Indigenous Guyanese Tap Tourism to Save Their Huge Fish

? Destination Stewardship Report – Vol. 2, No. 4 – Spring 2022 ?

Another winner from the Top 100 – Every year, Green Destinations organizes the Top 100 Destination Sustainability Stories competition, which invites submissions from around the world – a vetted collection of stories spotlighting local and regional destinations that are making progress toward sustainable management of tourism and its impacts. From the winners announced last year, we’ve selected this one from Guyana, which showcases how indigenous traditions can help communities revive endangered natural habitats, supported by responsible tourism. Submitted by Carla James-Vantull, Director, Guyana Tourism Authority. Synopsis by Jacqueline Elizabeth Harper.

Traditional Reverence for Arapaima River Fish Powers Community-Led Tourism  in Rewa, Guyana

The giant, powerful arapaima fish of the Guyana rainforest, also known as the pirarucú, can grow up to 15 feet and 440 pounds. Its armor of tough, heavy scales earns it the moniker “swimming dinosaur”. South America’s largest river fish, it was once so revered by Guyana’s indigenous communities that taking one was taboo. But outsider harvesting beginning in the 1970s broke down the traditional ban. By the turn of the century, the  arapaima were endangered by overfishing. Villagers were becoming alarmed. Community-led tourism held promise for a solution, as the arapaima and its habitat suited both ecotouring and catch-and-release fly fishing.

A mid-size arapaima fish. Photo: Rewa Ecolodge

Around 250 small Indigenous communities dot the map of Guyana. In one of these communities, Rewa, lack of economic opportunity forced a mass exodus of nearly 80% of residents over the years, leaving behind neglected farmlands and families torn by absentee husbands and fathers. Compounding these social struggles, the decline of the culturally significant arapaima added ecological pressure.

All this began to change when community-led tourism developed in the region.

In 2018, the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) launched the Community Led and Owned Tourism (CLOT) framework and toolkit, an initiative that has been instrumental in creating a positive impact within the Indigenous communities. The CLOT framework centers around “any Indigenous tourism enterprise owned and operated by the host community.” Unlike traditional models, the Indigenous community is at the forefront of activities and engagement with travelers. What’s more, CLOT also focuses on creating livelihood opportunities for young people and women through tourism.

There are six activities or steps for creating a CLOT framework:

  1.   Readiness, Governance, & Action Planning: First, the community establishes a Tourism Committee, tasked with creating a tourism development action plan. It also includes raising community awareness, assessing community needs and visitor readiness, prioritizing Tourism Committee actions, and completing a market readiness diagnosis and market-product match.
  2.   Building Capacity through Centralized and Hands-On Training: In this stage, peer-to-peer and shadowing training focus on topics such as business accounting, management and marketing, reservations and bookings, food safety and catering, etc.
  3.   Developing Tourism Enterprises & Product: The community then determines what can and should be shared responsibly with visitors. From there, they develop and package tourism experiences that suit the local natural and tangible assets, as well as intangible cultural heritage angles.
  4.   Establishing Market Linkages: This stage establishes market linkages and integrates market-ready products into the tourism value chain. Emphasis is placed on developing peer-to-peer experiences – homestays, in-home dining, and insider cultural experiences for instance – and then securing market access through sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb, Airbnb Experiences, Viator, EatWith, and Travelling Spoon.
  5.   Marketing Community Tourism Offerings: After the community agrees on their products and offerings, this stage focuses on marketing strategic action plans and visitor-ready products, mainly through the Guyana Tourism Authority – posting on the GTA’s website and social media channels, planning fam trips, and so on.
  6.   Marketing & Communicating Outcomes: The goal of this last stage is to implement a system for measuring and reporting the outcomes on a regular basis. Establishing a marketing dashboard and monitoring system that tracks and reports tangible results ultimately helps to share transparency with the community.

Through this multi-step process, implementation of the CLOT framework and toolkit arms Guyana’s tourism sector with a way to help achieve national aspirations for becoming a green state, while simultaneously benefiting the local Rewa community and its future generations.

Rewa Ecolodge. Photo: Nicola Balram

Through the CLOT framework, the Rewa Eco Lodge was born. Even with the challenges of closed borders and travel restrictions for approximately 5 months due to the pandemic, the Rewa Eco Lodge managed to sustain their 45 staff. And across the community, many youth in the Rewa community have had the opportunity to attain higher education. It has also allowed for enough financial sustainability to work with the Indifly Foundation and international experts to conduct studies and create a management plan to save the arapaima, and today, the arapaima population has been restored to more than 4,000 within the area – a triumph for this community.

