- - Friday, October 10, 2014

Suriname’s incipient tourism industry may not be widely known, yet it enjoys dazzling bragging rights – a glowing travel article in The New York Times that dubbed it “South America’s hidden treasure.”

Tourism officials in Suriname were delighted by that article published three years ago. But now they are anxious to see Suriname emerge from its hiding place – a small corner of South America’s northeastern shoulder. They are carefully ramping up the tourism sector, though not so much that Suriname loses its magic. To achieve these government-backed development goals, Suriname is welcoming investment in the tourism sector. The initial phases of growth are expected to be spectacular, say officials.

Sparely populated with 542,000 people, South America’s smallest nation is covered with unspoiled forests and pristine rivers. The capital of Paramaribo is a charming stopping-off point – definitely worth visiting a few days, before an unforgettable sojourn into a sparsely populated wilderness.

Suriname’s tourism sector, to be sure, has experienced steady growth in recent years – a result of the country’s limited advertising, word-of-mouth testimonials, and of course those glowing reports from visiting travel writers. The desire to ramp up Suriname’s tourism sector is part of President Desiré Bouterse’s ambitious plans to develop a more sustainable and diversified the economy – in order to increase social spending in education, housing, and health care. Offshore oil drilling and gold mining are the two hottest sectors at the moment, but the undeveloped tourism sector is nevertheless seen as a grass-roots job promoter and potentially significant source of revenue.

In a paper on Suriname’s growing tourism industry, University of Suriname economist Ramdath Dwarka noted that in 2004 there were 35 tour operators – growing to 64 in 2010. The number of travel agents went from 44 to 58 during the same six-year period. In total, Suriname had 372 registered hotels and 66 restaurants in 2010. “This development creates a lot of jobs,” he wrote. In addition, Dwarka noted that employment involving trade, hotels, and restaurants was 15,344 in 2005 – and had increased by 169 jobs a year later. By 2007, 519 more jobs were added. As of 2008, a total of 15,723 jobs were listed.

One thing Suriname doesn’t want is mass tourism – aside from an occasional cruise ship visiting the Port of Paramaribo. Instead, officials are most interested in developing an industry that attracts “high-end” tourists, those seeking upscale eco-tours, wellness services and cultural adventures.

This strategy is seen as prudent for Suriname’s interior – a vast expanse of pristine forests and rivers. Sparsely populated, it is inhabited by friendly villages of indigenous people and Maroons, the latter being descendants of slaves from Africa who escaped hundreds of years ago. Both communities have rich histories and cultures.

To keep these areas unspoiled and respect the livelihoods of the inhabitants, officials thus want tourism limited to small numbers of visitors generating high revenues per visit. Tourists must leave behind only “small ecological footprints,” said Faridy Lila, chairperson of the Suriname Tourism Foundation, a public and private partnership created in 1996 to promote and regulate the emerging tourism industry.

Ultimately, the goal of developing a small eco-tourism industry in the interior revolves around the challenges of sustainable development and the creation of jobs for people living there. One solution is offered by the tenants of a U.N. program called “REDD +” – an acronym that stands for: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation; the “plus” in “REDD +” goes beyond policies to prevent deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, and sustainable management of forests.

Explaining how Suriname is utilizing this program, Cedric Nelom, acting director of a government agency and environmental watchdog called NIMOS (National Institute for Environment and Development), said “Eco-tourism might be a splendid opportunity for our communities to preserve traditions, livelihoods and cultures, while making a decent living.”

According to the Tourism Foundation, the industry has generated steady growth in recent years, increasing from 107,609 visitors in 2004 to 240,041 in 2012 – a 131 percent increase. In 2013, 7,287 visitors came from the United States. The Dutch, however, continue to account for most eco-tourists from overseas. Visitors stay an average of 12 days.

The tourism sector’s philosophy of sustainable, low-key tourism also applies to the capital of Paramaribo, a quaint and peaceful multi-ethnic city. Many tourists spend a day or two there – strolling or bicycling about before heading to the interior for stays at guest houses, lodges, and low-key resorts.

Paramaribo, called the Wooden City because of its colonial architecture and wooden structures, is a UNESCO World Heritage site – considered culturally and historically significant because of its beauty and storied history. The city’s hotels range from small guest houses to a handful of upscale international hotels. The markets considered the best fit for the upscale niche market being developed are eco-tourism visitors from Europe and North America.

“The four main pillars of tourism in Suriname are: nature, culture, events, and heritage,” Lila said. The tourism industry’s motto: “Suriname, a colorful experience…exotic beyond words.”

Suriname is about the size of Florida. Dutch is the official language, but English is widely spoken. In addition to that rave review on the travel page of Sunday’s New York Times, Lonely Planet’s travel guide in 2010 listed Suriname as one of the top-ten countries to visit.

“Our pride is our interior, where one can relax in the beautiful rainforest,” said Lila, enjoying activities like bathing in river; hiking amid exotic flora and fauna; and observing village life up close, perhaps even participating in village activities. “There are various activities which one can enjoy during one’s stay in the interior. The lodges vary from basic to luxurious,” she said.

When ranking Suriname as a top-10 destination, Lonely Planet noted that one of the country’s charms was its multi-ethnic heritage from its colonial past – a fascinating mishmash of Chinese, Javanese and Indian laborers that arrived in the 1700s century, following slaves forcibly brought from West Africa the previous century. Plus, there are the indigenous Amerindians, and Lebanese, Jewish and Dutch settlers. Lonely Planet observed: “With everyone speaking different languages, celebrating different holidays and worshiping in different temples, visiting Suriname is really like hitting several countries at once.”

Aside from Paramaribo’s charms and interior’s natural wonders, Suriname is widely regarded as one of the safest places to visit in the Caribbean and South America. Visiting businessmen and investors will find Suriname “comparable to other middle income developing countries,” observed U.S. Ambassador to Suriname Jay N. Anania. “The people of Suriname are notably friendly, and life in Paramaribo is generally pleasant and relaxed. Suriname is one of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse countries, and the large expanses of unspoiled rainforest offer numerous opportunities for nature lovers. Business and cultural ties to the U.S. are longstanding and positive.”

President Bouterse, moreover, noted in his recent annual address that his government will focus on expanding connections by air, sea, and land to boost tourism.

“Recently an open sky agreement was signed between our two nations, which will improve our competitiveness through increased transport efficiency of goods and persons, both for business travel and tourism,” said Subhas Mungra, Suriname’s Ambassador to the United States. “We are recently experiencing an increase of travels to Suriname in both categories,” he added.

Incidentally, tourists interested in cultural events may want to check out Suriname’s capital during upcoming New Year’s Eve celebrations – a colorful event of street parties that made CNN’s list of “Fantastic New Year’s Eve Destinations.” Every year, flights to Suriname are booked months in advance for the celebration that lasts from 8 a.m. to midnight.

This article was produced in conjunction with The Washington Times International Advocacy Department.

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