Catherine Hughes, Minister of Tourism for the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, explains how the government is “exploring every aspect of tourism to ensure that it becomes one of the key contributors to the economy over the next five years” and encouraging the private sector to get involved early.
Guyana is going through a historical year. Its people have elected a new government after 23 years’ grip on power by a single party. Guyana is therefore facing a new era under the leadership of Brigadier David Granger who, during our interview, spoke about the “fresh approach” of the new government. Can you share with us your views regarding the “new Guyana”?
This is a historic time for us in Guyana as you quite rightly said. This new administration feels strongly that there are very many areas ripe for development which have not been sufficiently explored. We want to move forward with the development of our country. We are also very conscious of the very high levels of unemployment among our young population. This is the group that we are placing much emphasis on. They are a bright, technology savvy group of people and our chief mission is to provide the opportunities for them to become entrepreneurs and, or to access more lucrative sources of employment.
We’re focusing as well on the diversification of our economy. Guyana has traditionally been an agricultural economy with sugar and rice forming the foundation, and other sectors like mining comprising the key pillars. Over the last six or seven years sugar was adversely affected by reduced prices on the international market. We (like other countries in this hemisphere) have lost some of the age-old preferential trade agreements with Europe. We are in the process of seeking new ways to promote growth and markets for other agricultural produce as well.
Here is why this is important. There are now available several international studies that predict a world food shortage. Guyana is endowed with thousands of hectares of rich agrarian soil. This administration is on a new trajectory to promote agrarian industry and simultaneously inculcate the technological aspects of it that would be attractive to our young population.
Here too is where the Ministry of Tourism comes in. We’re exploring every aspect of tourism to ensure that it becomes one of the key contributors to the economy over the next five years. This is why, for the first time in Guyana’s history, we have a designated, stand-alone Ministry of Tourism. This is the time when we become able to utilize the nation’s natural and human resources to develop tourism as a thriving industry.
In our exclusive interview with Mr Rafai, the Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization, he said, “Tourism has proven to be one of the best allies of developing economies and emerging destinations”. Currently, economists all over the world are speaking about the slowdown of emerging economies. So before we go on to discuss the economic situation in Guyana’s tourism sector, how do you believe that leaders of the tourism industry could work towards further development?
I’m happy that you mentioned the UN World Tourism Council because I actually met one of their directors at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry conference in Curacao in October. Guyana is historically an integral part of the Caribbean (we used to be a colony of Great Britain). We are the only English-speaking country in South America. It was brought home to us even more strongly at this conference that we in the Caribbean must work together, so Guyana has devised two approaches. We’re working with the affiliates of the CTO and simultaneously, pursuing our own initiatives to join the WTO. Within CARICOM we’ve discussed several intra-regional challenges such as visa restrictions. Guyana began some months ago to revise some of our own visa policies. The glad result is that some countries no longer require visas to visit Guyana. This makes it easier for a visitor to come here.
Only just recently the CTO successfully negotiated with the British Parliament to remove some of the taxes on airline tickets from the UK to the Caribbean. That was a big hindrance in our efforts to woo that market of cost-conscious people. We were in competition with several other emerging destinations where certain taxes were not applied.
The key challenge we have though is to make Guyana very visible in the world tourism market. We have started at the beginning, ‘selling’ our geographic location principally to put an end to this lifelong mix-up with Ghana in Africa. We found that the average citizen of the world did not (until quite recently) have a single concept of where Guyana is located and what we have to offer to a tourist. That is our main thrust for the years ahead – to create international marketing competency with a strong presence on the digital social media platform. We have devised a very comprehensive five-year plan that will address every approach to place Guyana out front so we could attract some of the WTO’s one billion tourists.
We have already identified our niche products and target markets. To enlarge this market and increase our visibility we’ve increased our attendance at the world trade fairs linked to specific niche markets, e.g. birding. Here we believe we have a strong competitive advantage. Over the last few years Guyana has received a lot of support from USAID and the GET US programs that helped to developed statistics as well as train our birders and tour operators in that sector. We have been attending the Rutland Trade Fair in London and more recently we were present at the Ohio Bird Watching Fair. I myself was present at World Travel Market.
I’ve observed that most of these expositions in recent times have been focusing on tour operators and providing new strategies for destination branding, the use of new media, and collaborations with umbrella travel agencies especially those in Latin America. It didn’t surprise us to learn that Latin America is also an emerging market that we’ve not yet explored. Our overtures have led us to the national and international airlines in a bid to strengthen our airlift capacity in-country and across the seas.