The proven success of this framework in the Rewa community has led GTA to scale CLOT to other indigenous communities throughout Guyana. What’s more, the CLOT model has the potential to benefit communities in destinations around the world. Find the complete Good Practice Story from Rewa, Guyana, here (pdf).

Guyana’s Make or Break Moment for Tourism

[Above: Impenetrable jungles line the Courantyne River between Guyana and Suriname. Photo: Devika McWalters]

As the daughter of Guyanese immigrants, I have experienced the conditions of the fledgling tourism industry in Guyana firsthand and know it leaves a lot to be desired. I have also witnessed its unique offerings for adventure travelers and can see it has great potential.

The sleepy village of Orealla in Guyana welcomes visitors and tourists.

The sleepy village of Orealla in Guyana welcomes visitors and tourists. Photo: Devika McWalters.

A recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) echoes this view and also signifies an important “make or break” point for destination stewardship in this eco-rich country. The December 2015 report, “Tourism and Ecotourism Development in Guyana: Issues and Challenges and the Critical Path Forward”, provides a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of the current situation, potential for growth, and main obstacles facing this undiscovered ecotourism destination on the northern coast of South America.

Amerindian residents of Orealla rely on the river for their daily life.

Guyana’s indigenous communities rely on its clean rivers for survival. Tourism may create jobs but raises concerns about pollution and disruption of their daily lives. Photo: Devika McWalters.

Unfortunately, the danger of this well-meaning report is that it fails to provide a stewardship framework. There are many issues investors, policymakers, tourism companies, residents, and other stakeholders need to consider before acting on the report’s suggestions, one of which is improving the quality of lodging and transportation links.

Guyana's ecolodges can be difficult to access , such as the Orealla Guest House, which takes several hours to reach by private boat.

Guyana’s ecolodges can be difficult to access , such as the Orealla Guest House, which takes several hours to reach by private boat. Photo: Devika McWalters.

My parents and I once visited the Orealla Guest House, located in a small village some 50 miles south of the Atlantic coast and accessible only by boat. Building highways to reach such eco-lodges and natural attractions seems like an obvious solution for improving accessibility, but ultimately, is doing so at the expense of clearing rain forests and destroying the fabric of this peaceful, pristine environment worth it? What will happen when the indigenous peoples – the current stewards of these lands – are forced to move when their rivers and streams are overfished or polluted by nearby hotels and lodges? How will the environment and wildlife be affected by noise and disruptions caused by new airports and runways? These issues are not raised, nor are other proactive measures or safeguards offered for stakeholders to consider while conceiving new tourism policies.


Amerindian residents of Orealla, Guyana are concerned about how tourism will affect their remote and peaceful village. Photo: Devika McWalters.

The report does, however, provide a sequential plan of five imperatives as a helpful starting point:

  1. Gather and analyze data to inform policies.
  2. Engage stakeholders in creating a master development plan based on social, economic, and financial analysis.
  3. Create a logical and coherent legislative, regulatory, and policy framework.
  4. Build core capacity for and assist as many stakeholders as possible, improve and classify lodging infrastructure, and upgrade and strengthen the entire tourist value chain, while maximizing scarce resources.
  5. Continually work on improving price competitiveness and marketing its value propositions.

As the title of the report acknowledges, the path forward is “critical” for Guyana’s tourism. But it’s not just a matter of improving attractions, transportation, hotels, and restaurants. It’s which path and how Guyana chooses to get there that is critical. The next steps Guyana takes in building its tourism industry will ultimately determine its long-term sustainability and success as place where people will want to visit, live, and return to.

The future of Guyana's natural resources and cultural heritage are among the many things at stake as its tourism grows.

Guyana’s natural resources, cultural heritage, and future generations will all be affected as tourism grows. Photo: Devika McWalters.

A thoughtful, holistic tourism plan that protects its pristine rivers, indigenous cultures, vast rain forests, wildlife, and other assets would not only provide additional opportunities for economic growth, but would also preserve Guyana’s national treasures and tourism industry for generations to come. For Guyana become a permanently successful destination, practical solutions that also preserve the very assets that make it desirable must be encouraged and adopted.