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A value chain approach to tourism development in The Gambia

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By Almamy Fanding Taal

‘The Gambia’s ten years of nationhood’. It reads: “A climate that has been described as one of the best in the world, mile upon mile of such splashed beaches, tall coconut palms, blue tropical skies, a river that can take you deep into the heart of Africa…” Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, and Tourism, publication 1975: Tourism is one of the main economic drivers and a significant generator of jobs and revenue for the Gambian economy. The tourism industry is as old as the republic, as the official blurb above attests, and it contributed 20.8 percent of the gross domestic product of the Gambia in 2019 and provided direct and indirect employment for thousands of people.

However, the industry is yet to realise its full potential in The Gambia. One reason for this undesirable situation is the approach that the Jammeh government has deployed since 1994, which continues to this day. The strategic twinning of tourism with culture into a new ministry singularly focused on developing tourism in The Gambia was a smart move.

Unfortunately, it was not well conceptualised because the new ministry was soon overshadowed by a statutory corporation, and both did not take a value chain approach to tourism development in The Gambia. The main comparative advantage of the Gambia then and now as a tourist destination is its geographic location and proximity to Europe and North America.

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The cultural and historical links with the African diaspora in Europe and the Americas that Ghana and other West African states are leveraging to attract more African Americans to their shores have not been optimally utilised by the Gambia Government.

The original products of the industry in The Gambia were winter sunshine, pristine sandy beaches, and six hours of flight time from northern Europe to a tropical paradise that is peaceful with very friendly people. The industry infrastructure was provided by Nordic investors in partnership with the Gambia Government.

The first beach hotels were built in the island city of Banjul. Atlantic Hotel is still the premium hotel in Banjul, while Wadner Beach has not been operational for more than a decade, and Palm Grove Hotel was converted into Hamza Barracks after Jammeh acquired it from ill-gotten wealth. Due to the size of the island city and space constraints in Banjul, the next chapters in the development of tourism in Gambia are written on the Kombo beaches, a 40-mile stretch of pristine sandy beach.

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First in Cape Point was Bakau with the Sun Wing Hotel, Tropics Garden Hotel, Fajara Hotel, Novotel Kombo Beach Hotel, and thereafter the groundbreaking Senegambia Hotel. A 50–50% Joint venture between Salmer Sande AS and the Gambia Government. In the silver jubilee year of the republic, the Kairaba Beach Hotel opened its doors. with 5-star billing and a state-of-the-art conference facility. Appropriately named after the first president of the Gambia, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, under whose leadership The Gambia emerged as more than a ‘probable nation’ into one of the best-governed nation-states in Africa and the hottest tourism destination in West Africa.

With a liberal, open economy, the Gambia was able to attract significant investments in the tourism sector. Banjul Breweries was one such investment, with its internationally acclaimed range of brews and the award-winning Beer-Julbrew. On the part of the Jawara Government, the Central Bank of the Gambia, the Gambia Ports Authority, the Gambia Commercial and Development Bank, the Gambia River Transport, and the Gambia Produce and Marketing Board were established as statutory corporations, and the National Investment Board all helped to provide an ecosystem for the tourism industry to thrive.

Prior to all this development, the first commercial radio station in Africa was established in The Gambia. Britt Wadner successfully started Radio Syd in 1970 in The Gambia, licensed by the Gambian government, along with her daughter Connie. She also set up a hotel enterprise, Wadner Beach Hotel.

Initially broadcasting out of a ship docked off the Banjul Coast, eventually Radio Syd was put on terra firma, giving opportunities to Gambia’s first private broadcast journalists to hone their skills. Journalists such as the late Deyda Hydara, the doyen of Gambian journalism; Alhaji Pap Saine, who celebrated 30 years of The Point Newspaper in 2021; and Sarjo Barry, AKA DJ Joe Barry, all had their careers in broadcasting start at Radio Syd.

Is Gambia, the Smiling Coast of Africa, enough?

Against this backdrop, the above question is asked. The value chain starts with getting here. In the early days, this part of the value chain was dealt with by the counterpart investors of the Gambia Government through charter flights and commercial airlines such as British Caledonia, Swiss Air, Sabena, etc.

For the past 36 years, The Gambia Experience, a UK-based company initially offering only flights and holidays to The Gambia, has grown its specialisation in the Gambia’s tourism value chain and offers its clients the widest selection of hotels in the Gambia.

