Johan Pengel International Airport
By Ray Chickrie
Caribbean News Now contributor
PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Entering Suriname through its four main ports of entry can be an arduous, long and problematic ordeal since most visitors require a visa to enter the country, and sometimes rogue agents and the police at these four entry points prey on helpless visitors.
Tourist cards, a requirement for many to enter the country, aren’t available at South Drain (Port New Nickerie) and at the Zorg-En-Hoop Airport for travelers coming from Guyana. In addition, at the Johan Pengel International Airport (JAP), the tourist card counter isn’t open 24 hours, and these are factors are also keeping tourists away from Suriname.
Visitors can purchase a Suriname tourist card prior to their arrival in Suriname, but with few diplomatic offices globally, it’s difficult to do so. The country still hasn’t tapped newly available technology to offer e-visas or e-tourist card, which can reduce corruption, bring efficiency, accountability and modernity to the fledgling tourism industry of Suriname.
Visitors to Suriname have to delay or cancel their plans because of these impediments. Moreover, there is an influx of tourists and shoppers from Cuba to Suriname. They visit Suriname via Guyana, but they are not being facilitated well. If they arrive in Guyana during the weekends, they can’t get a tourist card at the Suriname embassy in Georgetown. As well, on many occasions, they are turned away because they lack the necessary papers or correct currency, or simply because they do not have copies of necessary papers. This can be avoided if the Suriname embassies provided information in Spanish to Cubans in Cuba and in Guyana.
Entering Suriname from Moleson Creek (Guyana) to South Drain (Suriname) via ferry can be a nightmare. The process of clearing immigration and customs takes about three hours. Travelers who speak no English sometimes have to pay officials working on the ferry on both sides of the border to help them complete their customs and immigration papers for a fee.
At average, there are only two immigration agents working at South Drain (New Nickerie), and the tropical heat, sometimes with the demand for “gifts” from government officials and the police, who make up all sorts of stories to delay or deny visitors entry, deters travelers from these countries.
Arriving in Suriname at the Johan Pengel Airport (JAP), travelers face a strange and archaic procedure. First, they must join a queue to purchase a tourist card and then wait in another queue to get their passport stamped into the country. The lines to clear immigration and customs at the airport are long and only a few agents are on duty to process incoming visitors.
The airport lacks modernity. Thus, one can imagine, having to queue twice, and that was the situation aviation expert, Tomas Chlumecky, experienced when he visited Suriname in 2016. He has called for change. For example in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, this is done simultaneously, one time, one place. Chlumecky also raised the issue that, at JAP, there isn’t even a place like a counter where passengers can complete their immigration and customs forms.
According to a reliable source in the immigration department, some two years ago a Turkish diplomat was refused entry to Suriname on the grounds that he did not have a visa, despite carrying a diplomatic passport. The Suriname foreign ministry eventually had to intervene in the issue and smooth things over with Turkey.
Leaving Guyana at 4:00 am in the morning to reach Paramaribo, international traveler, Torbjorn C. Pedersen, arrived at the Molson Creek crossing to board a ferry to Suriname, where he was informed that he must get a tourist card.
He said, “Okay, where do I buy it?”
“In Georgetown on Monday. Have a nice day."
“That had me out of balance for a while, and I returned to Georgetown having spent money and around nine hours going back and forth."
The following day, he visited the Suriname embassy in Georgetown where he bought a tourist card.
“The process was somewhat ridiculous and time consuming, and one might wonder why you couldn't simply buy the tourist card at the border. Mainly because they didn't stamp my passport but simply issued the card? On top of that, I had to tolerate a security guard at the embassy who enjoyed his power over the applicants a little too much,” Pedersen said.
There have been other complaints that security guards working at the Suriname embassy in Georgetown are rude to visitors seeking a tourist card or a visa from the embassy.
After arriving at South Drain, Suriname, Pedersen shared his customs and immigration experience.
“Strong iron bars were set up in order to manage the incoming passengers and immigration officers in green uniforms, with the shirt hanging loose over the pants, were patrolling the area. They all looked a little like prison guards depicted in Hollywood productions. And they also had the attitude. After a little bureaucracy, I was through,” Pedersen said.
Another traveler who visited Suriname from North America via Port of Spain arrived on a late night flight. He waited patiently at the tourist card counter, but no one was manning the counter. It was closed.
He shared his ordeal:
“When someone finally arrived, he seemed rather agitated. I presented my passport, itinerary with proof of an onward plane ticket, and US$25. This is where my problems started. After receiving the payment, the man requested more. I asked him if there was an additional charge, to which he responded that there was. It was a large one, 50 Euros.”
He added, “I was faced with a major dilemma. I was only carrying Surinamese and American dollars, there was no ATM machine where I could obtain Euro, and the uniformed official was not fluent in English.
"’I don't have Euro,’ I told him. ‘Then you aren't coming to Suriname,’ he said with a smile. I stood there stunned as the immigration queue cleared out. I was now standing alone in the airport, with no way to request help. I was also sleep deprived, and desperate for a bed.
“About ten minutes later, the security official suggested that I ‘find someone to help’. Almost on cue, a plain-clothed civilian appeared out of nowhere, and told me that he could give me Euro for Surinamese dollars but only at a terrible exchange rate. I had no choice but to lose a considerable amount of money. I quickly got my tourist card, and exited through customs. As I entered the arrival area of the airport, I saw the 'euro man' and security official having a good laugh. They were clearly friends who had coordinated the whole thing. Not a good introduction.”