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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Vision 2020: 18 years on, 6 years to go, 300,000 tourists away

“We were going somewhere warm and when we got here, we realised that here has got everything we wanted for a good holiday,” Mrs Gridley said. 

She and her husband were among a handful of tourists laying by the pool side and working on their tropical tan at Kairaba, a five-star hotel on the idyllic coast of Kololi, where they are regulars.

The English travelled extensively to the Caribbean, India and Thailand, before discovering Gambia, a small, little-know tourism destination that prides itself as the ‘Smiling Coast of Africa’. 

“Then, we decided that there is no point flying nine hours away to get what we could get here,” Mrs Gridley added. “So we keep coming here every year.”

In a recent interview with The Standard, the minister of tourism, Fatou Jobe-Njie has disclosed that the country had punched above its weight, and registered beyond the targeted 200,000 tourist arrivals for this season. 

This includes young Britons, Ben Ryan and his partner, Rachel Slater. On their first time in the country, the Britons said their Gambian experience would remain with them for a long time.

“There are not many countries I have the desire to return to for a second time, but The Gambia is most definitely one of them, and I plan to stay at the Kairaba once again,” Ryan, who had visited North Africa, said. 

Ryan and Slater spent their time visiting national parks and immersing themselves fully in the local culture. 

“We’ve always talked about coming to Africa, and The Gambia is one of the places that was affordable and offered the wide variety of activities we were looking for,” Slater said. 

 

Harding’s adventure

Formal tourism is still considered to be in its infancy in The Gambia. It was introduced in 1965 by a Swedish entrepreneur called Bertil Harding. This was shortly after the country gained independence from Britain. 

Harding’s company had brought Swedish tourists to Las Palmas, Spain, in search of tropical sun. However, the place was found to be too cold. He then flew to Senegal to see what prospects lay further south. To his disappointment, the situation in Dakar was not a great improvement on Las Palmas. This was when his attention was drawn to small Gambia on the map which he found was an English speaking country.

Despite warning that the country was bushy, underdeveloped, Harding nonetheless rented a car and drove overland, eventually reaching Banjul. He found a place to bed for the night at the Atlantic Hotel, which was the only hotel at the time. The next morning he woke up early, and to his surprise, he saw the sun shining brightly. Through the window, he also saw the virtually unspoiled beach on the river bank. In his own account of the adventure, as published in a 1969 edition of the now-defunct Nation newspaper in The Gambia, Harding explained how he rushed down the steps in excitement and ran to the beach where he took a dip in the warm water and ran all over the place.

The Swede cruised the River Gambia back to Dakar where he caught a flight to Las Palmas and back to Sweden to bring the first batch of Swedish tourists to The Gambia. 

Tourism soon became a significant sector in the economic life of newly-independent African country, whose possibility of making it through the comity of nations was greatly doubted – a perception informed, at the time, by limited resources, human or material, to steer wheels of the government headed by an animal scientist, Dawda Kairaba Jawara. 

Today, tourism is the largest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product, after agriculture. Its gains are not limited to fueling the formal economy, but also the informal economy. According to World Bank, tourism contributes 14 percent of the GDP and employs over 100,000 of the country’s 1.8 million people. 

“Some friends of ours had been here and they recommended us to go to the villages to take some nice things,” Rachel, the young British woman said. “We had a whole bag of colour and pencils to the local students. They sang a song for us. It was nice.”

 

Beyond the sun, sea and sand 

Tourist destinations across the world virtually offer similar products and services, the most popular attractions being the sun, sand and sea. Destination Gambia however, has its unique selling propositions in a global tourism market. 

“You have a guaranteed tropical weather, short flight of five to six hours and no time difference with the UK,” said Mr Gridley.

Besides, compared to other competing tourist destinations in Africa, The Gambia is relatively peaceful and crime free. “Trust me, it’s safer here than in London,” says Rachel Slater, Ben’s partner. 

