By Lamin Saho
It is often said that tourism is an opportunity for people to do better and in the Gambian context this vital industry has been in the forefront of national development endeavours in such vital areas as employment and wealth generation, preservation of cultural heritage, environmental preservation and overall efforts at poverty eradication.. Tourism in turn is a key beneficiary of a balanced ecosystem and cultural patrimony given that most of the tourism products are anchored on these endowments and patrimony, As such at the local as well as the global levels, tourism is right in the middle of efforts to ensure sustainable development with view to making the world a better place to live and visit. The pride of place given to tourism in the realization of global sustainable development efforts is a clear testimony to this.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is the global blueprint for development and has been adopted a couple of years ago, September 2015 to be precise, dubbed “17 goals to change the world” and ever since Governments the world over have been making tangible efforts to realize the lofty goals and objectives embedded in this forward looking blueprint so as to make the world a better place. This development blueprint is more inclusive than its predecessor – the MDGs and sectors such as tourism have been given a pride of place to contribute towards making the world a better place to live and visit. This dovetails with the African tourism agenda- an ambitious forward looking agenda to make Africa a great place to live and visit.
African tourism agenda
The main thrust of the SDGs as these relate to the African tourism agenda as articulated by the UNITED Nations World Tourism Organisation include travel facilitation to improve air connectivity, open skies including development of online visa application and visa on arrival systems, strengthening of tourism statistics’ system so as to develop appropriate mechanisms to collect tourism statistics for the region, respect for the socio cultural development of peoples (promoting cultural heritage), the conservation of the environment(preserving biodiversity), promoting innovation and technology in tourism, crisis communication and to attract responsible investment with a view to increasing the impact of tourism and to ensure that the people become permanent beneficiaries of tourism.
For the tourism fraternity nearer home the SDGs could not have been articulated at a more pivotal time as efforts are ongoing in rebranding and repositioning the Gambia as the destination that is out to respect the socio cultural development of our people, the conservation of the environment and to attract responsible investment for sustainable development. All in tandem with the overall goal of ‘promoting inclusive and culture centered tourism for sustainable development’ as encapsulated in the National Development Plan.
The realization of these lofty goals is the challenge of our time – to ensure that tourism becomes the engine of growth of this country, but at the same time also cognizant of the need to broaden the benefits of this sector and increasing the impact so that people can do better. At the same time, minimizing the negative impacts, so that tourism operates in harmony with the local environment, community and cultures, so that these become permanent beneficiaries and not victims of tourism development. We owe this to ourselves and generations yet unborn.
Sustainable and responsible tourism
Accordingly “The Gambia’s tourism policy has been realigned to give consideration to the role of host communities in tourism development based on the serious implications that communities perceive tourism development as having a direct impact in improving their personal and community lives. The Gambia can boast of being one of the few countries to articulate a sustainable and responsible tourism policy, thus enabling interventions such as social inclusion, interactive decision making and empowerment of small enterprises in tourism.” This is with a view to ensuring that the benefits from tourism trickle down to the communities and products developed to encourage biodiversity and cultural preservation such as the Kartong Coast Project, Ndemban Ecotourism project, birding in the wetlands and forest reserves such as the Tanji Bird Reserve, promoting a calendar of festivals rooted in ancient and exotic cultural heritage of the charming Gambian people such as the Kartong International Festival, including the UNESCO Kankurang project as well as the Juffureh Revamp Project geared towards enriching visitor experience in the heritage sites of Juffureh and Albreda.- in line with the overall objective of “promoting an inclusive and culture centered tourism for sustainable development”, as encapsulated in the National Development Plan.
In the same vein, modest gains have been registered in the development of forward and backward linkages with other productive sectors of the economy such as horticulture and agriculture. This has been underscored in the National Development Plan and today most hospitality establishments consume a huge chunk of home grown products and through this the trickle down benefits of tourism are increased thus advancing the sustainability agenda. This is all the more important given that many tourists now seek intensive travel experience, where real things matter and crave real life encounters with local cultures and people.
At the same time various pro-poor initiatives have been given pride of place in the tourism scheme of things such as the tourist guide scheme, Craft market development scheme, tourist taxi scheme, fruit juice sellers scheme, fruit vendors on the beach scheme, bird watching guides scheme, have been rolled out over the years and appropriate training programmes undertaken to ensure not only quality service delivery but also so that more people especially the vulnerable segments of society benefit from tourism such as women and youth as much as possible. As such most people particularly the youth and women are proud to be associated with tourism and their statuses in society have been enhanced and are able to earn decent income to sustain their families, a key objective of the SDGs and the National Development Plan..
Public – Private Partnership – key to unleashing tourism potential
Given the dynamic nature of tourism development, public private partnership is being forged to leverage on this growing trend for sustainable tourism development. This new focus on sustainability is driving changes in both product development and tourism marketing and promotion, creating an additional challenge for the tourism industry to maintain or increase market share in an ever more competitive global market.
As such, the “tourism industry has put more attention to the private sector as a partner in creating and maintaining sustainable tourism programs. Through “public private partnerships” (PPPs), private entities contribute financing, management expertise, technology, and other resources and GTBoard provides land, technical expertise and other resources which can support the development of sustainable tourism”. .
In the same vein initiatives such as the YEP Project have also been rolled out focusing on small scale community tourism initiatives with emphasis on the youth and women and ensuring that the needs of the communities, vulnerable groups and small scale enterprises in tourism are factored in tourism development so that they become permanent beneficiaries of this lucrative sector. This is another very relevant objective of the NDP.
Tourism Statistics – Vital for Planning
In the vital area of strengthening tourism statistical system, destination Gambia has made impressive gains in this front given that a functional tourism research and statistics system is in place to collect and analyze relevant statistics for tourism planning and to appreciate the economic contribution of tourism. The harmonization and reconciliation of these processes from an economic perspective to better address strategic objectives with the wider region under the aegis of ECOWAS are being explored as a key focus area of the SDGs.
This is in line with the lofty vision and goal of the tourism authorities to make the Gambia an all round destination and to attract the ideal high spending tourist who will not only visit the Smiling Coast, but leave a positive footprint, a tourist who will also be “rewarded with a great experience in the Smiling Coast and whose visit will in turn lead to growth in tourism numbers, extended stays, increased spend, reduced seasonality and improved geographic spread.” This encompasses the broader strategic goals of the SDGs for the tourism sector and the Gambia is right in the middle of this crusade to make destination Gambia a better place to live and visit.
The author served as Director of Marketing at the defunct GTA and GTBoard and Director of Planning at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, currently on sick leave.