As Guyana’s interest in tourism appears to be gaining momentum, it is useful to reflect on the development of that sector in two Caribbean countries – St Vincent and the Cayman Islands – that moved into tourism at approximately the same time in the 1960s. Both British colonies, both relatively small (St Vincent 150 square miles; Cayman 105), and originally with less than vibrant economies, the two countries took different approaches to tourism development. In St Vincent, with some agricultural potential, the government opted for a smaller tourism plant (40-room limit on hotels) and for reliance on local investment so as to keep the industry largely Vincentian-owned. Cayman, with limited farmland and no rivers, chose the high-end, multi-storey approach (big hotels and condos) which by its very nature meant that foreign investment would play an essential role – Cayman was a poor country. The high-capacity brand-name hotels (Holiday Inn, Hyatt, Marriott, and eventually Ritz-Carlton) came to Cayman, part of the lure being no foreign exchange controls and freehold land, and drove the spectacular tourism surge that, along with offshore banking, made Cayman into the most affluent country per capita in the region. At the same time, however, from the very nature of that financial incursion, Cayman’s tourism plant today is largely foreign-owned or controlled, whereas that of St Vincent is largely Vincentian.
It would be interesting to ask people in these two countries today if on reflection they made the correct choice (Caymanians, in fact, are wrestling with the dominating percentage of American ownership of land and property in their country of 60,000 people), but the point is raised here peripherally in light of our own tourism stirrings where the name-brand tourism operations are being courted.
The more central observation, from a tourism standpoint, is the wider one that while those two Caribbean tourism ventures differed radically in approach, they were both operating with the identical tourism magnet – the essential ‘blue water and white sand’ features of the Caribbean region. (All around the three Cayman Islands, anywhere one goes, the seawater is like a swimming pool.) In all our deliberations about various economies in the region compared with ours, obviously putting Guyana in a bad light, a very pertinent point, often missing from the comparison, is that, save for Trinidad with its oil-gas revenues, the better financial state of Caribbean countries is largely because of the blue water and white sand they are blessed with. From the Turks and Caicos Islands to the north, all the way south to St Vincent and the Grenadines, the main engine of those economies is the tourism dollar drawn there by those alluring beachfronts. Certainly the music, and the friendly people and the nature spots play a role, but the main magnet is a combination of those white-sand beaches and that very warm and very blue sea. In a song I wrote about Cayman, there is a line “to look out on the ocean and see various shades of blue”; the power of that magnet cannot be overemphasized. Travel industry people will tell you that the first question a potential traveler asks about a destination is about cost. The second question is usually, “How far is it to the beach?”
Certainly Guyana has other tourism attributes – beautiful interior landscape, alluring bird and marine life, vibrant culture, zesty cuisine – with marketable appeal, but going into the tourism game minus the ‘blue-and-white’, as we are, means that we are in the niche markets of ‘nature tourism’ or ‘adventure tourism’ as opposed to the mainstream ‘leisure tourism’ that is the backbone of Caribbean tourism. The so-called enthusiastic ‘eco tourists’ are known to be willing to pay top dollar for unusual or exotic destinations off the beaten track, but they are small in number, compared to the ‘sea and sun’ crowd, and, more critically for Guyana, such tourists are adamant in their commitment to clean environments and concern for nature; they are almost fanatic on the subject. Those visitors will be shocked by our garbage-strewn city, our blocked drains, and the aerial views of our landscape ravaged by mining. And unlike the leisure tourist, who would grumble somewhat about those conditions, the eco-tourist is coming with a highly attuned radar for such degradations and will speak out vociferously about them, ultimately deterring others. They will leave Guyana appalled at the young men holding up live iguanas outside Bourda, and at the dead cows and horses on the Seawall Road, and at the unsanitary conditions of many parts of our country. They will crucify us in the pervasive social media of today. Until we fix those horrors, they will shun us.
Tourism is a multi-dimensional creature and I’m just back from performing in the Cayman Islands where all the facets are on display – obviously the very accessible ‘blue water and white sand’, but also a wide choice of first-rate accommodations, frequent and reliable airlift, clean environment, personal safety, extensive shopping and entertainment, and reliable utilities. To peruse that list of visitor requirements is to see how far we have to go in Guyana as we seek to propel significant growth in our tourism sector.
Certainly the ‘blue water and white sand’ is beyond us, and will remain so, but we have to fix the problems in those other dimensions if a genuine tourism surge is ever to take place in this country. Yes, we have an enthralling landscape and wildlife, and a vibrant culture with animated and friendly people, but without those other essential tourism dimensions our bona fide tourism numbers will remain small. All those Guyanese landing at Timehri from the diaspora are not tourists; they’re just folks keeping in touch with the homeland.