For Adama Bah, a seasoned expert in tourism industry, one of the biggest strengths the country has in luring tourists is the attractions of the low-meandering river Gambia. 

“The Gambia is no different from an area in Spain that has sun, sand and sea,” he told me over a cup of coffee and meat pie at Asset Bantaba, a restaurant owned by the association of small business enterprises of the industry. 

He added: “So, what you need as a destination is to look at your unique selling propositions. What do you have that others do not have? The openness of the people, that’s one strength. You have religious harmony. The second biggest strength is the river we have. We have a river that is great; it’s navigable all the way to Basse. Another area is bird watching. And our culture – all the tribes have unique cultural experiences – can be used in a way that cannot be exploitative to the people.”

But, beyond the weather and the river lies perhaps The Gambia’s best resource as a tourist destination – the people. 

In fact, in a survey done in 2006, tourists gave friendliness of Gambian people a highest score 93, above food and accommodation. 

Ms Abby Sarr, director of public relations at Kairaba Hotel, confirmed: “The best resource we have in this is country is our people. We Gambians are very curious and very friendly people who are always ready to go to the extra mile to satisfy the visitor. This is a traditional teranga (hospitality) which has been prevalent in Gambian system for a long time.” 

Abby herself is an embodiment of that friendly Gambian. On a tour with her about the hotel, after the interview, she presented herself to the tourists as a servant who is pleased to do her job, glinting at every opportunity. 

 

Not about numbers

The growth of tourism in The Gambia has been phenomenal until 1994 when the military seized power. Reports suggested 65 percent – over 10,000 people – of those in the tourism industry were put out of work. 

“I can remember what we had during that time,” Mr Adama Bah has said. “Just after the coup, we had a travel advice from the British Foreign Office, advising British nationals not to travel to The Gambia. Not long after that, we had the Scandinavian travel advice, advising Scandinavians not to travel to The Gambia. And during that time, those were our biggest market. So the impact was huge.” 

Stakeholders in the industry however, believe that in terms of numbers, the country has now recovered from the shock. 

Speaking to journalists last year, Minister Fatou Mass Jobe-Njie had said ‘the season is good, but the best is yet to come’. This is a view shared by Mr Benjamin Roberts, director of Gambia Tourism Board. 

“Her [the minister’s] optimism is premised on the fact we are focused in terms of the overriding objective set for us to increase contribution of tourism to the GDP, from current 12-16 to 25 percent by 2020.”

In the main national development blueprint called Vision 2020, the country’s long term goal is to record 500,000 annual tourist arrivals by the year 2020. The immediate plan is to make the season year round. The Gambian tourist season traditionally, is from November to April. This is on the brink of being history. 

Tourism authorities have announced that for the first time in the country’s history, instead of the season officially ending in April, it would end in May.

“I think we have exceeded the 200,000 tourists visiting The Gambia…” Minister Jobe-Njie said in the May 6 edition of The Standard. 

She continued: “The capacity for all the tour operators increased to the extent that we had more tourists than the beds available. There was an over-booking situation.  At the moment, the winter season is outsold, outsold in the sense that more people are coming every year. I think everybody felt the success of the 2013-2014 seasons.  Now our focus is the summer. Our focus is the green season. Our focus is to ensure we have at least 50% of what we had in the winter in the summer. That is the biggest challenge for the tourism sector.”

Adama Bah however, has cautioned the authorities against taking the numbers for granted, commenting that tourism is not just about the numbers but also the amount of money the tourists spend in the country.

He said most tourists come on an all-inclusive package. “If tourists are coming and staying and spending only in the hotels, then the country is not maximising on the benefits of tourism. It is thus important that tourists get out of their hotels and spend with the local people outside, like the craft market, the food vendors, and taxi drivers, tour guides, and small bars. That is where the local economy is. 

Bah added: “I believe we can make it better. But we have to do things right. And the only way we can do things right is to link tourism to the local economy. Whatever we do, let us make sure the foreign exchange that comes in is retained within the country. There is no point us receiving dollars and then import all the food, the drink and all the things the tourist need. Then, that money is going out too.” 

