All of the talk that there has been about tourism and its potential to contribute more meaningfully to the country’s economy cannot gainsay the fact that Guyana is not even remotely close to being that tropical tourist paradise which has long been highly marketed to travellers from Europe and North America. Those visitors who find their way here marvel at the majesty of the Kaieteur Falls, the quaint beauty of our modest tourist resorts and the charm of some of our interior settlements. Others have reportedly secured some measure of satisfaction in engaging in bird-watching, hunting or fishing pursuits here.
All of this being true, it is still difficult to envisage a time in the foreseeable future when the tourists will come to Guyana in their thousands every year and when the contribution of tourism to the country’s GDP will arrive in the region of 10 per cent. The fact is that while there is no shortage of visitor-attractiveness in Guyana it would probably not be unfair to say that we have tended to be more than a little delusionary about Guyana’s tourism potential, at least in the short to medium-term. Even the local entrepreneurs who have invested in tourism have tended to hedge their bets by diversifying into other sectors of the economy. Setting aside the fact that our tourism cake is a decidedly modest one, the sector is seasonal and that makes earnings even more irregular.
One might easily be deceived about the actual condition of the tourism sector if one were to fall under the influence of official visitor figures which reportedly take account of the widest possible cross-section of “visitors” including Guyanese who might be returning home for any number of reasons; weddings, funerals, family reunions and sundry others that might not, elsewhere, fall under the umbrella of tourism. All of these are counted and the figures presented to us without footnote or explanation.
If that is the accepted method of counting tourists then so be it though one wonders whether – for the purpose of determining the monetary contribution that tourists make to the economy – a determination ought not to be made as to whether our Guyanese ‘tourists’ stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, visit interior resorts, entertain themselves at our night clubs and spend generously in our local craft shops. These are pursuits that one might properly define as tourist behaviour.
Once we immerse ourselves in the kind of accounting that makes every visitor a tourist – except, perhaps, for those who come here for well-defined other reasons – we are likely to overlook the fact that many returning Guyanese simply pour whatever money they bring with them into a family pool during their stay here and that they are, in a number of instances, only too happy to ‘bunk’ at the family home for the duration of their visit.
The point at issue here is not only whether the Guyana Tourism Authority’s definition of just who constitutes a tourist might not – in the literal sense of the word - be debatable but whether, perhaps, the calculations as to just what tourism contributes to the country’s economy might not, as a consequence of the authority’s ‘creative’ calculations be misleading.
Part of the discourse regarding whether or not Guyana might qualify as a serious regional tourist destination has to do with the different product that we offer visitors. It is true that – not only in the hemisphere but globally – the sun, sand and sea destinations or what one might call the traditional destinations may well have surrendered a fair share of the market to the nature resort type destinations. Nature lovers are now numbered increasingly among tourists and when pursuits like bird-watching are thrown in for good measure, Guyana, can, arguably, make a case for having something to offer.
But then other issues arise. The first of these has to do with the fact that as a hemispheric tourist destination Guyana is somewhat off the beaten track as far as tourists from Europe, particularly, are concerned. In other words and with the exception of the Kaieteur Falls – what we have in Guyana can probably be experienced elsewhere at far less cost. Secondly, whenever we sing our country’s praises as a visitor destination – which, of course, we have every right to do we often fail to recognise that, over the years, we simply have not spent the volumes of money promoting Guyana as a tourist destination as, for example, Jamaica or Kenya of Malaysia. So we really cannot be too offended if Guyana continually gets passed over for those countries.
It has to be said, frankly, that there continues to be a dichotomy between the occasional official noises that are made about “Guyana’s tourism potential” and what appears to be a peculiar official reluctance to invest meaningfully in the sector. It is as if we feel that the international tourist market owes us some kind of special favour. Of course we are wont to immerse ourselves in a nationalistic fervour during which we come to see our Guyana as the best country on God’s good earth. The fact is, however, that other people not only think the same about their own countries but, more than that, they are prepared to put a good deal of money, energy and marketing behind their efforts to persuade the rest of the world that theirs is indeed the best country in the world. We, on the other hand, are prepared to carry on about our ‘dear land of Guyana’ but to limit our marketing of the country to modest representation at the occasional trade show. Truth be told and despite the fact that the Kaieteur is a Prince among waterfalls the world over Guyana couldn’t hold a candle to many other countries as far as tourism-friendliness is concerned.
No one is suggesting, of course, that we kill our dreams as far as seeking to attract visitors to Guyana is concerned. We need as well, though, to keep both feet on the ground as far as our potential as a ‘tourist paradise’ is concerned and to recognise that we are entering the race at late stage. Our scrambled preparations for the 2007 one-off Cricket World Cup demonstrated just how poorly positioned we are to entertain visitors and to promote our country. Everything, including producing enough high-quality souvenirs, providing adequate accommodation, cleaning up the city and, generally, working out the logistics of hosting perhaps a few thousand visitors at the same time became the subject of endless meetings and what we commonly describe as strategy sessions. In the end it was probably a piece of good fortune that the outcomes of some of the games in the tournament meant that we were spared the volume of visitors that might have been expected.
Truth be told we have hardly begun to scratch the surface as far as tourist infrastructure is concerned; and if we think for one moment that the creation of a Marriot or two constitutes a shortcut to becoming a tourist haven we need to think again. However much we may delude ourselves into thinking that tourists who come here will head straight for the interior and bypass the badge of shame that is our capital, we need to think again. They will see how we live and what they see is what, in the final analysis will brand our country.