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Friday, October 23, 2020

Orbiting through Gambia tourism: in search of the tourism product

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In the last installment of this series, focus was on the search for the ideal tourist and attempts were made to proffer various definitions of a tourist from the perspective of relevant international tourism organizations such as the UNWTO and key tourism destinations and how this definitions evolved over time ,to take due cognizance of the evolving dynamics of tourism. It was pointed out that tourism as a global industry has been evolving in leaps and bounds due to changes in life style and rapid technological trends. The need for tourism destinations as well as tourism business units to pay attention to these changing trends were emphasized, cognizant of the fact that |”in such an environment the competitive advantage of enterprises will depend on their capacity for innovation and creation of added value in their products and services”. Certain success stories at the local level were cited to depict the fact that several of the more innovative hoteliers and other tourism entrepreneurs are crafting niche accommodation facilities, products and rethinking holiday ideas to make the most of the new demand at upper end of tailor made products.

At this juncture, it is vital to ask the question “what is the product”? It is apparent that the word product is an all-inclusive term for what is offered to consumers. According to Kotler, Bowen and Makens (1999-274) “ a product is anything that can be offered to a market for attention, acquisition , use or consumption that might satisfy a want or need— other name for a product would be the offer, value package or benefit bundle’. The erudite Professor of Tourism Management Dr Ernie Heath in his book “Strategic Destination Marketing: Principles and Practice” underscores that “from a destination marketing perspective the tourism product encompasses the total spectrum of the tourism experience, including accommodation, natural and other resources, entertainment services, transportation, food and beverages, recreation and other attractions”. He went further to elaborate that” the package tour offered for sale at an inclusive price by the tour operator and bringing together all these elements is a simplest example of a tourist product”. However it must be pointed out that an individual travelling alone and buying separately the available facilities and services composes his own product. What is striking is the fact that each of these components is supplied by individual tourism business units such as hotels, restaurants, airlines, or other suppliers and is offered directly to the tourist by them to constitute the “total” tourism product offering and experiences.

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The Gambia – sea, sun and sand destination
It is worth pointing out that since the inception of tourism destination Gambia was seen as an ideal place to escape the harsh winter months of Scandinavia where Europeans would enjoy not only sea, sun and sand, but also experience the excitement of an authentic Africa holiday.

The fact that the lion share of these tourists are on leisure holidays (96%) attracted by sea, sun and sand explains the reason for concentration of this type of tourism along the coastal strip including all the tourism infrastructure geared to meeting the needs of tourists in search of the winter sun and overall marketing efforts, especially by the international tour operators. This entails packaging and branding the Smiling Coast as a destination of glorious winter sun, gorgeous beaches endowed with exquisite resorts (hotels) and related complementary facilities along the coast. However it is worth pointing out that the bulk of the hotel stock (41) ranging from 2 – 5 star categories are all located within close proximity to each other, and of late there has been a proliferation of two, three star hotels in the Tourism Development Area. This implies that , there is an over concentration of hospitality establishments scattered across the length and breadth of our tourism landscape, with limited high quality bed stock and limited complimentary facilities to adequately cater to the needs of discerning and more adventurous tourists.

This is “injurious to attracting quality and high spending tourists”. Having said that is worth pointing out that certain budget tourists and backpackers fancy this type of facilities and there is reasonable justification to develop hospitality outfits to suit the taste and pocket of our diverse clientele. This is amply captured in the foreword of the latest Gambia Hotel Association Guide, where it has been stated that “the hospitality industry has witnessed a transformation as more upscale properties and related infrastructure have emerged to add to the stock of high value and sophisticated hotel properties in the tourism development area”. It further revealed that “we offer a range of accommodation from five star resorts, to budget hotels in the two star and three star categories. Thanks to this wide variety of properties there is something to suit the budget and taste of all categories of visitors and tourists”. It concluded by crowing that “we continuously seek to surpass the expectations of our guests, never losing sight of the fact that they do have a choice”.

