Tourism companies in Guyana hope the appointment of the country’s first ever minister of tourism will raise the profile of this relatively unknown destination.
Minister Catherine Hughes, who worked previously in the private sector, owning a hotel and jazz club in the capital Georgetown, became minister of tourism in May.
The existing Guyanese Tourist Authority has been absorbed into the newly created ministry.
I met the minister at an intimate dinner for trade partners and journalists during WTM week, where she explained the government’s new focus on the tourism sector.
“Guyana’s main industries have traditionally been sugar and gold but there’s a growing recognition that we need to diversify,” she told me.
“Having a standalone ministry and staff is a real indication of the government’s support for the sector, and I feel confident the infrastructure, airlift and other things we need to grow tourism will be put in place.”
In 2015, Guyana expects to receive around 250,000 international arrivals, which is 4% up on last year, though Hughes said the growth might have been greater if general elections hadn’t taken place in May.
The number of tourists visiting the Latin American country is estimated around 3,000 per year, comprising mainly wildlife enthusiasts keen to explore Guyana’s diverse habitats.
These include pristine Amazon rainforest where elusive jaguars might be seen; the Rupanuni savannah, home to the giant anteater and giant anaconda; and rivers where giant otters and the prehistoric three-metre-long arapaima fish reside.
Most UK tourists travel with Wilderness Explorers, the specialist DMC with whom most UK tour operators work.
Caribbean Airlines has been flying from London to Georgetown via Trinidad since 2012, but stops this route early next year.
Hughes confirmed she and the Trinidad ministry of tourism have been in talks with British Airways to try to replace this airlift from the UK.
Connecting via Barbados on regional carrier Liat is another popular way of reaching Georgetown.
A new eco-lodge is planned for the popular Kaieteur Falls site – the longest single-drop waterfall in the world – but Hughes said it would have only eight rooms, in line with most of the other accommodation on the tourist circuit.
There are new lodges in the Rupanuni area too, while existing accommodation has been adopting solar power in a bid to become more sustainable, and installing Wi-Fi to attract the modern traveller.
But while the government is keen to grow its tourist industry, Hughes said there is an awareness it should not be to the detriment of the country’s hitherto unspoilt natural assets.
She concluded: “We know we need to develop without destroying what it is that makes Guyana so special.”