Under the leadership of Minister Irfaan Ali, Guyana is set to realize impressive growth as a truly unique eco-tourism destination
The Guyanese government has designated tourism as a priority sector of the economy and you have described tourism as the backbone of the future economic growth and development of the country. How important is tourism and what needs to happen in order for it to become the backbone of Guyana’s economy?
Tourism is perhaps the sector that gives the greatest trickle down benefit in any economy. Tourism has the potential of creating new businesses and many times we forget that tourism is an import and export forum. So, tourism for us in Guyana is essentially an investment that should be different in many ways.
Whereas many countries that are heavily dependent on tourism have most of their revenue from this sector re-exported out of the country, we would like to see our tourism quarter to be community based and oriented. This allows us for better linkages in other sectors of the economy, for example, agriculture. We are well known for our vibrant agriculture sector in the Caribbean, with lots of fresh vegetables and foods and this gives us an excellent opportunity to ensure and maximize the benefit from tourism into other sectors of the economy.
For us the investment in tourism and the expansion of tourism as a dominant sector of the economy requires private and public investment. It is for this reason that we are presently investing in a new hospitality institute that will be of international standard. This institute is to ensure we have well-trained, skilled and competent human resources with the capacities and capabilities to function effectively in this sector. We are also on the verge of investing in a biodiversity center of international standard; as you know, our eco-tourism, our nature based tourism, requires us positioning ourselves internationally as a center for biodiversity studies, as a center for environmental studies. Our entire development trajectory is based on a low carbon approach and that in itself is an attraction. Modern day tourists and high-end tourists are looking for strong nature, eco-based destinations that take seriously the protection of the environment. So that is another very important hallmark of our tourism sector.
As I said, we also need to have other infrastructure invested in by the pubic sector. That is why we are building a new airport; the existing airport has worked well but because of the growth in the sector and the growth in travel and our futuristic ambition of making Guyana the hub for South America, it is essential that we invest in this new infrastructure, so as to ensure we have the right environment facilities that will make us that hub. The position of Guyana can make us, for aviation, what Panama is for navigation; and this is the approach we are looking at.
In addition to this, the potential of utilizing the diaspora we have overseas is also enormous. We have in our development trajectory the building of a specialty hospital that takes us into medical tourism and into educational tourism, because we now have a number of medical universities that will be established in Guyana (three are under construction at the moment) that can have a beautiful blend between medical and tourism. In many small islands of the Caribbean universities provide on a daily basis over three thousand students who have to consume and utilize cultural services and the economy. And this of course will benefit us tremendously.
We also have the expansion of infrastructure and facilities locally. Over the last four years we have spent more than 53 billion Guyana dollars on modernization, expansion and the building of new hotels and resort facilities. We are seeing for example a new Marriot resort almost completed; we are seeing a local hotel that is being rebranded; we are seeing investment out of Asia, Dubai and the Middle East in the Sea & Sand Hotel. These are all new investments that will definitely add to the expansion and modernization of the tourism sector.
In addition to all of this, we have seen our ecologists working on our nature facilities in the rain forest, going to the extent that for three years we have been winning the sustainable development best eco-practices given by the CTO (Caribbean Tourism Organization). We also have had major investment proposals in the building of a new marina and boat yard, and that opens opportunities in the yachting industry. As you are aware we have more than 800 different species of birds and we are among the top destinations for bird watchers.
We are ranked as one of the 50 destinations you must visit in a lifetime according to BBC. We have had more and more series being filmed in Guyana, like River Monsters, for example; these are international TV series and documentaries that are filmed in Guyana. Our tourism is described as “Guyana, South America undiscovered.”
Yes, how did you come up with this new branding campaign?
Guyana is a beautiful naturally raw country where the protection of the environment, the preservation of nature and the upkeep of flora and fauna is fundamental to our development. More than 80 percent of our land is covered with a formation of forests, Amazonian rain forests, and we are positioned in South America but we are referred to as the Caribbean. We are a member of UNASUR and a member of CARICOM and that gives us a unique flavor. We are a truly authentic South American Amazonian experience with a beautiful Caribbean flare. So if that is what you want then Guyana must be your next destination.
A number of groups out there did not know we were part of South America and another group did not know we were part of CARICOM, so once we position ourselves as South Americans it gives you an idea of where we are located. And “Guyana, South America undiscovered” gives that additional awe of wanting to be there, to discover this gem. Everyone has been trying to discover the El Dorado, the beautiful city of gold, and that is the beauty that this tagline attracts.
Your opening speech for GuyExpo 2014 was electric; you called on Guyana to be bold to achieve the kind of transformational growth that it is on the verge of achieving, to not remain static. Can you outline for us some of your bold initiates in commerce and industry to facilitate this growth?
