”The global pandemic had an enormous impact on the tourism sector in Suriname” states Rabin Boeddha from behind his desk at the Ministry of Transport, Communication and Tourism (TCT). He is the Director of Tourism and focal point for International Organizations.
Covid affected several sectors and companies related to tourism such as the hospitality industry, the entertainment industry and public transportation. The airspace was closed for over a year forcing many small companies to close their business. Also larger companies had to lay off staff to make ends meet. The impact rippled through the entire tourism sector from the international airliners to boatsmen in Suriname’s deep interior.
Internationally, the consequences of the pandemic were unprecedented. Before the pandemic, the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) predicted that by 2030 there would be about 1.8 billion international travelers. But now, of course, we are in a different situation. It will expectedly take another 2 to 4 years before we again reach the levels before 2019.
Suriname’s NV Airport Management had previously set an annual target of 1 million arrivals by 2030. Before the pandemic, we were already on average at 600,000 arrivals per year. With a population of about 600.000 people, this influx was already having a huge positive impact on the local economy. Until recently, Suriname’s airspace was only open to returnees and urgent cases. We do not know how fast we will be able to recover, partly because of the consequential impact the pandemic has had on the financial and economic situation in our country.
The government supports Covid affected companies and employees as much as possible. However not all applying companies and individuals have been eligible to such support because there are some thresholds that have to be met. It’s often the smaller entrepreneurs who miss the boat as many are not registered with the local Chamber of Commerce and Factories.
Tourism post Covid
From the Ministry we try to tap into resources from international donor organizations. However this process has just started. What we have now been able to organize is a project of COMCEC (Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation). A Train de Trainers program on 7, 8 and 9 July in which tourism, safety and hygiene are discussed. Trainers from Suriname and Guyana are trained to prepare the companies in tourism for the post Covid period. The entire business operations of tourist companies needs to be adapted, from the facilities to the staff. In addition, the marketing strategy also needs to be adjusted. We now have to start thinking smart and also working smart and that will all be taken into account in this training.
The UNWTO has already developed some protocols and manuals for the post Covid era. The Caribbean Tourism Organization has already and successfully implemented such train the trainer program and we in Suriname now have to determine what we can adapt to local conditions. Local aspects are important as the tourism sector stretches from bordering towns of Albina in the east to Nickerie in the west and from northern Paramaribo to indigenous villages such as Kwamalasamutu in the deep south. Guidelines are needed to become more cost efficient and profitable. Many of the guidelines have effectively been applied elsewhere in the world and need to be adapted in Suriname as well.
Future of Tourism in Suriname
In the short term, the Ministry will be carrying out an inventory of tourism potential by district. Each district must convert its own characteristics into marketable tourism products, tailored to the various tourism target groups.
Plans will be prepared in all districts. After evaluation, strategic district implementation plans will be incorporated within the district development plan. And all of that has to be done in public private partnerships. The Ministry will facilitate this process and offer assistance and techniques so that the districts have the necessary tools.
I want to go to the districts myself to provide people with ideas to put their district on the map. Subsequently we can provide training and assist in raising funds.
The focus it is not only on improving existing products, but also on developing new tourism products per district. For example, products in the field of agro tourism, health and wellness and recreation. This will help us to arrive at another important aspect of our district approach and that is employment. By creating local jobs we reduce urbanization as people find employment within their own district. This will also benefit the economic development of the districts itself.
So far, local tourism figures are hardly kept up to date in Suriname. This while local tourism is a backbone of the economy. Local tourism is about 10 times larger than international tourism. So if the UNWTO estimates 1.8 billion international travelers, you can easily multiply that by 10 to arrive at domestic tourism worldwide. That’s scientifically proven.
If you have figures, you can also develop better policies. We need to investigate what the local needs are and what Surinamese people do for their leisure and relaxation. Whether that is e.g. fishing, birdwatching or visiting a ‘sula’ (river rapid) in the interior or recreation resort. If you know what the local people are looking for, you can tailor improved policies. There have been exit surveys of international visitors but none so far of locals. And that is also something that we are now working on to map out local tourism. Only with proper information one can make substantiated future-oriented policies.
For 25 years we have been promoting four pillars of tourism at the Ministry, namely nature, culture, heritage and events. 93% of our entire land area is still covered with virgin amazon rainforest. Suriname is also blessed with a rich cultural history, heritage and diversity. A consultant once said to me “Rabin, your people are seeking for gold in the interior but your capital is the true goldmine”. To get more people to the city center of Paramaribo we will have to adjust the infrastructure so we can offer more city tours.
Rabin Boeddha studied Mathematics, holds a bachelor’s degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management from University of the West Indies and is a Certified Hospitality Educator (CHE) of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). He started his career as a mathematics teacher at various schools in the city and districts but gradually moved to Tourism. First as head of department and acting director of the Stichting Toerisme Suriname. He worked on several projects for the EU, OAS, UNESCO and IICA as project manager, chairman steering committee and also as a consultant. Moving on he was employed as chairman and acting director at the Suriname Hospitality and Tourism Training Centre (SHTTC). But he never lost his passion for math and is still a part-time lecturer
At the Ministry of Transport, Communication and Tourism (TCT) Rabin Boeddha is the Director of Tourism and focal point for International organizations.