Guyana is a richly rain-forested country on South America’s North Atlantic coast. Home to jaguars, black caimans and majestic harpy eagles, it's one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. It boasts more than 900 species of birds, 225 species of mammals and 880 species of reptiles. Then there's the staggering 6500 + species of plants and trees.
Guyana’s hinterland is also home to around 250 indigenous communities whose low-carbon lifestyle and commitment to protecting their ancestral lands make Guyana’s forward-thinking approach to tourism among the world’s greenest.
From managing eco-lodges, to nature tour-guiding, to protecting wildlife and ecosystems, Guyana’s community-led and owned tourism (CLOT) initiatives take sustainable tourism to another level. They engender life-changing self-sustainability that benefits local people - and protects the environment.
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Guyana is home to nine indigenous groups, the majority of whom were born in remote villages. This isolated location compelled many to migrate to work in the goldmining and timber harvesting industries. As a result, an urgent need for alternative sources of income arose in villages, especially among women and young people.
One such village is Surama, which become one of Guyana’s first community-led tourism projects. While an established cattle trail meant Surama had long been a stopping point for intrepid travellers, villagers only started offering accommodation in the early 1990s. The income generated from this enabled the Makushi community to fund their first lodge.
Nicola Balram from the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) explains that as Surama and other community-led lodges are owned and operated by locals, “there is very little importation of goods not produced in Guyana. This, combined with the fact that the GTA and its partners are actively working together to scale up community-led tourism, creates sustainable sources of income for the indigenous communities, and helps protect their natural and cultural heritage.”
Today Surama is a shining example of thriving community tourism, with around 60% of its income generated by tourism-related activities. Visitors to Surama Eco-lodge can enjoy the likes of hiking and camping expeditions, river canoe trips, wildlife-watching and cultural excursions – all curated by Makushi community members.
As Guyana is the only South American country with English as its official language, English-speaking travellers can easily immerse themselves in local culture - from shadowing daily activities like sustainable farming and fishing, to seeing artisans transform natural materials into unique pottery, jewellery and utensils.
The benefits of this community-owned, community-delivering approach are huge. As Nicola told us, “from artisans and farmers, to local tour guides, transport providers and eco-lodge staff, CLOT has proven to be a successful and sustainable solution, and a life-changing business model in Guyana.”
Located on the border with Brazil, remote Konashen is Guyana’s southernmost Amerindian village, and one of the country’s finest examples of nature conservation. The indigenous Wai Wai people have long sustainably managed natural resources in an area that offers prime wildlife-watching opportunities.
In recent years, locals formed a partnership with the government of Guyana and Conservation International Guyana to improve management of the village. A Memorandum of Cooperation signed by the three parties outlines the sustainable use of the area’s biological resources. The memorandum also identifies threats to local biodiversity, and develops income-generating projects.
Among the region’s inspiringconservation projects is an initiative to protect the endangered Red Siskin. The South Rupununi Conservation Society currently engages six villages in protecting this stunning scarlet, black-capped bird through providing conservation training for community volunteers.
The society also promotes sustainable economic opportunities, and runs environmental education programmes for schools and villages. As Guyana’s Red Siskin population has remained steady since it’s discovery in the early 2000s, these initiatives may sustain the population without the need for breeding programmes.
In Nicola’s experience, “projects like these show there is a need to combine nature conservation and sustainable tourism development."
The Guyana Tourism Association is duly proud that Surama Eco-lodge is “widely recognised as one of the world’s leading examples of community-led tourism”. As such, it's become a prototype for other projects, including Guyana's Rewa Eco-lodge.
Moreover, the wider impact of Guyana’s community-led, community-owned tourism model cannot be underestimated. Firstly, local communities have job security. Secondly, the population of many indigenous communities has increased as villagers return from mining jobs to work locally. Thirdly, it’s reduced the need for locals to exploit at-risk natural resources, including the illegal harvesting and trade of rare fauna species.
Thanks to this model, the primary school in Rewa, for example, now has five teachers, and the lodge provides skilled jobs to managers, supervisors, booking clerks and accountants.
In addition, Guyana recently launched its first ‘SAVE Travel Guide’. Scientific, Academic, Volunteer and Educational (SAVE) travel connects students, researchers and academics with local tour operators to execute tailored trips. These are focused on personal growth, scientific research, contributing to positive societal change, and learning about Guyana’s rainforest and savannah regions.
No wonder, then, that Guyana has risen to great heights in the sustainable tourism sector and is the recipient of multiple global awards. These include ‘Best of Ecotourism’ at ITB Berlin 2019 and ‘Leading Sustainable Adventure Destination’ at World Travel Market.
Nicola observes that despite the successes, “it is still a challenge to provide licences or organise formal training in more rural and remote areas of Guyana. The issue is particularly prominent given a fairly high cost of getting around the country and the need for improved infrastructure.”
In addition, Nicola notes the more general challenge of tourism not always being seen as a priority industry, “due to the fact that it is intangible and it does take some time to develop and see those rewards.”
In Guyana’s case, this is made more complicated by “oil exploration in the country. Although the government of Guyana has been trying to prepare the country for its potential oil rush with new environmental regulations, it will be crucial for Guyana to balance the development of the industry with the objective of preserving its environment and to also recognise that tourism is one of the very few industries that contributes to the country’s GDP and covers much more direct and indirect jobs than other industries.”
Then there’s the challenge of COVID-19. While Guyana’s infection and fatality rates remain low, “it is essential that villages are protected due to their remote location and lack of medical provisions. On the other hand, the economic impact especially brought about by the lack of tourism is having a big impact amongst those employed within this sector.”
As a result, communities are running virtual tours and selling crafts online. Looking ahead, the government is working with communities to help them reopen their lodges safely in the near future - offering training on safety protocols, and providing cleaning products and protective equipment to minimise spread of the virus.
Nicola also points out that “despite the challenges ahead to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, tourism in Guyana may benefit from the emerging travel trends. As the country’s tourism is based on small numbers and the destination offers plenty of wide-open, isolated spaces - perfect for social distancing - Guyana is well prepared to welcome travellers in the ‘new normal’.”
“One of the ultimate goals is for CLOT to become self-replicating,” Nicola explains. So, plans are afoot to roll-out the model that proved successful in Surama, Rewa and other villages. As a result, more communities will "benefit from the developed toolkit and, in the long run, from community-led tourism.”
In addition, through further “collaboration between government, private sector and community leaders, the GTA will continue to develop the country’s sustainable tourism offering while maximising community benefits and supporting conservation initiatives. As a result, the visitor experience will get even better and more beneficial while preserving the untouched and pristine nature of Guyana.”
This, coupled with Guyana's social-distancing-friendly open spaces, is excellent news for those seeking off-the-beaten-track adventures in the coming months. Now, where's that rucksack..?
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her