Moreover, if the views of tourism authorities are anything to go by, the country’s plan for all year round tourism is quite untimely. 

“My answer realistically, is, No, we are not ready for all year tourist season,” said Mr Roberts. “Nine months or ten months, I will be able to live with that. For instance, in the hotel business you need at least three months to do some rehabilitation works.”

Adama Bah agrees with him when he said: “If you’re targeting 500,000 tourists, what is the plan to build the number of bed capacity to accommodate? What is the plan to expand the airport? If we have 500,000 tourists arriving, the facilities at airport are inadequate. So, it’s nice to dream, but one needs to be realistic in terms of, also, having a strategy, the infrastructure, the services and the human resource. It’s good to say this is our dream, but if you think it’s not realistic nothing stops you from bringing the figure down.”

 

Linking tourism to agriculture 

Tourism in Gambia, in spite of the positive contributions, is not without corresponding challenges. One of such that remains a thorn in the flesh is the rise of sex tourism. There is surge in recent times of crimes such as murder on tourist. So is prostitution. 

The Gambia, reports show, is one of the new safe-havens for child sex tourism. A Unicef study on sexual abuse and exploitation of children in The Gambia in 2003 reveals the country’s high vulnerability to pedophiles. 

Complicating matters is the hassling of tourists by young Gambians. Before, the government chose to use force tackle to the problem. It did not succeed. “These are all social issues we need to deal with,” Mr Bah told me. “But it is very difficult because we’re talking about poverty and unemployment here. We all know even within the Tourism Master Plan, it is well stated that using the military to deal with the issue is not going to solve the problem  ultimately. When people are desperate, as has been the case with young Gambians, no amount of forceful means will stop them from not going out to find daily bread.”

According to him, there has to be another way out to fix the problem and that is to link tourism to agriculture. “If we develop agriculture and get more young people engaged, train them to be good farmers, provide market access, then we will minimise poverty and unemployment and eventually young people will learn to be more entrepreneurial.”

For now, though, moves are being made to correct issues surrounding value creation and retention and at same time preparing for the anticipated huge haul of tourists. 

Mr Roberts’s office has engaged the services of an organisation of retired European tourism experts based in Netherlands. The experts will take time out of their retirement to train Gambian tourism stakeholders who will in the long run become trainers. 

“We as a destination have to ensure that our service standards are up there. So, we’ve signed this five year contract with them. The idea is over the course of the five years, the people that they train will become trainers. We’ve had one in which they’ve trained our staff in marketing and also hoteliers. We are starting slowing before we reach the milestones.”

With a view to popularising local dishes among tourists, Gambian Tourism Board has last year launched the first ever Food and Beverage Festival, showcasing Gambian gastronomy. “The intention is to bring tourist out and spend,” Mr Roberts told me. 

Outside of that, the authorities are expanding tourism to rural Gambia, an initiative which would allow tourists to stay within the community for one or two nights and experience how they live. To this endeavor, a pilot programme is rolled out in Ndemban village. “I personally believe that the future of Gambian tourism is rural tourism,” Mr Roberts said. “The river is unexploited. The potential is there and we need to explore it. The tourists want this, they want to take a cruise across the river. Some call it the majestic River Gambia. My focus is there, because we talk of the benefit of tourism trickling down, when that happens those operating in the hinterland will benefit.” 

 

At a different level, ASSET is devising plans to ensure that tourist products are appealing enough. Adama Bah said: “If one go to the craft market, the story is the same. You buy a mask, there is no story behind that mask. The tourist want to know what is the story behind the mask I’m buying because apart from buying a mask for decorative purposes, the tourist is interested in telling a story – ‘I bought this from The Gambia it depicts this or that’. But that is not done. That is why we [Asset] want to do a project called Guaranteed Gambian, which is about training crafts producers to capture the European market so that they can design their products in a way that tourists can buy.”

 

By Saikou Jammeh

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