The Lethem-Linden road represents the main artery for the movement of people and supplies between Region 9 and the coastal belt. Everything from fuel to toilet paper, mattresses to party dresses are conveyed on this road and for the tourism industry it represents both the means of sourcing critical supplies from Georgetown as well as a significant element in the experience that visitors take away with them of their time in the region and Guyana. In 2015 tourism’s reliance on the road between Kurupukari and Lethem was made even more critical when regular air service to popular destinations like Iwokrama, Surama, Rock View and Karanambu Lodge ceased, adding in some cases as much as US$1,000 in additional costs to an international tourist’s visit to the Rupununi.
In the three years since the cessation of flights tourism stakeholders have joined the chorus of voices including truckers and mini-bus drivers decrying the lack of maintenance and resulting deterioration to this vital artery. This year many tourism operators reported significant damage to vehicles well in advance of the first rains as road conditions within the region were already bad. From Christmas to Easter those in the know have called for road maintenance fearing what the rains would do to this already damaged roadway and all to no avail.
By the time the May/June rains hit the 20,000+ residents of the Rupununi were also having to contend with (like much of the country) the dramatic increase in the price of fuel. Now with bridges out, whole areas transformed into a mire of mud and stuck vehicles. Rupununians in the know have started to gird for shortages of fuel and other basic commodities. Municipal efforts have been dispatched to investigate the worst of the degradation but little has to date been done to solve the problems. Already the stories of people and goods stranded on the road for days at a time abound and the costs of repairs, lost assets, time and even life continue to mount. This has also adversely affected the thriving shopping tourism sector in Lethem which sees arrivals of visitors from Brazil via the Takutu Bridge which has been responsible for the commercial growth seen in recent years. With two months of the rainy season still to go even with a moderate to good flooding this vital pathway to Guyana’s interior is likely to be cut off for at least some portion of the remaining rainy season to the detriment of the region’s population. Emergency repairs are needed to safeguard the continued movement of people and supplies and avoid the accompanying loss of income.
Just as significantly the remnant of road that is likely to emerge when the waters finally recede will be significantly damaged, crippling commerce, inhibiting the movement of people and resulting in significantly higher transport and operation costs into 2019.
This paints a bleak future at least in the short term for Guyana’s most popular Eco-Tourism locations many of which are found in the Rupununi and whose international visitors book 6-12 month in advance. Those locations like Iwokrama, Surama and Lethem who usually look forward to the trickle of domestic and diaspora travellers during the July-August months to keep their doors open are already reporting that the current road situation has had a devastating impact on bookings.
For other sites further away from the main road the long hiatus during the rains means that such locations look forward to the influx of tourists in September to early December to sustain them and their employees and in turn grease the wheels of commerce in communities across the region to make for a festive Christmas. To salvage the coming tourist season, road and bridge repairs need to start with immediate effect, keeping commodities moving and reducing down time come September.
Collaborative solutions must be sought to facilitate affordable air travel direct to popular locations across the Rupununi. Policy review needs to be fast tracked to facilitate the installation of a regionally based air carrier, removal of the VAT on internal flights and incentives for airlines to service key tourism locations especially those in the North Rupununi need to be effected in time to meet the September demands.
The alternative will be exposing our visitors to the worst road conditions that the region has seen in almost a decade, eroding the progress made over the last 20+ years in bringing Guyana’s tourism industry to the international market and forcing existing operators into potential financial jeopardy with higher operational and transport costs to honour tourism commitments which were confirmed in many cases 6-12 months in advance.