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Orbiting through gambia tourism: Reflections of a humble speech writer

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Institutional Reengineering: From Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA) To GTBOARD

In  part  one of this piece I did point out that the creation of the now defunct GTA through an Act of Parliament in 2001 was a giant leap in the development of  Gambia Tourism and credit goes to Honorable Yankuba Touray for this laudable move. Government has always felt that a private sector oriented institution can best provide the impetus that the tourism industry requires to grow and compete with other destinations and this was the raison d’être for the creation of the GTA so as to tackle the myriad of tourism challenges head on, The Gambia Tourism Authority did discharge this mandate with gusto and strategies were put in place to transform The Gambia in to a major tourism destination. According to one tourism expert “while the battle was far from won, the defunct GTA had outperformed the National Tourist Office, which it replaced,” obviously due to a combination of factors, and barely ten years of existence, GTA was also replaced by the GTBoard through an  ACT of Parliament in 2011.

One major game changer was that over time the defunct GTA became self financing thanks to the introduction of the Tourism Development Levy- whereby each and every arriving tourist/visitor is expected to pay a token amount, which was initially collected at the airport, but later from source by the international tour operators and airlines . With these funds as a life line, the defunct GTA was able to recruit high caliber staff and at the same time craft a  destination marketing strategy and launch a very ambitious marketing and promotional campaigns in key source markets and even launched the equivalent of a moon landing by rolling out  a CNN  Sights and Sound Campaign first and second phase in 2005-2006. Just like the moon landing, this was a small step for the GTA but a giant leap for Gambia Tourism. Based on feedback, this campaign, though costly, was worth every  butut spent because destination Gambia had reached the pinnacle of marketing, which used to be the domain of rich destinations such as Malaysia, Thailand, Seychelles and Kenya – with their magical Kenya Campaign.

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Efforts were equally undertaken to diversify the source markets including a foray in to Russia and Poland and at the same time develop regional Tourism and the emergence of regional airlines such as Virgin Airlines, Arik, SLOK Air served as a major catalyst in this regional marketing diversification strategy- the ultimate objective was to penetrate the lucrative Nigerian market and entire the big spending brothers to the Smiling Coast.

With the support of the deft hands and worthy members of the tourism private sector such as the then Chair of the Gambia Hotel Association the suave Mr Alieu Secka now the CEO of GCCI arrival numbers from Nigeria grew steadily and at one point in 2010- 2011 Nigeria emerged as the third most important source market rivaled only by the British and the Dutch. New and trendy resort facilities proliferate, Gambian hotels were classified,  major areas of the Tourism Development Area were electrified, the statistics Unit became functional and very focused in the compilation and dissemination of tourism arrival data, very vital in marketing, overall planning of tourism and exit surveys regularly conducted to assess visitor satisfaction levels , vital for product development. Tourism regulations were streamlined including licensing procedure for tourism business units and relations with these stakeholders elevated to cordial levels.

From Eco- Tourism to Responsible Tourism- Role of ASSET
Eco- tourism made a lot of buzz, and eventually fizzled out, but Makasutu Culture Forest remained a jewel in the crown. However, it is worth pointing out that Eco-tourism as a niche product is still with us, minus the hype. The small scale enterprises under the aegis of ASSET (Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Tourism) became a major force in the industry,. This organization (ASSET) serves an advocacy role to protect the interest and, promote the work of small scale enterprises in tourism ranging from eco- lodge operators, craft market vendors, bicycle rentals, tourist taxi drivers, beach bar operators – to batik and craft market vendors in tourism.

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Their mandate takes a cue from the fact that tourism as an industry should be people centred and should have a human face and the task for us all is to ensure that social, economic and environmental issues affecting tourism are judiciously harmonized for the benefit of both the guests and their hosts in destinations such as The Gambia and is otherwise known as Responsible Tourism. The Gambia has made significant inroads in Responsible Tourism, but according to Mr Adama Bah – an authority in Responsible Tourism -in his article “The Gambia’s Responsible Tourism  ( RT) Credentials as featured in the Second Edition of the “Tourist “The Gambia could be a lead Responsible Tourism destination….. However we need the right Responsible Tourism marketing strategies to reach such a goal. He went on “we have all the ingredients to prepare us for such a challenge… and it is like cooking your “Benechin” you can have all the ingredients you need and a recipe at hand, but if you don’t start the cooking process, those ingredients will remain separate. With the Gambia what we now have are the ingredients and a recipe, we have to start cooking in order to plate and taste that benechin”.

