(by Nazima Raghubir)
If the powers that be ever consider relocating the capital city of Guyana, the scenic, bustling town of Lethem in the south-west of the country can be strongly considered.
Of course, Port Georgetown is currently the focal point for most of the country’s social, commercial and economic activities and is strategically located on the Demerara River and touches the Atlantic Ocean.
However, Lethem, on the fringe of Guyana’s border with South America’s largest power house, Brazil, cannot be ignored as an alternative location. The reasons are many. It is easy to recognise it as one of the country’s fastest growing towns. Former President of the Rupununi Chamber of Commerce, John Macedo, estimates that between 3,000-4,000 visitors transit through Lethem on a daily basis.
Such visits focus mainly on shopping opportunities in the growing Lethem commercial area which boasts a variety of retail stores, small restaurants and food stands, service stations and a commercial bank. Tourism, many believe, should not be ruled out as a primary revenue generator for this town.
“I consider it (Lethem) to be the number one tourist destination for Guyana” Macedo says. He believes Lethem unknowingly hosts “business tourism and eco -tourism”, even in the absence of a specific thrust in such directions.
“People tend to say Georgetown is number one, but quite a lot of the tourists that come to Georgetown end up in Lethem,” he adds. “What people don’t take into consideration is the amount of tourists that are coming from Brazil and Venezuela.”
Currencies such as Brazil’s Real, the U.S. greenback and Guyana dollars are used freely to make purchases and as many people English as they do Portuguese.
An easier entry point into Lethem from Brazil is through the town of Bom Fin which sits on the bank of the Takutu River. The Takutu Bridge, completed in 2009 by the Brazilian Government, links Lethem to Bom Fin and could be one of two of the busiest ports of entries into the country.
What seems to make traveling hassle-free for many visitors entering from Brazil is the fact that not everyone has to be processed by immigration authorities. This has also made it easier for Guyanese nationals to work in Bom Fin and for Brazilians to work in Lethem.
The Immigration Office and Port Authority would check those who are traveling between the two countries but travelers entering either country for just for a day can enter undocumented and take advantage of shopping and tourism opportunities until the Bridge closes at 7.00 p.m.
Promoting Lethem as a tourist destination can be viewed as something which sells itself. The breath-taking view of the Rupununi Savannah is hard to beat anywhere else in the region and the flora and fauna are natural selling points for nature lovers. But life could be made easier for those living in Lethem and its surrounding communities as well as those persons who want to experience a slice of nature.
“People look at Lethem like it is the Rupununi,” says Daniel Gajie, President of Rupununi Chamber of Commerce. “Lethem is just a small part of the beauty you have here.”
Gajie, a popular local businessman, spoke while overseeing completion of a 60 room hotel in Lethem in July when he sat down with Insight.
He has been aiming to capitalise on the growing movement of people within the border community while also looking to attract those tourists who are looking for luxury within the context of a jungle.
Looking back at what he met when he first came to Lethem in 1997, Gajie said the town’s population was small and business “slow.” The former owner of a store in Georgetown’s business hub of Regent Street recalled jumping on a “bush truck” laden with goods, fuel and people and sharing a space to get to Lethem.
Gajie said he saw an opportunity to do business in another part of Guyana.
Is that opportunity still alive in Lethem today? “Other than the housing areas in Georgetown, it is one of the fastest growing commercial areas in Guyana. I would be bold enough to say it is the fastest…”
Gajie predicts that Lethem will be dominated by three sectors in the future – tourism, agriculture and commerce. The designated commercial area in Lethem has not picked up as rapidly as predicted in 2002 when it was first proposed. This is mainly because lands designated for stores, gas stations and other outlets remain abandoned by mostly coast land investors. Of the 65 plots allocated, fewer than 25 have been occupied.
Those lands cannot be occupied now since, according to Lands and Survey Commission Records, they were leased specifically to persons and cannot be transferred in the near future. Some business persons feel that could be the main reason the town’s commercial area did not grow to its full capacity and which led to commercial activities shifting to other areas.
The rush to the gold-rich interior has multiplied many times over the decades and the road to Lethem has seen the gold-hungry faces of many Guyanese and foreigners alike.
“Without that road you can’t survive,” one Lethem resident remarked.
Lethem residents depend heavily on the road for rations and other goods. The alternative is air travel which is a costly undertaking. Many residents of Lethem and surrounding communities get their goods, cooking gas and clothing which are produced in nearby Brazil. Other locally and regionally produced goods are necessities for the hinterland dwellers.
The loam road stretches from the mining town of Linden, in Region 10 to Lethem in Region 9. The more than 12 hours of overland travel from Georgetown to Linden and then to Lethem is a rough and difficult ride with slushy terrain in the rainy season testing the skills of even the most experienced driver.
The road is not only important to Guyanese businessmen but to Brazilian entrepreneurs who have longed for the use of a long-promised deep water harbour – available in Georgetown on Guyana’s Atlantic coast.
The Rupununi Chamber President told Insight that the collective call has been for “an all-weather road with concrete bridges.” He said this is the least investors in Lethem can get in return for the more than G$4 billion he estimates they have invested over the years.
“Within two to three years if we don’t see significant improvement between Lethem and Linden at least, then we will be forced to look more towards using the alternative route through Manaus (in Brazil),” Gajie said.
“Our utility services are very poor, electricity is a lot of problems, our phone services from both Digicel and GT&T are severely lacking, our internet service through these providers are almost non-existent, water is never there, our infrastructure is not acceptable to support heavy commercial activities,” he added.
“So if we don’t get this road, that $4 billion investment will suffer.”
Despite these challenges Lethem cannot be ruled out as a major element of Guyana’s thrust to reach new economic heights. While many flock to this unique town for rodeo activities in April each year, a concentrated effort must be made to promote it as one of several prime destinations that sell Guyana. At the same time, Lethem should be developed as a town with all modern facilities and services that manage to be both welcoming to visitors and financially rewarding for investors.