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Bumsters are part of the socio-cultural, human capital of Destination Gambia

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By Yaya Drammeh Gothenburg, Sweden

Bumsters are part of the sociocultural and human capital of the destination.
Poverty, unemployment, and lack of manufacturing industries are among the overriding social and economic issues Least Developing Countries (LDCs) are facing with severe structural impediments to sustainable development. In the context of The Gambia, tourism is recognised as an economic activity with potentials to support, and complement our fragile agricultural sector which should have been a major employer for many struggling youths who now loiter around the Tourism Development Area (TDA) in search of a living. These are youths Gambians refer to as “bumsters”. The aim of this article is to lay a foundation for thought provoking discussion on the issue of “bumsters”.

“A bumster” in its literal English language meaning, means, ”a person who wears a style of low-cut trousers, often revealing the top of the buttocks; trousers falling low on the hips”. In the context of the tourism sector in The Gambia, it means unemployed young men and women who go around the tourism development area, and other tourism facilities offering voluntary services in exchange for money, or to some extend hustling tourists into giving them handouts in cash or kind. They have become part of the “informal” sector of the tourism industry in the country from the introduction of tourism in the country.

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“As soon as tourists step outside their hotel complexes they are accosted, charmed and implored with bumster offers of advice, friendship and, sometimes, love” (BBC, 2006). A bumster will usually provide private guiding trips, which consequently can end up with other social outings, and can even go on to the extreme. This variant of informal way of providing services to tourists is usually considered by some locals as a way to make a difference for themselves and their families, or to make their way to Europe in search of “greener pastures”. Their services may sometimes bring benefits to their local communities, schools, organisations and the informal small enterprises that are operating away from the TDA.

However, there also seems to be serious issues about bumsters that need urgent strategic actions. Sheikh Tijan Nyang, a tourism expert, for instance, suggests that bumsters can be an annoyance to many tourists as 67% of tourists who visited The Gambia in a past survey reported that they had a bad experience with them and would not like to return to The Gambia. Tour operators have clearly marked their dissatisfaction with bumsters and have been urging government to do something about them. They argued to have lost business as many tourists do not want to be hustled by strangers on their peaceful holidays. They also say that some tourists are not happy to be around bumsters and consequently have said they would choose a holiday destination other than The Gambia. ‘

Bumsing’ has therefore been a topic of debate for many years in The Gambia, but tourists are still coming. These coupled with other abnormalities simply mean bumsters can cause The Gambia to lose customers whose spending would have had massive impacts on the economy. This is enough evidence to conclude that bumsters are destructive for the industry. We even recently heard the Minister of Tourism and Culture suggesting that, “they know where to keep them [bumsters] until after the season”.

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Certainly, the Honourable Minister is an experienced hotelier and knows the benefits of those bumsters who see themselves as self-employed, unlike the unscrupulous elements running around the TDA stealing and harassing tourists. It is important to also emphasise here that it is not scientifically proven, as many tend to believe that bumsters have a huge negative impact on tourism in the country. In fact, there may be instances we can name of some good examples and even the establishment of businesses within or outside the tourism sector, and community projects that emanated from the efforts of bumsters.

It could also be argued that bumsters can have very important functions such as operating as a link for the informal tourism small scale business enterprises and establishments outside the TDA usually owned by local Gambians. Therefore they can be considered to be part of the sociocultural and human capital of the destination that is very important for sustainable tourism development in an LDC like The Gambia.
Bumsing is one of the most common themes of research in tourism and is usually the most talked about negative sociocultural impact of tourism development in The Gambia.

It is essential to bear in mind that the socio-cultural and human capital in a destination is part of the tourism offering, and as such, issues surrounding “bumsterism” cannot be ignored or haphazardly tackled with seemingly counter-productive measures that could be alien to the concept of sustainable tourism development for a country such as The Gambia with little control of its destination’s tourism resources. In fact, in order to have a fair comprehension of the impact of bumsters, a thorough scientific research of the issue is highly recommended.

This bumster phenomenon is nothing new in the tourism industry worldwide, and probably had not received the considerable serious attention it deserved since the onset. As far back as 1979 some experts like Wagner suggested that the older generation of Gambians have complained about the plight of their sons being exploited by tourists. Similar problems were reported by Steffen and Diane in 1986, in their study, “Tourism and Culture Change in Bakau Old Town”. Since then, many reports were given by the media around Europe suggesting that The Gambia has become a sex tourist destination and associating it with bumsters. Hernbäck (2003) and Hamada (2004) also reported that sex tourism has been taking place in The Gambia since the 1970s. Hernbäck went further suggesting that older Swedish women for instance, have been buying sex with young Gambian men for a long time. Many of the bumsters try to find a white fiancée, and age for them doesn’t matter as the opportunity to marry will give them the probable chance to go to Europe to get a better living. “Many will profess to want to work but the fact is most of them are school dropouts who have observed that bumsterism pays more handsomely than gainful employment” (BBC, 2006). Thus, the problems around bumsters are not new. It has simply been given deaf ear or not a priority.

