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Reimagining Tourism: The Formula for becoming a Leading Sustainable Destination
Looking forward, we can begin to reimagine what the future of tourism may look like. More people will likely seek out less travelled destinations that are free from crowds, perceived to be safe, and that are known to be clean, green and pristine. Small group and private travel experiences are going to become more popular. Travelers will demand tourism destinations and enterprises adhere to more rigorous health, hygiene and sanitation standards. An ever-growing number of them will make travel choices centered on positively impacting the people and places they visit.
Guyana, Nature in its Original Form
Before taking on the role of the Director of the Guyana Tourism Authority, the extent of the country's efforts to protect its wealth of natural and cultural heritage assets was not known. Guyana remains unvisited and unknown to many outsiders, despite having some of the most intact and spectacular natural landscapes in South America. The country is home to one of Earth's last great regions of tropical wilderness, and thousands of plant and animal species, many of them found nowhere else. More than 80% of the country's vegetation remains in a natural state. Some of the planet's most iconic wildlife - jaguars, Harpy Eagles, arapaimas, giant anteaters, giant otters, anacondas, and more – still thrive in this interconnected ecosystem and can be encountered with relative ease if you know where, when and how to spot them.
Sustainability is a way of life in Guyana. Nine groups of Indigenous Peoples have occupied Guyana hinterland regions for thousands of years, cultivating a close relationship with the forests and savannahs that sustain them. Guyana's rich biodiversity, dramatic landscapes, and friendly, English-speaking people together define what makes the country truly extraordinary within the global tourism marketplace
Tourism and Guyana's Green State Agenda
Guyana's tourism sector is pursuing a progressive path to tourism development focused on maximizing the local socio-economic and conservation outcomes. There is a proven formula, involving inter-ministerial, multi-stakeholder collaboration through structured partnerships. It involves the national tourism authorities, the Guyana Tourism Authority and Department of Tourism, working in close collaboration with key stakeholders to integrate sustainable destination management and development best practice into all aspects of tourism strategy, policy, planning, product development and promotions. A national living Guyana Tourism Strategic Action Plan was developed through a stakeholder-driven process in 2018. It includes Vision 2025 for travel and tourism with the aim for Guyana to be recognized locally and internationally as a premier destination for protecting its natural and cultural heritage, providing authentic experiences, and benefitting residents. The GSTC Destination Criteria, Green Destinations Foundation Standard, and sharing knowledge, know-how, and lessons learned with other destinations have also helped to guide the process.
Guyana is not a mass tourism destination, nor is it "touristy". While stakeholders want to incrementally increase the number of travelers in the areas of Guyana that will accommodate more volume, the primary focus in on increasing the value that each traveler represents. As such, the marketing strategy is predominantly centered on attracting travelers who seek out authentic nature, culture and adventure experiences. These travelers tend to stay longer and spend more during their vacations, travel with a lighter environmental footprint, and many want to leave a positive impact on the people and places they visit.
Community-led and owned tourism has proven to be a successful and sustainable solution for strengthening the collective well-being of host communities throughout Guyana. The Hinterland of Guyana is made up of approximately 215 small Indigenous communities, which are located in some of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Well-managed community-led and owned tourism enterprises economically benefit host communities as a whole and support ecosystem conservation and cultural-heritage preservation. Due to the market demand for birding and wildlife tourism, host communities have an incentive for conservation and habitat protection. Due to demand for authentic cultural experiences, host communities determine what is sacred and what they want to share, the latter of which fosters cultural pride and the protection of culture and heritage. There is now a concerted effort to scale up community-led tourism in country.
Receiving Recognition and Increasing Resiliency
All of the hard work is beginning to pay off. In 2019, Guyana's tourism sector began to realize Vision 2025. Guyana was relatively unknown within the international tourism marketplace and among travel trade and travel media prior to 2018. Due to the extensive global recognition the country received in 2019, Guyana is now known among leading travel insiders, trade and media and recognized as a leading sustainable destination. Importantly, tourism is now recognized as the second largest export sector in Guyana and is a prioritized sector for development. These developments were timely, as they substantiated the business case for the Government of Guyana to invest more in tourism management, development and marketing at a national, regional and community level.
The aggressive level of responsiveness in Guyana - including closing its airports to international flights on March 18, 2020, and practicing social distancing - has minimized the impact of COVID-19. To date, there are only 113 confirmed cases in the entire country. The Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) initiated a living Tourism Resilience Plan immediately and soon thereafter completed a series of research studies on the Financial Impact of COVID-19 on Guyana's Tourism Sector. The research is being used by the Ministry of Finance to inform the provision of economic relief programs, including creating an enabling environment to ensure the tourism sector meets new extensive hygiene and sanitation protocols. In addition to implementing the protocols, travel providers on the ground are now creating new, often shorter itineraries, and making pricing and cancellation policies as attractive as possible.
The recent successes in Guyana and increased global market demand for sustainable destinations illustrate the potential of its – and other leading sustainable destinations' – tourism sectors to recover more quickly post pandemic. With continued support from the Government of Guyana and implementation of the national living Guyana Tourism Strategic Action Plan, the true potential of the tourism sector can be realized, and its contribution to the country's long-standing Green State agenda and to the SDGs can be quantified and maximized.
About the Author
Brian T. Mullis is a destination management, development and marketing specialist. From April 2018-2020, he was the Director of the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA), in which time the country became globally recognized as a leading sustainable destination. Prior to leading the GTA, he founded and led Sustainable Travel International for 14 years. Leading initiatives and delivering innovative solutions within governmental agencies and multinational and for MSMEs and community leaders in 70+ countries has given Brian a unique ability to foster multi-stakeholder collaboration, bridge communication divides, and generate tangible results at scale. This stems from 25+ years of experience in CEO positions in the private, public and civil sectors and a long track record of generating positive socio-economic and conservation outcomes through tourism. Brian has also held leadership positions on the World Economic Forum Future of Travel and Tourism Council, UN 10YFP Multi-stakeholder Advisory Committee, and the U.S. Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.