Well said, and I must add that indeed destination Gambia has a rich stock of trendy and exquisite resort facilities especially in the four and five star categories and some 3 star facilities, but the challenge is for us to rethink holiday ideas and craft innovative products to suit the taste and pamper the discerning tourist. A case in point is the recently unveiled spa and wellness facility at the Kairaba Beach Hotel – a leading five star hotel, because, according to the Director of Sales and Marketing “a holiday with sea, sun and sand has now become synonymous with wellness and pampering. The Kairaba Spa was inaugurated in November 2015 to simply pamper the discerning guests. “Renovated and refurbished in style for good taste, it has brought a breadth of fresh air to the resort “revealed Ms Abby Sarr – the Sales and Marketing Manager. All other hospitality outfits should follow suit to address the issue of product obsolescence in the accommodation segment of Gambia tourism. The range and scope of the 30 trendy villas at the Sand Beach Holiday Resort located on the serene Kotu Beach all branded such as monkey villas, crocodile villas, kingfisher Villas, crocodile villas and Dolphin Villas is another fine example of innovation in hospitality.
Diversifying the product mix
The Tourism Development Master plan gave lot of prominence to product development and recommended a three pronged approach (’boutique strategy’) and these include “ broadening of the product base and the market segments, diversifying the market base to attract niche tourists, developing new and exciting products by adequately addressing the emerging needs of the huge repeater base of 52 %. Promoting higher standards of customer care, supported by quality training and tampering with the negative social effects of tourism” were key focused areas. The challenge is to open up the geographic scope of tourism and upgrade the rural tourism facilities especially the up-country lodges totaling 31 so as to complement the resort facilities. This would also entail improving the range and variety of excursions, which are mostly sightseeing tours packaged mainly by category A Ground Tour Operators. This would call for a bit of creativity and innovation in terms of packaging tours that are truly reflective of the changing trends in tourism as according to one tourism expert “the traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventures, of experience. The tourist is passive, he expects interesting to happen to him. He goes “sight- seeing.” Thus our goal should be to craft innovative products with a view to luring the discerning and trendy traveler/tourist and not the old fashioned mass tourist.

It was against this background that the Responsible Tourism Policy underscores that ‘The Gambia is its people. The diverse people of the Gambia are what distinguished us from many other sea, sun and sand destinations. The cultural heritage of our people is our primary tourism asset”. This policy has as its lofty vision ‘the need to make The Gambia a better place to visit and a better place to live in- recognizing that it is the interaction between guests and hosts in a secure and enjoyable environment that is the experience of the Gambia and which encourages people to return.”. In line with this policy, myriad of initiatives have emerged and products developed to create the space and the opportunity for mutually beneficial host guest interaction, thus increasing the impact of tourism and increasing the multiplier effects.
Yabuoy Home Cooking – An Innovative Product

New forms of tourism have developed over the past years as a growing number of travelers are looking for deeper cultural experience. Consequently the traditional forms of tourism such as sea side holidays and safaris are giving way to a much more culture centered approach to travelling… According to Pierre Thiam – a renown Senegalese Chef based in the US “food is at the heart of this cultural experience. Food is the biggest draw of all the cultural tourism experiences such as museums, galleries, festivals, pilgrimage sites. Indeed culinary tourism is the fastest growing niche in the industry. People are travelling in search of special cuisines and extra flavors”.

To the Sales Director of the Eyes 2 Market – GTA/GTBoard Marketing Representative Germany “in the Gambia a special event for visitors is the opportunity to attend a cooking course in a typical Gambian household. Ida Cham Njai opens her house in Brufut for tourists to spend a day in a typical Gambian household and enjoy local culinary delights. Meeting place is Ida’s house”.

This innovative product, launched by Ida Cham – a doyen of the industry some years ago, has developed rapidly to become a flagship product and on the lips of many a tourist to the Smiling Coast and even featured by leading and mainstream tour operators such as the Gambia Experience, TUI and other niche tour operators etc. It has become one of the most sought after products in the Smiling Coast and what is even more striking is the fact that this product has been designed, produced, packaged and operated entirely by Ida who drew inspiration from her many years of experience working in the hospitality industry in many capacities including Guest Relations Manager – Senegambia Beach Hotel, General Manager, Makasutu Culture Forest, Omahan Hotel in Sukuta and many other hospitality hotspots.. According to Ida “this is a unique product and the feedback are always positive… I sound out there opinion by encouraging them to write comments and suggestions on a guest book at the centre. The centre is always well looked after by keeping with high quality and hygienic standards, Ida revealed.

‘The morning begins with selecting, choosing, and clothing a typical dress from the Gambia. Nicely trimmed, one goes shopping to the local market. Ida explains and selects the vegetables,, fruit, fish or meat for the day menu. As soon as all the ingredients for the planned menu are in the basket all returned to Ida’s house. After a refreshing drink of wonjo and baobab juice, cooking starts under Ida’s guidance. Lunch is served at one o’clock while Ida tells a story about the traditional way of life in The Gambia in a relaxed atmosphere. After dessert with various fruits Attaya is prepared. At the end of the tea ceremony in the afternoon, your hands are painted with henna.”