Any developing country that is catching up cannot try to catch up through a normal route. You have to jump steps and that means getting to the best practices as fast as possible. And we would rather start at the top, make mistakes and correct ourselves but we have to reduce the transition time from where we are now to get to the top. That requires us to be bold in decision making, it requires us to take well-calculated risks, it requires us to invest wisely, and it requires us to target a strategic market wisely.
Take, for example, Costa Rica and what they have become in ten years in tourism. That is why the building of an infrastructure network that is transformational while at the same time developing a product that is new and injecting the resources that will bring life to this sector and realize the dream of having it as one of the leading sectors in the future in Guyana has seen government commitment in making these investments. Though many would argue that there are fewer investments compared to the size of our country and population size, but we have a border separating us from Brazil and the State of Roraima, which is just hours away, and that is a market of 4 million people.
Considering there already exists a good partnership with the United States, can you tell us what opportunities there are for U.S. investors here and vice versa?
Before I answer that I want to say something: companies are eligible once every five years for a package of incentives comprised nearly of duty and consumption tax waivers, of basic furnishing equipment and building materials. Concessions are limited to fifty percent of the value of the items, at 25 percent of renovations in existing hotels. Also, we have tax alleviates given to foreign investment. And this is all for the tourism sector. So our incentives in the tourism sector are indeed competitive.
Why would I say Guyana is the best place to invest in tourism, especially eco-tourism? The nature of tourism is changing internationally, more of the high-end tourists are going for eco-nature-based products and Guyana is reach in this product. Therefore, a sustainable investor in the tourism sector must see Guyana as a lucrative market in which they can invest in tourism to meet the future demand of the industry.
Therefore, American investors who Guyana shares a wonderful trade relationship with should really make us of the opportunity of investing in Guyana now.
So you are trying to target high-end tourism, and do you see investment opportunities in the infrastructure to support this kind of tourism or the lodging itself?
I see the most opportunity in investment in eco-lodges, hotels and the restaurant and services industry.
In terms of attracting these companies, do you have any active campaigns to do that? How are you raising the awareness of these opportunities particularly in American investors?
We are targeting the European market a lot. For example, we were at the World Travel Market in London, we were in Argentina at the Latin America Trade Fair, we have been to Spain, and we have also targeted North America but mostly our diaspora.
Speaking of diaspora, we have seen that diaspora remittance can be a serious engine of economic growth in countries like the Philippines and with your new campaign, the Homecoming initiative, you are really trying to tap into this market. Can you tell us about this campaign?
Homecoming 2015 is to tap into our natural market. We have perhaps a million Guyanese outside of Guyana, first generation and second generation, many of who will never come back home or many of whom haven’t been here for 20 or 30 years. So we believe that in 2015 we should design a marketing strategy that will target this community, to promote the new Guyana, the one Guyana, the transformed Guyana that has all the facilities they are accustomed to as compared to 20 or 30 years ago; a Guyana that can compete with any other destination that they could go to.
So, this is what drove us to this campaign, making use of that market and offering that market an opportunity to revisit their homeland, to relive their homeland and enjoy it in the transformed way it is today.
So, maybe taking this opportunity to reach out to that diaspora in New York and DC, why should they come back to Guyana and invest and why should they come back and open up operations here?
I would say they should come back to invest in Guyana for a number of reasons. To start, over the last six years we have had an increase in foreign investment by more than 30.6 billion Guyana dollars. In 2006 we had 30.6 billion and in 2012 we had 82.6 billion. That is an increase of 300 percent within six years. Between 2006 and 2012 we had an unprecedented figure in foreign investment of 1.4 billion US dollars.
Guyana has easy access to markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, which comprise 33 countries and a population 580 million. Seventy five percent of Guyana exports received duty free treatment in these markets, because of the trade agreements we have with many countries. Now, if you invest in manufacturing here, if you invest in the provision of cultural services you will also benefit of this duty free access to a number of markets. Guyana is also well positioned to benefit from many unexplored market opportunities, for example, 2.5 billion US dollars in unexplored export potential that exists with the CARICOM private sector in Cuba. Over 7.2 billion US dollars of untapped trade till exists for CARICOM exporters near Dominican Republic and this potential exists in areas such as gold, iron, steel, plastic, salt and perfumes.
Almost 8 billion US dollars in untapped export business exists in Costa Rica for CARICOM exporters and over 13 billion in untapped export business exist in Canada in areas such as boats, beverages, sugar, fertilizers and rice. An untapped export potential for the US market in 5.6 billion US dollars. Now, that gives an understanding of the potential that exists here in Guyana.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the souls of its people.” How then would you describe Guyana’s culture to someone who has never visited Guyana?
Guyana’s culture is the fusing together of six different blends that gives you one flavor: the Guyanese flavor. Its aroma comes from many continents across the world, Africa, Asia; the people that make up that aroma come from many heritages, European, Portuguese, Amerindian, East Indian, African, Chinese and it is this aroma that melts together to crate a unique flavor that you can only enjoy in Guyana.