Internally, we’re working with the UNDP and have received some funding from the Chilean government. We are about to release our eco-tourism policy after consultations with stakeholders in the industry, mainly the private sector-led group, Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana (THAG). We’ve agreed on a range of policies that will define our marketing and development plans.
This Ministry launched in November Guyana’s Tourism Awareness Month under the theme, “Growing the Business of Tourism through Product Innovation”. How do these types of initiatives help to create an awareness in the communities and diaspora of the importance of the tourism sector to the country, and why this theme?
Tourism Awareness Month is one of the vehicles we use to raise awareness in-country of the endless opportunities available for personal and business growth. We are now more convinced than ever that in order to have a successful tourism industry, we must have a knowledgeable population that buys into the value of tourism and understands how they can benefit from it. We deliberately paired product innovation with the business of tourism to set our people’s imaginations alight with ideas and possibilities for new enterprises, to help them understand that every citizen is a perpetual host and there are numerous opportunities to earn from it.
We also took the opportunity to throw the spotlight on the assets we do have (which people mostly take for granted) such as hinterland resorts; large and boutique hotels in the city, towns and interior districts; the wide array of restaurants and supporting entities that provide tourism-related products, whether it is nighttime entertainment spots, museums or art galleries, historical buildings or unique architecture.
Our main message to the people of Guyana this month is that we want you to get on board and consider investing in your own tourism product, or play a bigger supporting role in the wider tourism industry. We want our people to be aware that there will always be a need for more visitor accommodation. We’re encouraging them to think about expanding the tourists’ experience by adding amenities such as zip lines and bird watching canopies, safaris, or spas near to any of our numerous waterfalls, and even an artists’ retreat. This latter seems to be the next big thing in tourism the world over. The number of artists who wish to experience and paint different, more exotic sceneries seems to be multiplying. These are huge groups of people who just want to live and experience the indigenous ways of life, their music and their art. In these areas we have strengths.
Since we’re confronting issues related to high unemployment, our main goal is to start our young people thinking and experimenting with new business ventures. In December 2015 we will hold a stakeholders conference, and we’re starting an intensive public sensitization campaign via the mass media and social media. In terms of investment, our Office for Investment (GoInvest) has already crafted a comprehensive incentive package for both domestic and international investors.
We have a fair amount of role models. Every Jamaican for example, understands how they could earn from tourism through branded craft, jerk food or beverages. Today Jamaicans set up shop either close to where they live or in the capital, paint it in their national colors and they sell Jamaica. This is the mindset that I’d like to see Guyanese inculcate. So this was the genesis of the concept of product innovation and the business of tourism, the anchor of this year’s theme.
During the first quarter of the year, Guyana has seen a 40% increase in arrivals over the same period in 2014. This has mainly been boosted by an almost 20% increase in tourism from the United States. You led in September a Guyanese contingent to New York for the 14th annual Guyana Folk Festival and Brooklyn Labor Day festivities. How important is the U.S. market to the Guyana tourist sector, and how is the government approaching this market?
The North American market is extremely important to us (and this includes Canada). More than 40 percent of our visitors are returning/visiting friends and relatives from North America. This is a significant number so we made a deliberate policy to go out and interact with them on their territories. You mentioned the Guyana Folk Festival. That’s one of the largest celebrations that bring together huge Guyanese contingents from across the US – New York, Georgia, California and other states. A Guyana delegation attended about five or six specific functions this year and we manned a booth at the final event. Together with representatives from the private sector in Guyana, we had the opportunity to meet about 6/700,000 Guyanese and talk to them about Guyana Today, about our plans for tourism development and the huge celebrations for our 50th independence anniversary in 2016. It was a great networking opportunity.
Tourism is a sector that generates large sums in direct investment and it’s a sector full of opportunities. The Marriott (Guyana) Hotel has already committed with the opening of a $58 million hotel here in Georgetown, which certainly helps to put Guyana on the global map. This can also encourage other U.S. companies to come to Guyana. What opportunities for investment does the tourism sector offer to US investors? Why invest in Guyana?
Well, Guyana is a new market. I dare say that the investment market in tourism in several countries in this hemisphere is saturated. There is too much competition for the same dollar. In Guyana there are myriad opportunities for new investments just because it is a new industry. The fastest growing sector of the tourism industry internationally is eco-tourism. It includes adventure and leisure tourism and Guyana is geographically positioned to provide a superior product. Our rainforests are intact. We do not have a history of pollution. Our flora and fauna can be easily seen and almost every aspect of tourism is open to investment. The newness and the absence of direct competition (at this time), could almost guarantee returns to an investor.
