The only English speaking country in South America and bigger than the UK, Guyana is often overlooked as a tourist destination in favour of its bigger – and noisier – neighbours, Brazil and Venezuela. That could all be about to change, however, as Kreol Magazine editor Georgina Dhillon found out when she met Guyana’s new tourism minister, Cathy Hughes.

Cathy Hughes has been the new minister of Tourism for Guyana just about a year and, by her own admission, is still learning the ropes, but she’s certainly no newcomer to how things work in the tourism industry and has always been involved in promoting the country, as well as welcoming visitors to this part of the world.

Mrs Hughes explains: “I come from a television production background. In my previous life, as I like to call it, I ran a video production company in Guyana, specialising in documentaries. Television commercials always played a part in the tourism industry, mainly in terms of our private sector tourism body, known then as the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana. I also had a small, boutique hotel and a jazz club, so I’ve always played a role in tourism in Guyana.”

A new Tourism focus: A Ministry

In the past 20 years or so, much has changed and tourism is clearly being taken far more seriously than ever before, so much so that, for the first time, Guyana now has a separate Ministry of Tourism, where previously it was part of the ministries of industry and commerce. This, says Mrs Hughes, is a clear commitment on the part of the government to, “Really look at our tourism potential”. She adds: “We’re excited about it. As a country, we think we have an abundance of opportunities.”

Avenue of the Republic, Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana

Avenue of the Republic, Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana

Challenges, but an abundance

On the face of it, the challenges Guyana has in attracting tourists to the country, situated on the north Atlantic coast and bordered by Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil, look pretty daunting. Mention Guyana and what comes to mind is a kind of Caribbean image of calypso, cricket, colonial architecture, and place names that sound more British than South American. And that’s only to those who actually know anything about this comparatively small country in South American terms and with a population of under one million. I wanted to learn what is it about Guyana that makes it different from its two bigger and better-known neighbours, and just what are these, “abundance of opportunities” that Mrs Hughes speaks of?

“We’re part of the Amazon, we’re the only English speaking country in South America. Guyana is a real melting pot, a mixed culture. We’ve got Creole, indigenous Amerindian people, and our history has brought together people of six different races: Africans, Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and, of course, British. We used to be known as British Guyana. We’ve also a bit of French history thrown in as well. Our country is 830,000 square miles, of mainly undulating savannah lands and mountains. We have huge rivers, magnificent waterfalls, including our signature waterfall, Kaieteur Falls, which is one of the tallest, single drop waterfalls in the world. We have pristine rainforests…”

Left in no doubt about the profusion of wild and beautiful nature – much of it still relatively untouched or explored – that Guyana has to offer, I was keen to find out what aspirations the Minister for tourism has for her country, and asked her to paint the bigger picture and talk about some of the challenges that lay ahead.

One of the problems, she said, is that although Guyana has a history of producing a very well-educated population, there had been a huge diaspora and a lot Guyanese now lived in other parts of the world, where they had certainly made their mark, leading major industries and international organisations, from the World Bank to the International Monetary Fund. So, although her role is to attract more tourists to Guyana, one of the issues the country faces as a whole is to create more opportunities at home for Guyanese people, including those who’ve come back after years of living abroad.

“We have to raise our country,” says Mrs Hughes, “We want to be able to provide more for Guyanese people and also in terms of what we have to offer the world. We have a skilled population and we think we’re a good investment location.”

Iwokrama Canopy walkway

Iwokrama Canopy walkway

Cathy Hughes: Developing Tourism in Guyana

Traditionally, Guyana is an agricultural-based country and a major producer and exporter of rice and sugar, but it is now diversifying into new crops and products. Other areas attracting strong investment include the mining sector (gold, diamonds, and minerals), and IT. The job of Mrs Hughes and her team, on the other hand, is to focus on promoting Guyana as a tourist destination. She believes the country has strong niche market potential for eco-tourism, thanks to the huge expanses of unspoilt nature, including the pristine rainforests, already mentioned. They are also working with their immediate neighbours, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana – referred to as the Guyana Shield – to promote the regions as a whole.

“I’ve made several visits to those destinations over the last three months and we plan to work together to do multi-destination marketing of the region, as a gateway to South America. As the only English-speaking country, I think we offer huge development and investment opportunities (for tourism) in all these areas,” says Mrs Hughes.

At present, around 48% of all tourists to the country come from the diaspora of Guyanese living in Canada and the United States and, to a lesser extent, the UK. These are people who were either born in Guyana and left to seek their fortune elsewhere or second generation Guyanese who’ve come to learn more about their ancestral roots. The second largest group of tourists come from within the Caribbean, which is a growing market. The next biggest group are visitors from Europe, countries such as Holland and Germany. Many are attracted by so-called adventure tourism opportunities in Guyana, which includes a wide range of leisure activities. Bird watching and learning about the indigenous culture are also popular. The yachting community has also started to discover that Guyana has much to offer and are beginning to come down from the Caribbean in ever-larger numbers.

“Instead of spending three months in Trinidad during the bad weather season, they’re now venturing south to Guyana, and this is a market that we’re quite excited about,” says Mrs Hughes. Given the rising numbers of visitors to these shores, I asked her if she was happy with the facilities Guyana had to offer,

“We have about 2,000 hotel rooms in the city area and quite a few good quality resorts. We don’t have large numbers of overnight facilities but as we expand our market, we can encourage people to come and invest in things like eco-lodges, nature-based spas – the sky’s the limit!”

Finally, I asked Cathy Hughes what would be her message to our readers about Guyana.

“I’d say, come to Guyana – it’s a fabulous country. You may not have heard much about us or thought of coming, but if you want a truly different experience that combines a range of cultures with beautiful landscapes and nature at its best, come and visit us!”

Kaieteur Falls

Kaieteur Falls