Interview with Philip Briggs

To celebrate the publication of his new guide to Suriname, we chat to author Philip Briggs about the country and his tips for aspiring travel writers. 

Written by Philip Briggs


Why, after more than 20 years of writing about Africa, did you decide to write a guide to a South American country?

No particular reason. The industry has come to bracket me as an ‘Africa expert’, but that’s more through circumstance than design. I feel that my real specialisation is researching guidebooks to countries that are (or were) relatively uncharted by the guidebook industry. And Africa, accounting for a quarter of the world’s countries, but attracting a tiny fraction of global tourism, has always offered up plenty of contenders for that type of pioneering coverage. But I’ve always wanted to tackle a guidebook to somewhere outside Africa, and Suriname came up as the right place at the right time – it’s a country that has plenty of tourism potential but most people know very little about it and it tends to be treated as little more than a footnote in guidebooks to South America.

What were you expectations of Suriname before you arrived? Were they met?

Over the space of one month, I went from being one of the many people who know nothing about Suriname to boarding a plane there to start researching the book. So I had very little time to formulate strong expectations. Geographically, though, it was pretty much what I expected of a chunk of South America reputed to have the highest percentage of forest cover of any country in the world, and the one of the lowest population densities (about 500,000 people in an area larger than Greece). Culturally, it was maybe surprising that it didn’t feel Latin American in any respect, thanks to the Dutch linguistic heritage and a mixed ethnic population of mostly Asian, African and Amerindian descent.

Upper Suriname River by Ariadne Van Zandbergen

What are the three experiences that visitors to Suriname should not miss?

The capital Paramaribo is a fascinating and enjoyable city, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its unique  Dutch-Creole wooden architecture. The beaches at Metapica and to a lesser extent Galibi rank among the best places in the world to see nesting marine turtles. But my top activity would be a boat trip along one of the rivers – the Suriname or Commewijne in particular – that run deep through the spectacular jungle of the interior. 

Why do you think tourism in Suriname, and neighbouring countries, exists on such a limited scale?

I don’t know much about neighbouring countries. In the case of Suriname, I think a bunch of factors kick in – one is that it lacks opportunities for conventional beach tourism so it would only appeal to quite adventurous travellers, another is that it went through a long period of post-independence instability (now thankfully resolved). Also, it isn’t very well known except to the Dutch and Flemish, who account for almost all tourism at the moment, and international flights are limited. In many ways, though, it is a great introduction to South America, particularly for English-speakers, who will find it far easier to get around than they would in Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries!

Do you think you will now write guidebooks to other non-African countries?

I’m open to it, if the right project came up. I tend not to plan further ahead than I need to, so who knows?

As an expert in the field, what tips would you offer for aspiring travel writers?

It’s a lot more difficult to make a living from travel writing now than it was when I started, thanks largely to a proliferation of websites that abuse aspirant writers’ eagerness to see their name in print by sourcing content for free or for next-to-nothing. But if you want to succeed, I would advise that you take on any work that’s reasonably paid, try to piggyback writing jobs off each other (for instance by using a guidebook research trip as the basis for a few magazine articles), and strive always to meet deadlines (editors are just trying to get through a day’s work like anybody else, and will generally give more work to writers who reliably meet deadlines). Finally, and less obviously, take advantage of the connectedness of the modern world by living somewhere cheap – where you live won’t greatly affect your writing income, but it can have a huge influence on your cost of living!

What are your travel plans for the rest of 2015?

I’m busy updating my Ethiopia book at the moment, and will do a last trip there – covering the south of the country – in February and March. After that, it looks like Burundi, to start work on a new guidebook to yet another emerging African tourist destination!

Everyone gets it wrong sometimes, what is your worst travel blunder on-the-road?

I’m sure I’ve made plenty, but I can’t think of anything specific offhand. My most recent scare was being apprehended as a suspected spy in a small town in The Gambia. The whole thing was so laughable I didn’t take it seriously at first, but when it reached the point where I had to prepare a statement about my suspicious activities (which amounted to walking around town making notes and taking GPS readings), I started to realise I could well end up being locked up in what looked like a very hot and sweaty police station. Eventually I was allowed to leave the station, but without my passport or notebook, and they said I’d have to travel with them to the capital the next day to be investigated. An hour or two later, after my notebook had been perused by somebody very important, everything was returned to me and I was told I was a free man. I’m not certain this was a blunder in the sense there’s nothing much I could have done to avert it, but it was very unpleasant, and for the rest of that trip I was quite tense – and probably behaved rather shiftily – when I walked around any town gathering information! 

Click here to buy Philip’s Suriname guide.