “The hotels are already unable to find sufficient workers. There is a lot of pressure on the system.”
Once this tourism and hospitality infrastructure bottleneck has been cleared, the prospects for both sectors look bright as the country prepares to display its natural and human resources to a larger audience than ever before.