Tourism in The Gambia has been in such a setting as far back its inception in the country. The industry has not become an important source of income for only government, but also for many unemployed youths we refer to as bumsters which has partly now become a problem for the industry to handle. The reasons behind this can be many, but some researchers and professionals, especially the tour operators are simply exaggerating the problems based on collaborators interest and putting all the blame on the tourism host destination.

Tour operators are important partners in this development and must understand the tourism development ambition of government and hopes of locals. We must thus begin to also look at what our partners in development, such as the international tour operators who bring tourists to The Gambia are doing. What are their business strategies and operational practices? What are our national tourism development ambition and policy, strategy, and relationship to international tour operators? Are we having structural issues? What is the level of participation and involvement of locals in tourism development?
Since the inception of tourism in The Gambia, the destination has continued to be promoted as an all-inclusive winter destination and there is no serious sign that would change soon. While tourism provides economic opportunities for many destinations, it may also represent a threat in terms of the potential degradation of the resources and sidelining of the community and the benefits that it can provide. Our problem is therefore not exclusively bumsters! We must contextualise, address the issues and tackle them strategically.


Structure of the tourism
industry in The Gambia
Arguably, it seems that The Gambia has been ill prepared in the way forward with its tourism development plans during its inception period in the county concerning policies on its sociocultural and economic cost benefit with no contingency plan on how to tackle issues such developments come along with. Clearly, such haphazard forms of development with no clear policies, can simply contradict development ambitions, employment and linkage potentials to other production factors in the country in many ways.

The tourism industry is geographically concentrated along a 10km strip along the Atlantic coast, constituting the TDA with a degree of spatial concentration in one corner of the richest part of the country is striking and has implications for the pro-poor impact of tourism across the country. Almost 90 per cent of the tourist accommodation is located in 20 large hotels, and most of the remaining facilities which are a plethora of smaller guest houses, camps, inns, lodges, motels, apartments and rest houses outside the TDA including rural areas. Most of the tourist facilities outside the TDA that are owned by locals have limited access to the tourist source market and with no connections with international tour operators. Their main source of tourists is usually through local ground tour operators or bumsters. It thus seems that, even though “bumsing” is considered disruptive for the industry, some might be using it to safeguard their own economic interests and to strengthen their “all-inclusive” monopoly agenda.

The tourism business strategy of tour operators coming to The Gambia is a package “all-inclusive” tour which includes a complete holiday package; flight, accommodation, food and leisure activities has became the mainstream winter tourism of The Gambia. This does not seem to be supportive to The Gambia’s poverty alleviation ambition plans and efforts. This tourism business strategy of tour operators technically tends to exclude local Gambians from taking active part in the tourism business activities. They provide tourists with all what they may need during the whole holiday period providing no room or need for contact with locals.
Tour operators often earn important revenue from their own sale of excursions, which would be undercut by promoting services sold by local businesses. As a consequence, it has been estimated that around 65 per cent of hotel foodstuffs and drink consumed in hotels in The Gambia are imported. This is the consequence of the vertical integration of the industry which allows tour operators to control both transportation (charter flights) and retailers (travel agency chains) making the majority of SMEs to most entirely depend on them for communication with consumers and visibility in generating markets (Buhalis, 2004), done through the package tour operators as all inclusive.

The EU Travel Package Directive further encourages operators to encourage their clients to use the operators’ own excursions and to stay within the confines of the products over which the originating market operators have control. Here, its opportunities that weigh higher than moral and ethics. There is little room here to handle the many trade barriers countries like The Gambia are confronted with, including “all-inclusive” tours which is a classical example, where the country has come to find itself in an undesirable situation compelling her to accept all the blames of the negative impacts of “bumsing” for the comfort of tourist suppliers, just not to be reprimanded by tour operators.

Tourist resorts around the TDA are heavily fortified and installed with police and so-called tourist guards making the beaches and facilities out of reach for local residents. This tends to encourage a scenario where local residents and traditional owners of the lands, or sometimes even local investors in tourism are excluded from the tourism activities. It is important to highlight here that, such policing and militarisation of the tourism facilities does not tell well, and will surely never take place in any of the tourism facilities of the tourists’ home countries. We are simply not sending a good message of the peaceful nature of The Gambia. Despite such policing services, the youths who should have benefited from the significance of tourism resorted to finding ways and means of getting nearer to tourists on the beaches as the industry is already seen as glamorous with false associations.

The author is a Gambian who studied, lives and works in Sweden.

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