Tourism promoting Indigenous culture – Candace Phillips

Visit Rupununi, Guyana’s only regional destination management organisation, has been in existence for six years, providing information about the culture, events, attractions, operators, services and special offers in the Rupununi.

The person behind this distinct tourism agency is a 39-year-old woman of indigenous heritage, Ms. Candace Phillips.

Candace Phillips

Ms. Phillips was born in the Region One village of Santa Rosa; however, she only spent the first nine months of her life there.

She grew up in Georgetown where she attended the St. Margaret’s Primary and Bishops’ High School, before pursuing studies in Economics at the University of Guyana (UG).

According to Phillips, her life was “mapped out” and she was planning to become a corporate lawyer. However, as fate would have it, Phillips gained employment with the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) as a Programme Assistant, an opportunity which “opened her eyes” to aspects of her culture that had been missing because she grew up in the urban Georgetown.

“I always wanted to know more about where I came from, and not only about myself, about other Indigenous Peoples of Guyana.” Phillips said.

According to her, working with the APA changed her life, because it gave her the opportunity to work with various communities throughout Guyana, and to learn about her culture. Wherever I go, I try to absorb as much and try to understand the different aspects of culture and the difference between the nine indigenous tribes in Guyana,” she said.

Candace Phillips and her children at a tourist site in Region Five

In 2015, while living and working as a teacher in Aishalton, Rupununi, Phillips jumped at the opportunity to work with Conservation International as a Tourism Coordinator. The post required her to develop a Regional Destination Management Organisation which aims to build cohesiveness and inclusiveness.

Phillips noted that hotels, food suppliers, art and craft vendors and others are all part of the tourism value chain.

“What Visit Rupununi intended to do was to bring stakeholders together. In order for us to move forward as a cluster, the Rupununi being the strongest one in Guyana, we needed to speak to each other a bit more.”

Candace Phillips at the Atta Rainforest Lodge

Phillips noted that forming such an organisation had its challenges, “more so, because they have never heard of the term, sometimes I think it’s because I was a woman too, I was an indigenous woman at that, trying to lead something and I think that because there was not that great receptivity in the beginning, I think that really fueled my energy to try to prove them wrong, to prove that we can actually do this.”

Noting the accomplishments of Visit Rupununi over the last five years, Phillips said she is proud of the part she has played in bringing it to life.

She said the organisation has a good relationship with the Department of Tourism and the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) so information is shared and help is garnered when needed.

Candace Phillips conducts tourism training in an indigenous community

Phillips now serves as a Travel Industry Development Officer with the GTA, a job which allows her the opportunity to help indigenous communities develop their tourism products.

Her job entails shortlisting indigenous communities with tourism potential, community engagements, meeting with village councils and focusing on each community’s uniqueness and build on their strengths.

“So, when visitors go, whether they be domestic or international travellers, they could have a very enriching experience and making sure that all along the line that indigenous communities are involved in the process, and at the end of the day, they are the right holders, they are the people who own this project. We are just facilitators of a process,” Phillips said.

Tourism, Phillips said, promotes indigenous culture and keeps identity intact with an aspect on conservation.

“Tourism is one of the sectors that helps communities to understand that there is much greater value in keeping this tree standing or that bird flying rather than selling it, because if I sell it today, I’ll get $25,000 but if I keep it there, tourists or visitors who keep coming that $25,000 could be multiplied,” she noted.

Phillips said GTA’s role is not to change the character of a place. “It’s very important for us to maintain the identity of the communities, and not to stray away or to impose something different, but to build on that, to safeguard their rights and at the end of the day the people must feel that this is their product, and the only way you can do that is by having a partnership with them.”

She is urging individuals and communities that want to get into the business of tourism to ensure that they are willing as “tourism does not generate big bucks overnight; it is a commitment. A commitment that you start and you have to see it through.”

Phillips believes that there is still stigma attached to indigenous people, having experienced it herself. However, she believes that individuals can strive to change perceptions.

“I think that commitment, dedication, and hard work can really show results that is your driving force at the end of the day, so I don’t worry about people saying, you’re a woman, you are indigenous and you can’t do this, I look and I know my strength and what I bring to the table” she said.

Phillips would like to see more indigenous people being empowered and more aware of their role. “We are not just going to lie down and roll over; we are a strong people.”

As Guyana observes Amerindian Heritage Month, Phillips is hoping to see “less discrimination, more appreciation for our culture and what we bring to the table as a people, we have a very strong identity and we come with so much history.”

Phillips continues to make her contribution to the indigenous people and tourism industry. With the presence of COVID 19, she is urging persons to adhere to the regulations in place and continue to prepare for the reopening of the industry and the changes that would come with it.