In the meantime the Responsible Tourism policy encourages both hosts and the hosted to be more responsive to each other’s needs, thereby making them more responsible and accountable for their actions in relation to the socio-economic and environmental implications of tourism. This further takes cue from the fact that tourism provides opportunities for human interaction, at its best this relation takes the form of positive host and guest relation, a tradition in African culture and still deeply rooted in Gambian culture. Invariably this is the essence of the Smiling Coast Brand and accordingly – “the core products of The Gambia as a destination will help in depicting its values as a world class tourist destination and accordingly the branding strategy to be adopted will be implemented through value for money, ensuring quality standards with a rich and diverse cultural tourism experience in peaceful and tranquil atmosphere as enshrined in the slogan:  The Smiling Coast of Africa”.

Therefore as a destination we should be cognizant of the fact that “the main pillars of Gambia Tourism are anchored mainly on the exotic, friendly and hospitable people, the rich cultural diversity, agreeable climate and a little bit of wildlife. It is also true that certain African destinations are blessed wide variety of wildlife and related fauna and flora. And these serve as a magnet pulling and enticing tourists on Safari Tours to these exotic destinations”.

Monkey Park – Another Jewel in the Crown
At this juncture I would also join the raging debate about all the controversies surrounding the monkey park and the proposed five star hotel projects. I must admit that I am not privy to all the issues surrounding this project, but if the gleanings of the press are anything to go by especially the Standard Newspaper Editorial of May 4th is anything to go by this issue is not yet laid to rest. I just want to remind who ever s behind this project to understand that the weakest link in Gambia Tourism in terms of demand side products include lack of the Big Five and the paucity of wildlife attractions.

The monkey park should be seen in that context that the park is a jewel in the crown and is here to fulfill a big vacuum in Gambia Tourism. The reason why bumsters and tourist guides find it easy to lure tourists to FATHALA NATURE PARK in Senegal in their droves is the existence of a big demand for wildlife viewing in their natural habitat by tourists, who are becoming nature conscious and environmentally friendly. Given that the Gambia is not able to meet this demand, thus the foray in to Senegal. This should be one more reason why the monkey park should be spared.

Elephant in the Room
However, with all these achievements under its belt, there was a big elephant in the room at the Gambia Tourism Authority and this was lack of stability at top level, which later translated in to weak leadership, given that the first Director General Mr Habib Drammeh – a seasoned manager and institutional development guru was given the marching orders after just one and half year in office, followed by Mr Kaliba Sebghore who served the longest 2004 – 2007, followed briefly by Alieu Mboge – who also served for less than a year and succeeded by MS Jobe as Acting DG, then Fatou Beyai Raji under acting capacity, succeeded by  the doyen MBO Cham of NTO fame, only to be sacked less than a month. Then enter Binta Jobe – the lady with the passion for events, only to be replaced by Fatou Beyai Raji in acting capacity again.  She was the one at the helm of affairs when the then Minister launched a “do or die” crusade to throw GTA in the dustbin of history, apparently due to lack of focus and a more focused body emerged with the same mandate and staff complement to power Gambia Tourism under the able and level headed Honourabe Benjamin Roberts, who was later elevated to Minister of Tourism and Culture.
Red Letter Day

It was a  red letter day when I was again called to duty by the then Permanent Secretary in my capacity as Director of Planning in 2012 to craft the draft inaugural  statement for  Honourable Minister of Tourism and Culture on the  occasion of the official inauguration of the reconstituted  GTBoard Governing Board of Directors, following the dissolution of the maiden board led by Mr Oreme Joiner because in his word “ I have an insider knowledge and institutional memory of the GTA to my finger tips”.

This was an assignment I was delighted to execute and straight away went to work to craft a very pointed and loaded draft statement which articulated the task of the new kid on the block, the role of the tourism private sector was accentuated in the scheme of things and tasked the  newly minted GAMBIA TOURISM BOARD to rise to the new challenge and focus  on marketing, but paying attention to product obsolescence and another weak link in Gambia Tourism – quality and consistency of service- very dear to the Minister’s heart.  The Board is still in place under the chairmanship of Mr Bakary Jammeh.

Invariably for GTBoard to stay course and continue the noble task of tourism development, management and marketing, certain lessons should be learnt amongst these include the need for stability of tenure of top level personnel, mainstreaming of public- private partnership in its operations as well as encourage training and personnel development of the core staff to be able to take tourism to higher heights. This takes a cue from the fact that those who constitute the human resource of the tourism and hospitality industry are an integral part of what makes the industry tick. That is why attracting, educating, developing and managing the industry’s human resource have a direct bearing on the overall success of the industry and at the same time crucial to the efficacy of the GTBoard in discharging its functions and mandate as enshrined in the GTBoard Act, 2011.

The author operates as a freelance tourism and marketing consultant and was formerly Senior Tourism Officer (National Tourist Office)-2000- 2002. Former Director of Marketing, GTA/GTBoard/ (2006-2012) and briefly served as Director of Planning, Ministry of Tourism & Culture (2012)

Author:Lamin Saho

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