Paramaribo’s streets do nothing to tip you off to the president's history or the political and social drama he has created. No trucks of police or soldiers with machine guns roll down the street. There isn't an unusual amount of security around government offices. The air doesn't feel tense. Paramaribo isn’t a remarkable world capital, but it’s pleasant enough—a place where you could enjoy the warm weather, take a boat ride along the river, and down a beer or two in one of the city's nothing-to-write-home-about restaurants.
Until now, the fact that the country is headed by a cocaine-trafficking fugitive accused of murder hasn’t hurt Suriname’s tourism—there simply wasn't much tourism to speak of. But in an age where more travelers are wired, it's inevitable that tourists who find themselves considering Suriname will also find themselves questioning whether it's worth visiting a country where a dictator so overtly flouts the law. It's little surprise that the government has decided it needs a robust marketing campaign to convince people to hop on the next flight to Paramaribo.
Some Surinamese, though, aren’t waiting to see if the glossy brochures work. Ethnic groups in the country's wild interior, long marginalized politically and economically, have been spearheading their own tourism services, and are seeing surprising success. Both Maroon and Amerindian groups have established co-op style businesses offering tour guide services. Typically, visitors take a prop plane to an isolated community with a grass runway, then transfer to a boat for the remainder of their journey. The price—roughly $730—often includes a visit to a local community, with traditional cuisine, a dance performance, as well as a few-nights stay in a rustic lodge and cabin along the Gran Rio River.
For those looking for an “authentic” and “off-the-beaten-path” experience, these smaller operations deliver. Our guide asked the members of our small tour group to refrain from taking photos of the bare-breasted women who are walking among the low-slung West African style homes of the community we were visiting. He also reminded us to walk around, not through, the palm frond curtain that serves as the entrance to the community. (Walking through the curtain is a right reserved for members of the community.) A few women sat on the ground outside their homes and displayed their woven wares—mostly tablecloths—and children milled about. We looked at the goods, asked for permission to take photos of the kids, and shared in their delight when they saw their own faces in our viewfinders.
For the most part, I am told, the people who work in these tourist-oriented programs are locals—after all, who would want to leave the relative comforts of the capital, where jobs are more abundant, for the jungle, where you might find a bushmaster snake in the corner of your room?
At night, I retired to my cabin overlooking the river. I shook my bed sheets to scare off the scorpions that might have wandered up through the cracks in the floor. But as much as these and other creepy-crawlers might turn off some tourists, it’s the president’s own tarnished reputation that is probably the biggest threat to these community-based tourism enterprises.
While I was in Suriname, news broke that the country's parliament had passed a new law, the Surinamese Amnesty Act, granting Bouterse and 24 other suspects in the December Murders immunity from prosecution. The ever-defiant strongman has shrugged off calls from Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists to rescind the law.
Bouterse’s son, Dino, has not been as fortunate when it comes to escaping prosecution for his crimes. He was arrested in Panama and turned over to U.S. officials in August. Among his charges: conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and more seriously, offering material support to Hezbollah to establish a permanent base in Suriname to aid attacks on U.S. targets. Having the president’s son prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for supporting terrorists bent on killing Americans probably won’t be a boon for Suriname’s dreams of attracting North American tourists.
Without its dictator at the helm, however, the possibilities for Suriname could be intriguing. Since the country has never had much of a public image, it can build its “brand identity” from the ground up. Suriname is a great blank slate, every tourism marketer's dream. Frame that against the backdrop of a culturally rich and diverse country, with residents in far-flung communities living according to centuries-old traditions in untouched forests teeming with rare flora and fauna, and it's hard to see why people wouldn't come to Suriname. But that all assumes it can rid itself of the tyrant at the top—a problem that is hardly unique to this overlooked corner of the world.