Tourism: Government must put up or shut up

The current political administration, including President Donald Ramotar, has made some  definitive pronouncements regarding the country’s tourism potential and what is felt to be the contribution tourism can make to providing employment and growing the country’s economy.

Of course, that kind of talk long predates President Ramotar’s accession to office so that it would be wrong to pin the blame for our lack of tourism readiness entirely either on him. Truth be told, Guyana has never really committed wholeheartedly to tourism.

Such tenuous claims as we have made to possessing a tourist industry are attributable in much greater measure to the efforts of local private investors who, over the years, have invested in hotels, interior resorts and aviation infrastructure, than to government, whose contribution has not gone a great deal beyond talking the talk, so to speak.

That was much of the thrust of the presentation made by Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana (THAG) President Kit Nascimento in his address to the association’s Annual Dinner and Awards ceremony. It was the kind of presentation which did its best to be mindful of the sensitivities of THAG’s official guests on the night but which, simultaneously, made the perfectly valid point that as far as building a strong tourism sector is concerned, Guyana is still light years behind where it ought to be and that government must carry most of the burden for the poor showing up to this time.

On Friday evening – and not for the first time – we were apprised of a ‘to do’ list as far as creating a viable tourism sector is concerned. This ranges from having a properly structured Ministry of Tourism – and, in that context, addressing the anomaly of a Tourism Authority – to effecting a global initiative to market Guyana amongst clearly targeted visitor markets, without which initiative a viable tourism sector will remain little more than a pipe dream.

Mr Nascimento also listed the familiar deterrents to visitor friendliness, ranging from inadequate interior airstrips and other aviation-related facilities to the physical state of the coastal strip including a dirty and unappealing capital. However, his most pertinent point had to do with the dichotomy between the lip service paid to tourism over many years and what, up until now, has been a studied indifference to putting up the money to ‘sell’ Guyana abroad.

Mr Nascimento is not the first person to tell the government the simple truth about the genesis of creating a viable tourism industry reposing in a marketing initiative that stimulates global demand for our tourism product. A marketing initiative of that kind – apart from the need for it to be planned and sustained – requires a sizeable investment.

We need look no further than any number of sister Caricom territories – Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas are among the best examples – whose global tourism marketing budgets run into hundreds of  millions of dollars, the logic of those investments being reflective of just what it takes to attract visitors to their respective islands.

Over time, Guyana, on the other hand, has adapted a sort of quixotic approach to ‘marketing’ tourism centred mostly around an approach that does not go much beyond attempting in a strictly limited and unstructured way to ‘talk up’ the fact that Guyana is the home of the Kaieteur Falls and a portion of the Amazon Rainforest and that nature lovers can have a good time here.

So that while there is nothing wrong with the THAG President’s ideas about fixing airstrips, and marrying the tourism and aviation ministries and appointing a Minister of Tourism, he has himself conceded that for all intents and purposes, all of that is more or less meaningless if we are unable to create a measure of market demand for the product and that is where the external marketing comes in.

There are a few other points worth making at this juncture, the first being that, over the years, tourism has not really won any serious political support either in terms of the creation of a really strong, highly visible and vibrant Tourism Ministry or through the vigorous patronage of any influential individual political personage or group of persons, whether in government or in the political opposition. Nor for that matter has the tourism industry, either in terms of the individual investors in the sector or through organisations like THAG, been able to muster the lobbying power to push government in the direction of investing the levels of resources necessary to lay the kind of foundation required to create a sustainable tourism sector.

 

Accordingly, government continues to address the issue of tourism pretty much on its own terms, prepared, it seems, to provide periodic verbal endorsements of the sector while not making anywhere near the commensurate commitments, notably financial ones.

A point has long been reached where government’s posture on the issue of creating a viable tourism sector has become both confusing and unconvincing. The most persistent – albeit less than robust – message that it is now receiving from investors and interest groups in the sector is that as far as building a strong and viable tourism industry is concerned the time has come to put up or shut up.

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