Guyana named best ecotourism destination in the world

South America’s small and best-kept secret – Guyana – landed in the global sustainability spotlight overnight when the country was named the #1 ‘Best of Ecotourism’ destination in the world at the Sustainable Top 100 Destination Awards in Berlin.

Hosted by travel and trade show ITB Berlin on 7 March 2019, the awards recognised “global leadership in offering responsible ecotourism opportunities”, judged based on sustainability success stories from the top 100 destinations. Guyana won against well-known destinations like the Galapagos Islands, Mexico’s Sierra Gorda and Tmatboey in Cambodia.

While the awards may have put Guyana ‘on the map’ overnight, they reflect the country’s commitment to a much longer-term sustainability journey. We spoke with Nicola Balram, Senior Officer of Marketing for the Guyana Tourism Authority, to learn more about what makes Guyana a true sustainable tourism leader.

As a normally ‘under-the-radar’ country, what does being named the ‘Best of Ecotourism’ destination mean for Guyana?

After many years pursuing a ‘Green State’ agenda (Guyana’s commitment to balance economic well-being and quality of life with environmental sustainability), Guyana has been recognised globally as an ecotourism tourism destination and one of the top 10 sustainable destinations in the world. It feels great.  The award is helping to raise awareness and focus attention on Guyana.

Surama Eco Lodge, one of two indigenous community-led and owned enterprises that led to Guyana’s recognition as #1 Best in Ecotourism. Credit: David DiGregorio.

Being recognised as a leading sustainable destination is both a great honour and a great responsibility. We know we have to continue to advance our efforts to remain one of the best destinations in the world, and we recognise we have plenty of room for improvement in areas like renewable energy in the lodging sector, waste management in our cities, managing the wildlife trade, and adopting alternative mining practices which place less pressure on forests.

That said, sustainability is not a destination. It is a journey. Guyana is fully committed to continuing down this path. Through inter-ministerial and multi-sectoral collaboration at local, national, and international levels, the tourism sector in Guyana is focused on maximising the positive socio-economic impacts and conservation outcomes related to tourism.

Can you tell us a bit more about the sustainability success stories that led to Guyana’s recognition? What role did Indigenous community involvement play?

Guyana was recognized because of its holistic approach to sustainable destination management and development from its national policy for pursuing a Green State Development Strategy and implementing a strategy and action plan centred on sustainable tourism development to integrating Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria into its regulations and developing ecotourism product.

The case studies that were submitted that led to Guyana’s recognition for this award were centred on the villages of Surama and Rewa. Both of these indigenous communities own and operate eco-lodges. These world-class examples of community-led and owned enterprises illustrate how entire communities can generate positive socio-economic and conservation outcomes from tourism.

Rewa Eco-Lodge. Credit: Nicola Balram / Guyana Tourism Authority.

 

It’s unusual for a country to win this destination category – what do you think contributed to Guyana’s success?

When asked about Guyana’s selection as #1 in the “Best of Ecotourism” category, Mr. Albert Salman, President of the Green Destinations Foundation said “The Top 100 Awards Jury was impressed by the dossier prepared by Guyana Tourism Authority for the Top 100-nomination and by the success stories submitted of Surama and Rewa. The Jury also liked that Guyana has a policy of a ‘Green, Inclusive and Prosperous Guyana’ that provides a good quality of life for all its citizens based on a sound education and social protection, low-carbon resilient development, green and decent jobs, economic opportunities, individual equality, justice, and political empowerment.’”

Guyana is in a unique point in its tourism development journey. While many destinations have chosen to offer a somewhat homogenised tourism product suitable for mass visitor appeal and consumption, Guyana is taking a different path. The Department of Tourism and Guyana Tourism Authority under the Ministry of Business are pursuing a non-traditional path to tourism development through inter-ministerial, multi-stakeholder collaboration and by integrating sustainable destination management and development best practice into all aspects of planning, policy, product, and promotion to realise Guyana’s Green State agenda.

“Guyana is not a mass tourism destination,” explains Brian T. Mullis, Director of the GTA, “By placing an equal emphasis on increasing the volume of travellers, the value that each traveller represents and attracting travellers who also want to leave a positive impact through their experience, we can leverage market demand to ensure that the tourism sector protects the Guyana’s environments, cultures and landscapes.”

What does successful ecotourism look like? What do you think are the biggest challenges to achieving it – either at the level of an individual business, destination or nationally?

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Successful ecotourism in Guyana is centred on achieving the same through inter-ministerial, multi-stakeholder collaboration and the resultant tangible outcomes.

Our primary challenges revolve around the lack of awareness of Guyana in the tourism marketplace, the high cost of getting to and around the country, and the need for improved infrastructure. These realities have also benefited Guyana. No aspect of the destination is “touristy”, more than 80% of our virgin rainforests are intact, and its possible to spot hundreds of wildlife and bird species and have meaningful interactions with indigenous people.

How has Guyana learned from other destinations? What’s unique about Guyana that other destinations can learn from?

Guyana is in the unique position of getting sustainable tourism right from the inception. We are focused on implementing well-designed and managed tourism through inter-ministerial and multi-sectoral collaboration at local, national, and international levels. This type of tourism is renowned for its potential to contribute to the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage upon which it depends, empower host communities, generate trade opportunities and foster peace and intercultural understanding.

Rewa Lodge. Credit: Zachary Johnston.

At Terra Incognita we like to think of sustainability as a journey in which everyone involved continues learning, adapting and improving. What are the next steps for sustainable tourism in Guyana?

There are too many to mention, but some of the most important once can be best summarised as follows:

  • Educate – Use this recognition and increased awareness platform to educate the world as to what Guyana is and has to offer and further educate our local trade and citizens of the country to support sustainability practices in their businesses and daily lives.
  • Improve – Build on practices we already have in place to continue down the right path in destination development, management and marketing especially through collaboration with NGO, academic, government, donor, and private sector organisations and companies that have aligned goals.
  • Persevere – Remain laser focused on our goal of maximising the positive socio-economic impacts and conservation outcomes related to tourism and being recognised as a leading ecotourism and sustainable destination.

If a tourist wanted to find a responsible operator in Guyana, how would they do so?

The Guyana Tourism Authority has been working to include sustainable practices and requirements in its regulations and licensing process for the local tourism sector. We are working to elevate our sector to be more aware of what sustainable and ecotourism means and how they can best work to ensure that Guyana continues on this path. All of the licensed and recommended tour operators by the Guyana Tourism Authority can be found on our website.

What might surprise someone who’s never visited Guyana?

Guyana, by nature, is redefining the meaning of a five star experience. While there are many destinations around the world which boast luxury hotels and renowned restaurants catering to the ever-discerning clientele, Guyana is quickly emerging as the new off-of-the-beaten-path destination for well-travelled travel enthusiasts. Being relatively unknown and somewhat expensive gives rise to the opportunity to have some extraordinary travel experiences that are virtually unheard of today. Like getting to travel great distances without seeing another human in sight, having a natural treasure such as Kaieteur Falls to yourself, or interacting with indigenous locals without the need for a translator. That is what will surprise a traveller most about Guyana. Where else in the world can you have experiences like that?

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To learn more about Guyana’s success at the Sustainable Top 100 Destination Awards check out this article.

Main image credit: Guyana Tourism Authority.