From the available data, the highest number of tourist arrivals in the Gambia’s history was in 2014 with over 600,000 visitors, and 2020 data shows a 65% drop in the figures of 246,000 visitors attributable to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Unfortunately, the safety conditions and globally accepted tourism standards at the only airport in the Gambia have been flagged as inadequate by airlines that frequently travel to the country. In addition, the additional charges directly collected from inbound and outbound passengers are making the airport unattractive for tourists, according to the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Hon Hamat Bah.

Consequently, getting to The Gambia is increasingly becoming a challenge, even though there is no national carrier like in Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Mauritius, and Rwanda, top African tourism destinations. The Banjul International Airport has several daily flights. But more importantly, what do you see, feel, hear, and do on the smiling coast of Africa? The reasons for travelling for most tourists is to explore and experience first-hand a different culture and place.

To answer this question, a tourism value chain approach can simply be defined as a system that describes how hoteliers and tour operators, in collaboration with the Gambia Government and SMEs and CSOs, receive or access resources as inputs, add value through various processes (planning, development, financing, marketing, distribution, pricing, and positioning, among others), and sell the resulting products to tourists.

A tourism value chain approach to the development of tourism must be driven by the passion, pride, and confidence of key stakeholders that ensure visitors will experience the best that Destination Gambia can offer.

A tourism value chain approach can be used as the methodology for analysing the process and identifying opportunities to increase value through positive action or the elimination of barriers or constraints. All these elements are missing in the Gambia’s tourism value chain, making it weak and unproductive.

In order to apply the tourism value chain approach properly, the Gambia Government and businesses need to establish and enforce Inclusive and integrated policy frameworks for sustainable tourism development; Businesses need to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability in core business models and value chains with enhanced action; and individuals and civil society need to advocate for and adopt consciously sustainable practices and behaviours. Destination stakeholders are a focal point for the destination’s value chain development.

Generally speaking, actors along a tourism value chain can be categorized into four tiers: policymakers of the basic tourism product (MOTC and GTBoard); suppliers of products and services (GHA and Tour operators); tourism agents; and tourists.

The Gambia Government, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is the planner, as designers of the basic tourism product are responsible for policymaking and planning and are displayed at the very beginning of the value chain. Tourism products and services include attractions, accommodation, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, airlines, transportation, and so forth, which were operated by the government in partnership with FDI. Now all these aspects of the value chain are owned and operated by private businesses.

How can tourism contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 8)?

By promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all tourism employees, services trade is one of the top four export earners globally, currently providing one in ten jobs worldwide. Decent work opportunities in tourism, particularly for youth and women, and policies that favour better diversification through tourism value chains can enhance tourism’s positive socio-economic impacts.

Through strengthening linkages and opportunities in the tourism value chain, the tourism value chain is a sequence of primary and support activities that are strategically fundamental to the performance of the tourism sector. Key activities of the tourism value chain encompass a range of processes linked to the tourism sector, such as policymaking and integrated planning; product development, promotion, and marketing; distribution and sales; and destination operations and services.

A systematic analysis of the tourism value chain Destination Gambia can be a useful tool to trace income flows in the tourism sector. Such analysis will identify which part of tourism income goes to the lower end of the food chain while also determining interventions to enhance tourism’s local economic and environmental impact. Such assessments can be supplemented by market assessments and by collaborating with stakeholders to identify future opportunities for engagement, supported by capacity building.

Combining value chain development and local economic development strategies can also enhance the functioning of the market system while supporting circular economy development and job creation. A number of actions can be taken to work with established tourism enterprises in order to strengthen their supply chains.

This requires engaging with businesses as well as encouraging supply audits and new sourcing. It also requires collaborating with local producers’ suppliers to strengthen their capacity. Since tourism offers potential for new enterprise formation as it requires low levels of technical skills or financial resources compared with other sectors, particular opportunities exist to establish microbusinesses in both direct and indirect parts of the tourism value chain.

These areas could include handicrafts, tour guide services, catering, maintenance, food supplies, cleaning, and various other activities. Priority should be given to supporting existing and newly established micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSME) through capacity building, including training on business skills, market access, ICT skills, accessible finance, standard-setting, and marketing.

For a value chain approach to be successful, the Gambia Government must play a catalytic role in the development process in order to promote the interests of the stakeholders, help increase their incomes, provide opportunities to create wealth, curb inequalities in the level of development along the value chain, protect the environment, strengthen the scientific and technological base for long-term growth, and safeguard the interests of future generations. These are matters that cannot be left to the free play of market forces. Strategic Government investments in these crucial areas are the key to creating a sustainable development strategy.

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