It is worth pointing out that this product blends in the exquisite local dishes, culinary delights, sea food which we have in abundance, local beverage, traditional charm and dress including local ambience and produces a cocktail of wonderful tourism product, which has become one of the most sought after products in The Smiling Coast. The icing on the cage in my view is the GTBoard Food and Beverage festival and I always believe that this festival is here to amplify the message and promise of YA BOUY Home Cooking that our exquisite delicacies and culinary delights also constitute our unique selling points and should be given prominence in the scheme of things.

This innovative product revolving around food is trending, given that tourists crave novel experiences in new destinations and want to know what there is for them to do in a destination and accordingly active steps need to be taken to create the mix of products that appeal to our visitors especially the first timers (48% according to authoritative sources, .

Destination Gambia – One River Country
As earlier alluded to destination Gambia’s reputation as a one river country(the majestic River Gambia), relatively rich fauna and flora coupled with the conviviality of the people, living in peace with each other within a limited geographic space have created the perfect setting for demand led tourism development – tourism development which is focused on the needs, expectations and wants of the tourist segments to cater to the tailor made needs of the target segments such as bird watchers and other nature based segments such as fishing, adventure tourists, educational and professional visitors, eco-minded tourists, heritage /cultural tourists, conference incentive groups, educational and professional visitors, business travelers. This is line with major trends in tourism development – tourism of the individual and micro segments as opposed to mass/package tourism.

Meanwhile the Responsible Tourism Policy has paved the way by acknowledging that “we recognize that there is increasing interest in the inland area along the river and that over the next decade tourism will develop in the rural areas, the bird watching sector will grow as well as other opportunities to experience the country side and to interact with local communities.” At the same time the Tourism Development Master plan also recommended the gradual expansion of tourism development areas and these to be developed on theme basis with well-defined trails in each TDA in tandem with local communities to complement the existing TDA, and here emphasis is on the development of the River Gambia as a product icon.

These vital recommendations are yet to be implemented, due to a combination of factors, however of recent very notable steps have been taken to spruce and spice up the product to underpin the changing face of Gambia Tourism. The Juffureh-Albreda Revamp Project, UNESCO supported Kankurang Centre in Janjanbureh, Gambia International Bird Festival, Food and Beverage Festival, and the Gambia International Fishing Competition, refreshing Ndemban ecotourism project, COMCEC Craft Development Project as well as the proposed Craft Village and emergence of certain boutique hotels and trendy eco-lodges as well as self-catering apartments are all steps in the right direction..

The rolling out of these projects and initiatives geared towards spicing up the product profile of destination Gambia is a step in the right direction and worthy of commendation. The International Bird Festival in my view has the potential to put destination Gambia on the tourism map for all the good reasons given that this small gem of a land boasts up to 500 bird species and well known within the international birding circuit . Accordingly the Director General GTBOARD during the launching of the maiden international bird festival in Tendaba late last year accentuated that “already the Smiling Coast is frequented by a diverse range of seasoned and discerning birders to indulge in their favorite passion such as bird watching in the various birding destinations, which are rated very highly and preserved with care by the Gambia Government.”
He added that “this upward trend in niche tourism points to a certain potential, which the GTBoard and by extension the Ministry of Tourism and Culture is ready to fully engage in our quest to not only diversify our product range, but increase the geographic scope of tourism and to make tourism more people friendly, whilst increasing the impact. This diversification also entails a gradual shift in focus from the traditional package tour business and a gradual foray in to niche tourism and focusing on nature based tourism and developing niche products such as bird watching and related products”. The festival is therefore a well thought out initiative and deserves all the support to reach even higher heights given that according to one travel writer “The Gambia is not only a land of smiles, but of birds as well.”

Conclusion
Destination Gambia boasts a myriad of products including the luxury and glamour of our finest hospitality outfits, culinary delights, and tranquil river trips plus lodges blended with land based excursions to accord visitors an insight in to the rich cultural diversity of this small gem of a land called the Smiling Coast. In the city, in the village along the river and the hinterland of the country – the message is just get involved to discover the wonderful Smiling Coast product – thus the saying “the Gambia Tourism Product is the whole country”.

Lamin Saho is a 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)

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