Former French penal colony in South America is thriving: 75,000 people a year now visit French Guiana
Thick tropical vines wrap around rusty jail bars and trees grow inside cells in the 19th century prison on this far-flung island off South America -- a relic of French Guiana's dark past as a penal colony where thousands of prisoners died of disease. The prison, and many like it on the mainland in French Guiana, closed more than 50 years ago. But their history haunts the French Guianese, who are eager for the world to discover their vast rain forests and eclectic culture of European lifestyles fused with the many traditions brought by Caribbean, Asian and South American immigrants. The French government spends 1.7 million euros ($2.2 million) a year to shed that image, producing brochures and buying television commercials that show off jungles filled with jaguars and monkeys, beaches where huge tortoises waddle out of the surf, and fishermen whisking piranhas out of rivers. The campaign -- dubbed ''Personne ne vous croira'' (``No one will believe you'') -- seems to be working. About 60,000 to 75,000 people a year have visited the French department of 200,0000 residents since 2001 -- a surge from the 1990s when so few tourists came that officials stopped keeping track, said Karl Joseph, a spokesman for the Tourism Committee of French Guiana. The French first settled this small strip of land between Suriname and Brazil in the early 17th century. Two hundred years later, Napoleon III desperately needed to build new prisons for a burgeoning inmate populations in France and its colonies. He also needed a new source of forced labor after France abolished slavery in 1848. The two needs converged in French Guiana. From 1852 to 1946, France sent 70,000 prisoners to its remote possession in South America, forcing them to mine for gold and cut wood in the forests. Though estimates vary widely, historians estimate between 25 and 50 percent of inmates died of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, hunger or prison violence, said Serge Mam Lam Fouck, professor at the Antilles University in French Guiana. The horrors were dramatized in former prisoner Henri Charriere's memoirs, Papillon, which recounted conditions and his repeated escape attempts from a prison on Devil's Island -- visible from St. Joseph Island but closed to the public. The book was made into the 1973 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.
Today the former penal colony has flourished into a haven for immigrants fleeing poverty, repressive regimes and violence.
Chatter in more than a dozen languages fill the streets in the capital of Cayenne. Next to French boutiques, Chinese immigrants hawk electronics, as Brazilians and Amerindians sell fresh fruits and fish in open-air markets. Haitians and Vietnamese run small grocery stores, and thrift shops selling hammocks and mosquito nets. The French department is wealthier than its South American neighbors, with the European Space Center satellite launch pad serving as the main employer. A decidedly French flavor infuses life. Residents spend euros, carry European Union passports and congregate around central plazas. The roads have French rotundas instead of stop lights. The French Guianese favor long conversations over lunches of pepper steak (steak-au-poivre) and top cabernet wines. Businesses close and streets empty for most of the afternoon as people escape the oppressive heat and humidity indoors. Democratic French Guiana has not only become a favorite tourist attaraction for Europeans. but also a small economic paradise and a showcase of European space technology in the heart of South America.