Add to that our skilled, young, teachable workforce, relatively reliable internet and telephone services and an English-speaking population. Our investment portfolio also includes primary, secondary and tertiary manufacturing, product distribution, commercial enterprises and a wide range of services including business support (call centers). While we welcome investments in forestry and secondary production of forest products, we do insist on sustainable usage and management of this particular resource. Guyana does enjoy a good international reputation for high quality wooden furniture, decking, paneling and other wood products.
When it comes to gold, diamonds, bauxite, manganese, precious and semi-precious stones and other minerals, we do insist on responsible mining that is supported by strong legislation overseen by the Geology and Mines Commission.
There is a lot of potential for investments in mining, forestry, seafood (fresh-caught or processed), manufacturing of agro-foods including coconut (there is vast potential here because of large existing coconut plantations). In addition, to any investor contemplating new enterprises to manufacture medicinal or health-based products or engage in organic agriculture, we’re it.
We have already packaged a few great incentive portfolios for investors because we are encouraging international business chains to invest in Guyana.
In today’s world, country branding cannot be underestimated. You have stated on more than one occasion that Guyana needs an entire public relations campaign. How is the government working to make Guyana a global brand, and how are they communicating to the world Guyana’s opportunities? How are you branding Guyana?
At the World Travel Market last year, we implemented a very specific program to define who we are and what we have. We came up with a new brand which is: Guyana, South America Undiscovered. The concept is based on the fact that Guyana is located on the northern coast of the South American continent even though since our independence from Britain 50 years ago we have identified with the islands of the English-speaking Caribbean.
We are rain forest; we are the Amazon; we are rivers and waterfalls. We are not blue waters; we are not white sandy beaches though we do have sandy beaches of a beautiful golden brown. We also have lots of white sand and ironically we do export white sand (silica) to several Caribbean countries, especially following hurricanes.
But geographically we are South American. We decided to explore and deepen this connection so now we have a very comprehensive plan to market the re-branded Guyana. We’ve been promoting it on social media, in the mainstream media and online. We have established a good relationship with two international companies that are developing our messaging and the appropriate channels. So, just before the start of our 50th jubilee next year, the international messages will begin to roll out.
We’ve spent a lot of time defining the brand, defining the niche markets and the open market especially in North America and the Caribbean. Other emerging markets include the UK, Holland and Germany, parts of Asia, New Zealand and Australia. With respect to improving airlift capacity, the plan is to form a tourism partnership with the other two countries in the Guianas Shield – Suriname and French Guiana – to put together packages to improve the experiences for their and our tourists. Multi-destination marketing is the way to go.
I was present at World Travel Market in November where we signed on to a cooperation agreement with Barbados. One of the caveats says that visitors going to Barbados will have the opportunity to come on to Guyana. The formal government-to-government agreement was signed two weeks later. We are also in talks with Trinidad to devise similar multi-destinational packages.
One of the reasons we’re going in this direction is because of the challenge we face with direct flights from Europe. Our collaboration with Trinidad involves Caribbean Airlines that announced a plan to pull out of the UK market in January 2016. We’ve since spoken with several foreign airlines and operators about filling this void. This is where the countries of the Guianas Shield could help. They land direct flights every week from Holland to Surinam, France to French Guyana. Since these routes already exist, our collaboration is expected to bring in a portion of the European market to Guyana.
Next year, Guyana will be celebrating its 50th independence anniversary. It is a perfect time to celebrate and communicate all that Guyana’s achieved in these 50 years and the possibilities the country offers. How would you like the U.S. audience to perceive Guyana? What would you highlight?
I want to say to your American audience that I know that you are looking for new experiences. I know that you want a change from photographs taken in front of statues or famous buildings. Your tastes have changed and you want to experience something different. I believe this is what Guyana offers. There’s no language barrier – we speak your language. Culturally, we have very strong ties. There are direct flights to and from the US.
If you are interested in sport fishing, we have the Arapaima, one of the largest fresh water fishes and some fantastic locations where you could fish in peace. If you are about adventures, we have lakes, creeks, huge rivers, dense forests, a multitude of waterfalls and rocky areas for climbing.
We have resorts and viewing points from where you could observe some rare species of birds and wildlife in their natural habitats, and from where you could experience breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. If your wish is to experience the cultures and lifestyles of our indigenous peoples, come to Guyana. They will light a bonfire in the evenings. They will perform for you their native dances and invite you to enjoy their food. They will take you on treks through the rainforest and explain the importance of sustaining the forests and its products to their ways of life. If you’re looking for radically different experiences, Guyana is where it’s at.