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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Gambia’s tourist industry reels from Ebola fallout

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He has a wife and two small children to feed, but he’s currently sitting at home, jobless. 

He usually starts work at the end of September, just before the tourist season starts, but he hasn’t worked for more than three months as a result of the Ebola crisis.

The virus itself may not have spread to the Gambia, but its impact is being felt – holidaymakers are being put off from visiting the country.

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“I normally work in the tourist season, but since the Ebola outbreak some hotels haven’t been opening,” Mr Seka says.

“Or if they have opened they are only employing half of their staff. It’s really affecting me and my family as I’m the bread winner.

“I support seven people altogether. I don’t know when I’m going to start work again and a lot of my friends are in the same position as me.

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“Maybe things will get better but at the moment it’s not looking good.”

Tourism accounts for 40% of The Gambia’s annual economic output, and 60% of all tourists come from the UK.

Over 20,000 people are employed by the sector and rely on the usually busy tourist season from October to late March.

Tourists come to enjoy the miles of golden coastline, long hours of sunshine, and the balmy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Many of the main holiday hotspots are located around the estuary of the River Gambia, where fishing boats, fresh juice sellers and restaurants line the beach. 

The Gambia, which is almost completely surrounded by Senegal, is known as the Smiling Coast. In a normal tourist season nearly 200,000 people choose it as their holiday destination.

But this year hasn’t been a normal season. According to the UN, tourism has dropped by 60%, which will significantly affect the country’s economy.

Ms Ade Mamonyane Lekoetje, the UN resident co-ordinator, believes at best only 70,000 tourists will visit the country in this season, and as a result The Gambia’s target of 7.5% economic growth for the year will be missed.

Political instability in the country could also deter visitors. 

On Monday, two men were charged in the US with attempting to overthrow President Yahya Jammeh, after Gambian authorities said they had thwarted a coup attempt on 30 December.

Mr Jammeh was abroad when gunfire broke out near the presidential palace in the capital, Banjul.


‘People are frightened’

Chris Rowles, managing director of holiday company The Gambia Experience, says the Ebola outbreak has decimated the tourism industry. 

After three years of steady growth in the sector, he believes it may not have seen the worst yet.

“We own a hotel in the Gambia and for the last three years it’s been operating at 80-95% occupancy. At the moment it’s 30%. 

“People are just too scared to go over. I think it will take at least three years for it to recover.”

There are still some tourists going to the Gambia but they too can see it’s not as busy. 

Peter Clarke from Merseyside has been holidaying in The Gambia for several years and so had no problems coming back. 

“People are frightened to come here because people hear that Ebola is in West Africa and think it affects all the countries.

“People don’t realise that West Africa is 12 times the size of the UK. Tourism this year is down on what it’s usually like – there were a lot more tourists here in 2013.” 

Janet from North Wales says: “Going on holiday to The Gambia was recommended to us by a friend. But a lot of our family were worried about me and my partner coming over and thought The Gambia had Ebola. But we looked it up and found out the facts.”

The Gambia is Ebola-free and the government has introduced Ebola screening on its borders.

People have their temperatures taken when they get off planes.

There are lots of signs at airports which show what the symptoms of Ebola are. There is also a telephone hotline in place for those who think they might be affected by the virus. 


Regional impact

Being one of Africa’s smallest countries, with a population of just under two million, and without many natural resources, The Gambia is highly dependent on tourism and its peanut exports.

Yet other countries in West Africa that are not so dependent on tourism are faring much better. 

Emanuele Santi, chief regional economist at the African Development Bank, says companies are still investing in West African countries.

“Investors’ appetite for Africa has not been reduced,” he says.

“Many consider Ebola as a tail risk, a very marginal risk. But there is concern for countries with smaller and weaker economies compared to the African tiger economies such as Senegal and Nigeria.”

But Buba Seka doesn’t live in Senegal or Nigeria and has to provide for his family.

He says if people don’t come “it will be crisis for The Gambia and for many people who depend on tourism directly and indirectly.

“Tourism also helps to boost the currency, so the price of rice and oil comes down, which is good. We don’t have any cases of Ebola and everyone who comes here is screened.” 

Mr Seka lives in hope that he will find a job, and is optimistic for the future. “I want people to tell their friends they can come to The Gambia.”


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