The mosque in Paramaribo. Photo:Mark Ahsmann
By Ray Chickrie
Caribbean News Now contributor
PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Suriname is hardly known among people in the Caribbean but this Dutch-speaking country in South America, which historically and culturally is affiliated with the Caribbean, has a fascinating history of Dutch plantocracy that brought enslaved Africans and later indentured workers from India, China and Indonesia to the shores of Suriname, creating a unique culture that stands out among all Caribbean countries.
Coupled with this, Suriname’s virgin rainforest of exotic fauna and flora, its multi-ethnic capital, Paramaribo, a UNESCO World Heritage site of grand colonial architecture, and blessed with peace and little crime, are attracting tourists to Suriname.
The industry has seen a continuous growth from 107,609 visitors in 2004 to 240,041 in 2012, according to the Tourism Foundation of Suriname (METS). Most tourists arriving in Suriname are from the Netherlands and France, via French Guiana. Large numbers of tourists from French Guiana visit Suriname for shopping. Many expatriates from Holland are part of this number but there are an increasing number of Dutch tourists with no family ties to Suriname. As well, many Dutch of European and Surinamese background have been investing in the tourism sector.
Suriname is one of the safest places in the Caribbean and South America and that’s why many Dutch and French tourists love to explore the interior of the country, Paramaribo and nearby areas on bicycles. A tourist who ventured from Chicago raved about Suriname’s beautiful capital and its safety for tourists. Besides safety, the multi-cultural make up of Suriname is another attraction, as one German tourist said, “Here you find Hindustani, Africans, Indonesians, Amerindians and Chinese” who continue to speak their own languages and the food is rich cuisine. He added that it’s the only country where a mosque and a synagogue coexist side by side.
Suriname’s rainforest is yet another attraction that the country has to offer. Rich in fauna and flora in a pristine rainforest, tours and tour operators are on the rise. Many tours take people to the interior of the country on overnight or day tours up rivers, waterfalls, African villages, fishing and canoeing.
Accommodation is plentiful in Suriname and ranges from 10 Euro for a simple dorm at Zo and Zus Guesthouse or 17 Euros for a room at the Alberga Guesthouse in the historical district, to medium range hotels such as the Palacio and the Eco Tourism Inn in the historical district or big names like Torarica, Wyndham, Kransnapolsky, Marriott and Best Western or luxury at the Royal Torarica.
Princess Hotel, a Turkish group will soon open a 5-star hotel in Suriname opposite the Torarica. The Princess Chain operates several hotels in Suriname and currently there are more hotels under construction.
Dutch born national, Yayo, and his French Guianese wife Faby are investing in the tourism industry of Suriname. Nine years ago they started building a hotel using only wood and indigenous materials. Everything is made the old fashioned way because Yayo is an architect who appreciates Suriname’s rich colonial architecture and wants to help preserve it. He has restored a few. In fact, he purchased a property and converted it into a guesthouse, Un Pied-a-Terre. He has restored this colonial gem back to its former glory.
There are some drawbacks in the industry according to some tour operators that have voiced their concerns. Mr De-Vries of Orange Tour said, “The number of people traveling to Suriname is growing, but the group of leisure travelers is shrinking. Hotels and tour operators are complaining about bad business the past two years.”
However, this year, the number is expected to increase due to a more stable European economy, especially in the Netherlands from where most tourists and expats originate.
Some of the constraints, according to Orange Tours, are the lack of vision from the government, the lack of a tourism board, little funding for developing the industry, and limited airlift to Suriname.
However, chairperson of Suriname Tourism Foundation, Faridy Lila, said that the Tourism Act was fine tuned with the help of professionals from the tourism industry and that her government is diligently working to establish the Suriname Tourism Board, which has to be passed by parliament.
Lila said also that the board is greatly needed in order to regulate the sector by setting standards, offer certification of tourism products, marketing and promoting. She admitted that there have been delays due to the Suriname bureaucracy and understood the concerns of the private sector.
Lila said that the government has committed a budget to develop the tourism industry but hoped that this will increase next year.
But the government also wants to make sure that the environment and the local communities are protected in a sustainable manner.
“The environment needs to be protected and locals must profit from tourism and children must be protected from sexual exploitation,” says Lila.
When asked what can the government and private sector do more to support this industry, De-Vries replied, “The private sector has to organize itself better in becoming a closely knit partner. The government has to start believing in this industry; willing to invest and treat the private sector as a serious collaborator. The above mentioned things have to be achieved first before any joint effort will have any success in growing this industry.”
METS currently is putting together a report on tourism and its impact on the GDP of Suriname. This, METS hopes, will push the government to support the industry more. METS is convinced that tourism has been a significant factor in boosting the economy of Suriname.
Some in the tourism industry accuse the government of protecting state owned Surinam Airways (SLM) by not liberalizing the aviation sector.
De-Vries said, “Allowing more airlines into Suriname, could mean jeopardizing parts of the business of the state owned airline SLM.”
But Lila said that the government of President Desi Bouterse is keen to integrate Suriname regionally and internationally and has adopted an open skies treaty with the United States and has a similar agreement with the Netherlands. Advisor to the president of Suriname on aviation, Gerard Brunnings, is an advocate of opening the sky of Suriname to competition.
Currently, any Dutch carrier can fly to Suriname. Martinair some years ago flew the route but that company went out of business, leaving SLM and KLM to dominate the trans-Atlantic route. SLM is expanding in the region and plans to fly to Haiti and New York, as well as cities in Northern Brazil.
As well, there are discussions between Turkey and Suriname to adopt an open sky policy. Europe’s top airline, Turkish Airlines, currently flies to Argentina and Brazil and will soon add Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela to its network. This is why Turkish Airlines wants rights possibly to connect Suriname with Istanbul via Amsterdam or with other South America and Caribbean capitals.
With continuous political and economic stability and a more serious approach to tourism that addresses the concerns of the private sector by the government, Suriname can very much become a tourist destination.