By Amos Sarrouy:
Based on an interview with Sophia Dannervig Hauch and Anders Andersen
Guyana is only benefiting minimally from a tourism industry that delivers far greater returns to other countries in South America.
In 2010, 5.28 million visitors spent US$4.93 billion in Argentina. Brazil raked in US$5.9 billion from the 5.1 million people who visited the country that year. Even Venezuela, not known for its tourism product has fared reasonably well. Last year the oil-rich republic had over 300,000 visitors. Guyana has had few visitors by comparison. In recent years, visitors categorised as tourists have numbered, at best, a few thousand. And even then, numbered among those have been Guyanese residing in the diaspora and returning to Guyana for one reason or another.
With its extraordinary beauty and unique culture the question persists as to why
Guyana has been unable to attract significant numbers of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the continent annually. Here in Guyana, local tour operators have been bemoaning what they say are the relatively paltry sums invested in marketing the country abroad.
Sophia Dannervig Hauch and Anders Andersen, a Danish couple, fell in love with Guyana from the first moment they set foot on the land of many waters. They believe that they have the secret to successfully promoting Guyana as a tourist haven and they plan to do something to turn the situation around.
“Westerners who travel use Google to research where they’re going,” says Hauch. “We googled Guyana and we couldn’t find anything! Nothing! It didn’t make any sense! When we first arrived in the Rupununi we had no idea where we were going to go. So we started asking people and they said ‘yes, we have tourist attractions! We have this, and this, and this!’ but they didn’t know how to put it on the internet.” Andersen says that “there are many options for sleeping in the communities, and in small hotels, but you can’t find them online. We met a lot of backpackers in Georgetown who wanted to go somewhere, but they didn’t because they just couldn’t get in touch with people.” The couple say that several visitors to this part of the world get as far as Brazil and Suriname but never get to Guyana because “it’s too hard to find information.”
To try to remedy this lack of information on Guyana the couple is creating a website that will serve as an online travel guide to Guyana, with the goal of making the country more accessible to travellers. The finished website will have information on everything from sleeping options and bus schedules to visitor attractions, guides, and prices. They believe that armed with this information travellers should be able to confidently plan trips to Guyana.
Hausch and Andersen believe that the key to attracting visitors, particularly the backpacker types, to Guyana is to target cheap travel, meals and accommodation options.
While Guyana lacks some of the tourism infrastructure that can be found elsewhere in South America, that is by no means a good reason why the millions of backpackers who pass through the region should not come here. Hauch points out that die-hard backpackers “would rather sleep on the street and go to Kaieteur than spend US$100 on a hotel and miss Kaieteur. “Backpackers don’t purchase fancy food or fancy tours. They use their money to have more experiences, or to extend their trips by a few more days that they couldn’t otherwise have afforded. Their philosophy is one of doing more with less.”
Andersen points out that “there are lots of hotels in Guyana that are being marketed as luxury resorts, but by doing so they are catering to 1% of the visitors and cutting out the other 99%.” The couple recommends that facilities in Guyana stop trying to compete with resorts in the rest of the Caribbean with their turquoise water and white sandy beaches. Hauch and Andersen feel that Guyana should be concentrating on offering what it has.
The Danish couple say their plan could benefit the tourism industry here including local hotels and tour operators. They are, they say, particularly excited about the prospects for small communities that can benefit from visitor arrivals by offering cheaper accommodation and meals to visitors wanting to enjoy the beauty and experience the adventure of Guyana without wishing to spend a fortune to do so.
At the heart of their idea for better promoting tourism in Guyana is the marketing of “a hammock or a simple bed” rather than a sustained focus on five-star facilities. They argue that more backpackers means more people eating at small restaurants, buying from local corner stores, sleeping in spare rooms, and using local transportation. They contend that by offering that kind of tourism product Guyana will be creating many more opportunities for small businesses and for local people to benefit from tourism.
“And the website is not only for foreigners, it’s for Guyanese travellers,” Hauch adds. “So many people who live in Georgetown have not seen most of their own country. We want to make it more affordable for them as well. Many people can’t afford to fly to Kaieteur Falls or Shell Beach, and so they live their whole lives without seeing their country’s greatest attractions. This website will enable them to do that.”
When will all of this begin? The couple say that the website is ready to go live but that they are waiting to see whether the local tourism industry will accept their idea for promotion of visitor arrivals here.
Andersen and Hausch were both raised in Denmark. He worked in insurance then in sales and marketing. She worked for 12 years in the service sector: hotels, bars, restaurants, in every position from dishwasher to manager. Her dream has always been to travel. “I managed to convince Anders to come with me even though he was getting a promotion. So we quit everything, sold everything, and flew to Venezuela. After Chavez died and everything got a little bit hectic.” They had planned to start a travel business with a partner they were to meet in Suriname. To get there they had to pass through Guyana. They went to the Rupununi and everything changed. “The savannahs, the mountains, the people, the air… It was pure goodness. The people were so nice to us. We met with our partner in Suriname, but by that point we knew we were in love with Guyana. He was in love with Suriname, so we decided to split,” Hausch says.
Andersen says that the people of interior Guyana “are so humble about what they have. They don’t know the value of their skills and their knowledge.” “They’re teaching me what’s important in my life,” adds Hausch. “I don’t need a fancy computer, and I don’t need a new cellphone, as long as I have a place to sleep and food to eat and I can wake up seeing the mountains. That’s what they taught me because they are whole humans. You’re judged by who you are and not what kind of shoes you’re wearing. They see you for you. You can see that Guyana will develop into something really beautiful. It has the people and the atmosphere.”
Was it hard to leave the comforts of Denmark to start a new business in Guyana? They both say no. They believe that if they had children here, they would grow up in “the best place ever.” Andersen says, “We’re not driven by money. We are driven by the desire to make this work and make Guyana an easier place to travel. Then hopefully Guyana can go into competition with larger places like Brazil and Venezuela. How many backpackers come to South America every year? Thousands upon thousands. But they go through Venezuela and then they cut down through Brazil skipping the Guianas. It would be easy to draw them north. Guyana deserves to be seen. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.”