Marketing and promotion of The Gambia as a tourist destination after the political impasse of the 2016 presidential election

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Although The Gambia seems to have been lacking behind in terms of tourist arrivals even before the political impasse of 2016 presidential elections, nevertheless the political impasse has further worsened the situation with more severe setbacks when the ex-president refused to cede defeat in the presidential elections.

There were travel warnings from the foreign offices of the tourists’ source markets, followed by withdrawals of tour operators putting the sector at a standstill half way to the end of January resulting to huge losses to the entire tourism and industry and economy of the county.

Apparently, growth in tourists’ arrivals in many countries can experience setbacks when confronted with such political instabilities.

According to the vice Chairman of The Gambia Hotel Association tourism in The Gambia might have loss approximately over 200 million dalasis after tourists withdrew from the country during the political impasse, which the Director of Gambia Tourism Board suggests was even worse than that of 2014 Ebola outbreak. “During the impasse hotels had 0% occupancy rate as oppose to that of Ebola when some tourists visited the country despite the fear (ibid)”.

It is a great economic lost to the county, for the industry and for tourists.

Over the last two decades, tourism has proved to be the world’s fastest growing economic sector and therefore all hands should be on the deck to put the tourism sector in The Gambia back on its feet again.

Officials of the Gambia’s tourism ministry are said to have “confirmed having meeting with stakeholders over the situation in the sector which they admit was “seriously” affected by the impasse”.

The minister also revealed that they intend “to bring back the tourists and even to extend the tourist season to April”. He suggests that the new government will do all it takes to attract more tourists to the country, adding that The Gambia is safer than any other place as a tourist destination”.

That is certainly a strong and promising message. However, the weight of the message and its long term impact on the benefits of tourism in the county lies in who controls the narrative of the market situation, and who carries the message.

How can we use the situation to reform the industry, how can we control the narratives from a national perspective to make a change in the status quo concerning who controls when tourists comes or withdraws from the destination? Who gives the travel advice, when and how? Do we let others do the job to regain market confidence or do we do it ourselves? Why is it important that The Gambia should try to build market confidence from a national perspective rather than from a tour operator perspective? How do we capitalise on the situation and turn it into an opportunity?

Minister Bah has revealed some collaborative efforts in the pipeline between government and some embassies in the country resulting to quick revision of travel advices by tourists’ source destination. That is encouraging and the ambition to bring back tourists to The Gambia should be very strategic and in the best possible manner that would enhance sustainability.

As business environments become more fragile because of their sensitivity to turbulence situations, as well as the increasing competition, organisations are also increasingly looking at their human resources as a competitive advantage tool.

The political impasse should be regarded as a blessing in disguise, proving the opportunity to show the whole world that Gambians are the most peace loving people in world, who fought and removed a 22 years of dictatorial regime without violence! It is exemplary, and it’s only Gambians who knows how their socio-cultural fabrics are set up. Of course all credit is due to the efforts of the Ecowas regional block in their effort to help bring back peace in The Gambia, however despite a 22 years of brutal rule, Gambians have demonstrated the true peaceful nature as well as a culture and tradition of coexistence that binds the Gambian people and most definitely, why it is nick named “The Smiling Coast”, or “Gambia, no Problem”!

Thus it is only Gambians who can now market the county using this unique socio-cultural capital of the destination that has been very instrumental in show casting the peaceful nature of Gambians! It provides an opportunity that should be used for Gambia to break away from its traditional all-inclusive sun, sea and sand tourism which is not unique for the county to a more socio-cultural oriental form of tourism which can bring more benefits to the country.

Drammeh (2014) suggests that, indigenous knowledge is part of the human capital that contains knowledge about the destination. This is a component of the destination capitals with ability to discover, create and preserve production factors. It is one of the three important destination capitals that is an essential component for a sustainable tourism development in a least developed county which local people have control over and can influence. With the growth of tourism coupled with tourist’s demand for additional products and services, has been an encouraging factor for locals to use their knowledge of the local resources to get involved and participate in tourism development in many Least Developed Countries.

