The Tourism Development Master Plan- a blue print for sustainable tourism development has challenged tourism stakeholders to strive to make The Gambia a “distinctive 21st century African tourist destination, rather than one that is a copy of the Mediterranean tourist destination of the last century”. Simply put, in order for destination Gambia to become competitive and not to be overshadowed in the crowded market place of international tourism, deliberate efforts have to be deployed to make the “fuel wood necessary for tourism to spark’.
In view of the foregoing there has been a felt need to undertake development not only at the demand level, but the supply side as well. However, it is a given that the provision of supply side support systems is primarily the responsibility and purview of Government in destinations and this is in line with best practice in destination management. While tourism products are directly experienced and consumed by visitors and tourists, these need to be complemented by a range of indirect systems and services that are vital to facilitating an enjoyable and hassle free experience. These supply side support systems include service quality levels (human interfaces and operating standards), intangibles (safety, environmental integrity, and general destination upkeep), and tourism related infrastructure (public transport, airport, roads, utilities, road signs and so on and tourism information networks and systems (information offices, electronically accessible information services, market intelligence and planning information).
In destination Gambia, a lot of attention is being paid to the intangibles and security is of paramount importance in the supply side support mix. This is critical because peace and tranquility are the bedrock of tourism development and invariably according to one seasoned operative in the industry “security and stability is the cornerstone of any tourist destination”.
As a global industry, tourism is on the march despite challenges at economic level exacerbated by growing terrorist threat at international and regional levels. Potential in the tourism sector is undeniable and the African continent hosted staggering 58million visitors in 2015 and this is poised to increase to 134 million arrivals to the region by 2030 based on tangible forecasts. As the flow of tourists increase there is greater need for tourism stakeholders to pay particular attention to certain key variables shaping tourism development both locally and the global level, and these include amongst others:
· Security and safety- a sine qua non for tourism development.
· Demand by discerning tourists of value for money and quality products.
· Effectiveness of marketing plans and strategies which should be well integrated and focused including the use of e.marketing and e.promotion platform.
· Effective distribution channels and strengthening presence in key source markets.
· Enlarge the capacity to communicate effectively with tourists in their own languages hence the appointment of marketing and PR representatives in key markets and rolling out of translated versions of marketing literature. It is gratifying to point out that the GTBoard- the implementing arm of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture has taken tangible steps to address each of the foregoing and is work in progress.
Tourism – the security dimension
Success in each of these foregoing thematic areas requires substantial financial commitment, especially in the domain of security and safety. Tourism security may be viewed from different perspectives but in the Gambian context tourism security may be considered under two broad parameters – security of the tourist (the people travelling from one place to another for diverse motivations such as adventure, shopping, vacation, education, research, religion, business and or visit to relative and friends (VRF) etc, and the security of all the resources invested in tourism.
Personal safety often comes first for any traveler. No one is willing or likely to travel to a country where personal safety and security are compromised. It is generally recognized that the Gambia is safe and secure enough a country to visit, except for a brief period during the post election impasse. This attribute, simply put, is one of our unique selling points (USP). But security is not a demand only of tourists, of course, it is vital for locals as well and the recent dramatic events leading to the installation of the current government is a good case in point. During the political impasse, for a brief period the Smiling Coast turned crying coast, and the people known for hosting tourists and entertaining them for nearly five decades became themselves refugees and hosted in neighboring countries, as the period witnessed the mass exodus of people, only rivaled by the exodus of Moses and his people to the promised land.
TDA security challenges
The security challenges within the context of the Tourism Development Area (TDA) are many and varied. However, the major cases are manifested as follows:
· Pestering of visitors by able bodied youth (bumsters) and school going children apparently requesting for favors and other benefits
· Harassment of tourists by various operatives and service providers in the TDA.
· Aggressive attitude of certain operatives towards tourists and syndicates such as “promoters” in their quest to entice tourists to patronize certain hospitality outfits and services in the TDA.
Role and mandate of
Tourism Security Unit -TSU
In quest to tackle these security challenges head on, the Tourism Security Unit was set up by Government in 2003 and the author has been privileged to serve as secretary to the special high level taskforce set up by one of the most dynamic ministers of tourism in the former administration- Honorable YANKUBA TOURAY, tasked with the mandate to draw the architecture, mandate and modus operanda of the proposed tourism security unit.
