Is The Gambia government looking at tourism development critically? The tourism sector is over dependent on investors and tour operators.
During the Ebola outbreak and Covid-19 pandemic, the industry felt the pain. If we had put in place proper mechanisms, we wouldn’t be going around the world with a bowl in hand looking for money to bail us out.
We have a problem. Ask how? The Gambia is becoming more and more dependent on tourism when the type of tourism we have is not under our control – it is controlled from outside and therefore, it is an issue.
The focus of any type of tourism development should mainly be to look at how people can benefit from it.
We have a dilemma because The Gambia tourism industry cannot satisfy the needs and aspirations of the ordinary people.
The focus is placed heavily on looking out for investors. Of course, it is not an industry that we have to always be looking for investors. We should be thinking about how to stand on our feet. We cannot depend entirely on investors. That is unsuitable.
Typically, investors employ people but what are the ordinary Gambians driving from the industry? Do we have an engine to support the small enterprises in this sector? How about the people engaged in the industry? These are people in the sector trying to survive. They need maximum support. They are our people. We have to help them. The industry should look at both formal and informal sectors. It is my humble submission that a one-sided approach to tourism development is not the answer to the problems.
During his State of the Nation Address in September 2021, President Adama Barrow said: “Overall, the estimated loss to the sector (tourism) from January to June 2020 was about D6.7 billion. This figure has undoubtedly increased, noting that many establishments are still struggling to get back to full operation.”
President Barrow added: “In 2020, The Gambia Tourism Board (GTB) recorded 89,232 arrivals. The figure marks a significant decline against the NDP target. In 2021, the arrival figure further decreased to 50,000. Consequently, the loss of revenue to the GTB is high.”
What do you make of this statement by the president of the republic? This is a concern that we should look into. He did not tell us then what his government would do to address the problem. The solution in my view was going around the world calling for a bailout of the industry.
We depend on investors and local tour operators.
The Gambia has been looking at beach tourism for many decades. The focus has always been on beach tourism and this hasn’t changed from day one. The concept of beach tourism has always been maintained in The Gambia. The policy focus for The Gambia has always been on beach tourism – building hotels along the beaches.
It is indisputable that globally, the industry is thriving. Obviously, many countries are doing well thanks to tourism. They reflected on their past and plan for the future. This is the reason for their success. Some countries are now looking at environmental tourism and other forms of tourism, which in my view are more sustainable.
The Gambia Government is not reflecting on how to transform the tourism industry to ensure ordinary Gambians and small businesses benefit from tourism economically.
The sector has the capability of reducing the poverty of the people, employ more people and more people can sell their service in the industry. Simply, we are not taking advantage of the opportunities the tourism industry presents to us.
It is my conviction that every Gambian desires to have a tourism industry that will use more local products. Currently, most of the things the tourists consume are imported. This is undesirable.
We have a tourism sector
Let me first start by asking what benefits are the ordinary people driving from the tourism sector? How are people benefiting economically from tourism? Is all about investors coming and taking control of the wealth while the poverty of the people continues to rise.
We have different workers in this industry. We have artisan crafts people. Therefore, we need to build crafts markets. We have taxi drivers. Therefore, we need taxi parks. We have tour guards, bars and restaurants among others that all engage in the industry. What can we do as a country to empower them? Should they continue to struggle all by themselves without government intervention.
The Gambia government is bragging about the number of tourist visitations and the foreign exchange that is derived from the industry. The intention is all on numbers but emphasis is not placed on the value it has on the ordinary people. What value does that big number have on the lives of ordinary Gambians? Is it helping to take the people out of poverty?
Almost everything that the tourists consume comes from outside The Gambia. Our tourism sector is not linked to our agriculture sector to ensure our local production is enhanced and improved. What value do you have from a big number when its impact on the ordinary Gambian is little?
People and the whole tourism sector are left at the mercy of a few people we call investors. They are taking the wealth while the people are suffering. What is stopping the government from investing?
I am told that a good number of tourists who visit The Gambia are repeat tourists and this is what is helping the situation a bit. This means without the repeat visitors we would have a reduced number of tourists coming to this country. We need innovation in this sector. What’s the point of building hotels while the things tourists consume come from outside? What can we do to ensure there is country wide tourism?
100% success for tourism
The Gambia government claimed that the tourism sector made 100% success. The baseline was the defunct National Development Plan (NDP). I am still astonished and couldn’t comprehend how these people reached this high figure.
I am of the view that success could only be measured on the people not the number of hotels. You target to build a certain number of hotels and you succeeded in building them. Does that mean you have achieved excellence when people continue to suffer?
When people succeed then you can adjudge success for the industry. But how can you talk about excellence when poverty is on the increase?
The stakeholders focus is on the number of visitors. That’s important in terms of foreign exchange. But even if they bring us billions of dalasis, how much is going out? We need to do what mathematicians would call evaluation. You have a big number but its impact on the people is little.
What development has the NDP brought us to warrant 100% success? What is clear and unambiguous is that there has not been innovation in the industry. We are actually simply maintaining the system that has been here for several decades.
It is my submission that there must be diversification of tourism products – improve the products which should go hand-in-hand with marketing.
What has the government done in terms of promoting and enhancing local production to ensure what the tourists consume is from us? What are the investments to ensure we have in-country tourism? Everything we do is coastal tourism. Is this desirable? What are the investments in improving the infrastructure of infrastructures like lodges to ensure they meet certain standards? The Gambia government may confiscate people’s licences but is that the way forward? You only succeed in killing the person’s dream of growing big in the sector.
The infrastructure should be up to standard and where the people are struggling, the government should come in to support. What loans are the government providing to support the small enterprises in the industry? The bank loan charges are high and The Gambia is not a desirable place for small businesses.
What is the government doing to promote in-country tourism? The people in pre-urban settlements should be benefitting from tourism. What is being done in this regard?
I wish to state that we are dependent on a type of tourism that is dependent on a few operators. It is obvious that the type of tourism we have is packaged holidays. We depend heavily on few tour operators to bring the tourists.
The government was talking about year-round tourism. It has stopped talking about it now. The reason for the complete silence is striking. The industry is dependent on outsiders. When they bring tourists we clap and when they don’t we cry. This is a sad reality.
Therefore, the 100% success claim, in my considered view, is not accurate. It is a made up. The people in this industry are suffering in this industry. The focus should be on what you can do and not made up success. The focus now should be on the people. What is the government planning to do to ensure that the people benefit from tourism economically? What support is in the pipeline to help small enterprises?
The author is the president of the Young Journalists Association of The Gambia.