According to World Tourism Organization (WTO, 1997a) estimates, about 80% of international tourism projects (including international hotel and airline) are controlled by trans-national Corporations.

These companies have an almost unhindered access to markets and have used that opportunity to create a market monopoly that is making it difficult for many local SMEs to compete or to even survive.

The Gambia suffers some of the greatest leakages and consequently has some of weakest economic benefits from tourism from such types of businesses. Consequently, what often appears to be a normal commercial relationship international tour operators and a developing country may actually be the result of a network of anti-competitive practices arising from a globalised and highly integrated tourism trading environment, dominated by a few suppliers in the originating tourism market.

As a consequence of the type of tourism that has been developed in The Gambia, the multiplier effect of the tourism businesses in the country is relatively very low; a country that is primarily an agricultural nation with an underdeveloped manufacturing and service industry. One of the techniques companies utilise to attract and retain consumers is product branding (Yip, 2005). The Gambia is already branded as an all-inclusive winter destination.

We must strive to make our destination to be known and recognised by visitors for the product we want to put in the market in accordance with our national ambition and policy for tourism development. The Gambia has been branded as seasonal destination. The basic concept behind this is to establish a standard on which consumers may rely to estimate value and to differentiate a company’s product from competitive products (Yip, 2005). Our aim now should be to follow the recommendations in The Gambia tourism development Master plan and aim for an all year round cultural tourism destination.

Tourism is by now too important and pervasive an activity to be ignored, and any government that accepts a degree of responsibility for the pattern and pace of economic activity of its country must be conscious of the emergence of the ‘post- industrial society’ or ‘service economy’ and for the need to meet the new challenges of such changes (Huges, 1984). Consequently, with the political impasse coming to past, it is now time for Gambia to take the lead and control of the affairs of its tourism industry. The assumption here is that tour operators are keener to protect their own interest than that of the destination. With such kind of situation that The Gambia finds itself, tour operators bringing tourists in the country are more likely keen to promote their all-inclusive intension in disguise for safety reasons.

Our goal for development policy is to achieve sustainable development in The Gambia, which is normally understood to require long-term economic growth, environmental protection and social justice, particularly in the form of poverty reduction. The intention is to create a model of tourism development that inter-links services serving not only the amusement of tourist but also contribute in the buildings pillars for a sustainable tourism development in the county.

The all-inclusive seasonal nature of the tourism business environment must change for good, and we must now use the political impasse as an opportunity to promote cultural tourism. Human capital is therefore a strategic business tool that can help The Gambia to become efficient, stay competitive, increase productivity, regain its market and to even grow. It is the key element in improving a firm’s assets and employees to increase productivity as well as sustain competitive advantage (Schultz, 1993). Thus, in the work to attract tourist back to the destination, it would be far more beneficial for The Gambia to take the leading role and not to leave everything in the hands of tour operators and foreign PR firms.

Among transformative issues our industry has been facing is tour operator control and unfriendliness of the former government and its agents in utilising the available opportunities among the Gambian diasporas in marketing and promotion activities. While tour operators are doing their job of marketing and promoting their tours and products, we should also now create the environment and opportunity to promote the industry in a manner that would provide opportunities for visitors to explore the socio-cultural distinction between them and the destination and the hospitality of our people.

Gambian societies outside The Gambia are very progressive all over the world and provide a platform through their yearly Gambian Cultural Weeks celebrations and other events to market and promote The Gambia.

In Scandinavia for instance, from the year 2005 to 2009 Gambia Tourism Authority have had marketing and promotion activities, by establishing a tourist office in Gothenburg, and the results of such a relationship speaks well for itself on the arrival statistics figures.

The Gambia must therefore use its own human capital and resources to tell the world what we have, and tell our story from an indigenous perspective. We encourage authorities to capitalitise on the verse knowledge and experience of our veterans on the ground as part of the advisory resource on the way forward for the tourism industry in our new Gambia.

By Yaya Dammeh, Gothenburg, Sweden