It was during one of those marathon sessions of the high level taskforce that I realized how grounded the then Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Colonel Baboucarr Jatta was on security issues and learnt a few things about military and security strategy, military logistics and regimentation, as well as the role of planning in security. Given my background (international relations) and high level of exposure, the mainly security members of the committee learnt one or two things from me as well. I revealed to their astonishment that according to my role model DAG Hammershold – late UN Secretary General during the Congo crisis in early 1960s “if you want peace, prepare for war” and further pointed out that according to the same finest diplomat of his generation “faced with the world of others one learns that he who has fully absorbed what his own world has to offer is best equipped to profit by what extends beyond its frontiers—the road inwards could become the road outwards’. I told the eminent taskforce members that this was the basis of my fortitude and the main motivation to give my best both as secretary to the high level interface and one of the senior representatives of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to this highly relevant security taskforce.
I worked closely with over six ministers of the ancien regime, but no one impressed me to a higher pitch than Yankuba Touray – one of the original junta members, but a smart guy with a suave personality, who understood the role of tourism in the national economy and consequently during his tenure as Secretary of State for Tourism and Culture, this vital sector witnessed a renaissance, given that he was highly cognizant of the need to develop both the demand and supply side products of the tourism plant including the setting up of the Gambia Tourism Authority, consolidation of the tourist guide scheme, upgrading the road network in the Senegambia Strip and the installation of the first set of street lights in the TDA, stretching from Senegambia to the Traffic Light junction, introduction of the tourism development levy to support tourism development, undertaking both supply side and demand led developments in the twin villages of Juffureh and Albreda, setting up of the tourism security unit (TSU) and events such as the national tourism week, national tourism merit awards, and the International Roots festival received added impetus during his tenure and these events did indeed raise the profile of tourism at the national level.
This shrewd minister equally understood the critical role of destination marketing and the need to adopt pro tourism measures at macro level such as easing of air port landing charges, rolling out of special incentive packages for international tour operators, easing of visa regimes, and reducing the cost of aviation fuel to lure airlines in the drive to boost all year round tourism or simply put “green season.”.
In one of the high level tourism convergences at the Kairaba Beach Hotel, this suave and articulate Secretary of State challenged his team to embark on intensive and targeted marketing campaigns, because as he put it “ if coca cola- a well established global brand can spend millions of Dollars on marketing, why not destination Gambia’. He accordingly gave directives for the constitution of a high level task force on marketing and trade fairs in particular, and I was duly selected to serve as executive secretary and lead coordinator. Credit goes to this taskforce for laying the ground for the crafting and rolling out of the first ever destination marketing strategy for The Gambia.
In my humble opinion this was the high point of Minister Touray’s foray in to Gambian tourism, but the wanton and massive destruction of beach bars under his watch, will be rated as one of the low points, even though the official justification that overtime some beach bars metamorphosed in to dens for bumsters was equally tenable.
The Tourism Security Unit (TSU) was eventually set up and operational to this date, another brainchild of Minister Touray and has since been serving the tourism industry in providing vital security support and will continue to play a prominent role in tourism given the emergence of various and emerging security challenges both locally and the global level. The original mandate of the TSU, amongst others, includes:
· Creating an enabling environment through tighter security in TDA and other areas frequented by tourists, to ensure their free movement without fear, harassment and intimidation at all given times.
· To build visitor confidence and enhance the image of destination Gambia.
· To deter the illegal activities of undesirable elements in the TDA and other areas where tourists frequent.
· To ensure the establishment of an adequate tourist security framework nationwide.
The TSU therefore has a daunting task to ensure hassle free tourism in Destination Gambia. Since its inception, the TSU has approached this mandate with robustness and their presence in the TDA and other areas frequented by tourists is very much appreciated by the tourism stakeholders.
The tourism stakeholders are appreciative, for a range of reasons, but mainly, due to the high profile role of security, which has assumed added meaning for tourism development in the light of the occasional terrorist attacks targeting hospitality outfits in the sub region.. On the other hand the TSU is also very much appreciative of the support rendered to the security outfit by the Tourism stakeholders such as the GTBoard, Gambia Hotel Association (GHA) etc in terms of logistical support, sharing of valuable intelligence and other vital support to enable the TSU discharge its mandate without major hitches.
However, for the TSU to continue to operate effectively, that high level support and partnership should be maintained at all times, “given the evolving and varied nature of the challenges to include environmental issues , child sex tourism and the emergence of terrorism as a global, regional and national threat”.
The TSU intensely need public support to be able to discharge its mandate effectively. Everyone who cares for the future of Gambia Tourism should appreciate and understand that the rules and operational procedure of the TSU are intended to serve the wider public interest and the welfare and safety of our coveted guests.
Lamin Saho is 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)
By Lamin Saho