OPINION: Orbiting through Gambia Tourism: In Search of the Milestones in Tourism

Monday, July 31, 2017

In the previous segment  of this series, focus was on the search for the ideal tourist, followed by another piece on the tourism product and the range and scope of these products were outlined with emphasis on those products that blend our staples, beverage, local charm, seafood to produce a cocktail of wonderful tourism experience and it was pointed out that products anchored on our fauna and flora have also have been given pride of place and the maiden international birding festival was cited as a success story in the drive to develop niche tourism.

This latest piece will focus on the milestones - the significant events and initiatives that shaped the destiny of Gambia Tourism.

From Groundnut Colony to Tourism Destination

It could be recalled that Gambia was rightly called the “groundnut colony” in pre-independence days and this was mainly because of our over dependence on agriculture as the central plank of the national economy. However with independence this changed dramatically and the Government of the day saw the need to diversify the economy and tourism was identified as a viable means to diversify and decongest our over reliance on agriculture. First things first and the Government of the day stated by gradually putting in place the appropriate legislation, institutional frameworks, infrastructure  and consciously cultivated and nurtured a positive image of the country anchored on a very outgoing and open foreign policy to kick start tourism.

According to reliable sources tourism as we know it today was sparked by accident in 1965 when Mr Bertil Harding stumbled over the Gambia en-route to the Canary Islands. He fell in love and by October 1967 Mr. Harding flew in the first batch of air chartered package tourists under the aegis of Vingressor - a tour operator, later to be known as My Travel and today operating under the Thomas Cook brand. Invariably from this humble beginnings in the mid 1960s destination Gambia has gradually evolved in to a major tourism destination.  Accordingly the Government of the day put in place various strategies to support the development of tourism including infrastructural development such as the upgrading of the airport and the demarcation of the Tourism Development Area. The next level is the crafting of appropriate legislation and regulations to regularize tourism development as well the emerging tourism enterprises and hospitality outfits. This led to the promulgation of series of legislations such as the Hotel Regulations Act as well as the Restaurant Act.

Institutional Development

Given the rapid growth of tourism since its inception, the Government of the day felt the need to create the requisite institutions to serve as the regulatory arms of Government and to promote the Government agenda for a more sustained and coordinated tourism development.

Thus in 1970, the first Tourist Office under the President’s Office and the Tourism Liaison Board were established to provide a controlled and coordinated mechanism for industry. To crown these developments, the Government established the Ministry of Tourism –another major milestone and fully recognizing the importance of tourism as viable and promising sector. At the time it became abundantly clear that “Tourism whatever its scale or nature, has become an undeniable fact of modern life. It is a firmly established and significant factor of economic development throughout the world, and in view of its social character, the Tourism phenomenon is constantly evolving”.

The reasons behind the growth of tourism are many and varied however the most notable range from change from work oriented to leisure oriented societies, reduced working hours and the desire to break from the daily routine, expansion of public transport, and improved mobility, increasing income and growing wealth and last but not the least growing ratio of senior citizens versus working population. The last point is particularly very relevant for destination Gambia to date given that the latest authoritative survey 2016  revealed that a significant chunk of tourists 73%  of visitors to the Smiling Coast  are within the age bracket of 40 years of age of which 44% are below 40 – 64 years and 29% were 65 years or above.

Assault on Democracy and Impact on Tourism

In 1994, a military coup toppled the democratically elected government. The UK reacts with a travel advisory and warned of the volatility of the Gambia, followed by other countries. Consequently most tour operators pulled out of the Gambia within 24 hours, bringing the industry close to its knees. The good news was that the specialist Gambia Tour operator – the Gambia Experience stayed, thus effectively giving the industry a lifeline during this crisis. However, overall the sector witnessed challenges during this dark period as the international goodwill evaporates with declining standards in human rights and good governments.

However, within this period the need to craft a tourism policy was felt and accordingly various processes were put in place by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and this culminated in the launching of the National Tourism Policy 1995- 2005. This was a major milestone and some years later a tourism colleague commented that “the policy was indeed all embracing and relevant, and the only mistake was to put a time line on it”.

To celebrate the 30 years of tourism in 1995, the National Tourism Week was rolled out and this galvanized the industry and raised the profile of tourism. The following year the Roots Homecoming Festival was unveiled to target the Africans in the Diaspora and also to serve as strategy to prolong the season. The objective and the lofty ideals embedded in the Roots Festival are still very relevant and with a bit of fine tuning and overhaul of organizational modus operandi the Roots Festival can be used in our marketing strategy to entice and appeal to certain micro segments such as culture seekers, ethnic tourists and history buffs. These segments within the leisure category are looking for a more loaded experience and drawn by their desire to rediscover their roots and interested by how other people express their culture via distinctive customs, food, art, music, and this fits in neatly with the vision and mission of Roots.

Rise and fall of FTI

The Roots Homecoming Festival was a good omen for Gambia Tourism because in the same year business picks up well with package tourists surging to all time high of 96,126. The major contributing factor in this surge was the emergence of a major German Tour operator to the scene – Frost Touristic International (FTI) with 4 weekly flights and this was indeed a golden era of Gambian tourism with FTI dominating the tourism landscape and also became well known for the introduction of the ill conceived All Inclusive tourism at the Siva Sun Beach Hotel formerly Sunwing in the heart of Bakau. This tour operator was also credited for undertaking very meaningful corporate social responsibility projects mainly in Bakau and was also instrumental in organizing a beach musical splash the highlight of which was the life performance of the late reggae star Lucky Dube in 1999. However in 2000 FTI ran in to problems and tourist arrivals dropped significantly.

In 2001 FTI ceases operations and completely depriving the Gambia of one of the most largest and lucrative markets in Europe (Germany), thus reducing the number of tourist arrivals.

In 2001 a major milestone was recorded and the Gambia Tourism Authority was set up by an Act of The National Assembly as a one stop shop to develop, regulate and promote the tourism industry in the Gambia. The Authority kicked off on a high note and even though according to the master plan the Authority could not fully tap in to its promise and potentials, but was a step in the right direction and was a major improvement on its predecessor – The National Tourist Office. Lack of stability at top level, including weak leadership and excessive executive interference in its modus operandi were the main causes of its decline and eventual fall.

The September terrorist attacks were a bad omen for tourism globally as tourism facilitation became constrained and travel phobia became the order of the day, thus the tourism industry bears the brunt.

Renewed Optimism

2002/2004 investors saw massive  interest in tourism, most hotels were refurbished including the Sun Beach Hotel, Kairaba Beach Hotel , Ocean Bay Hotel, Sunset Beach Hotel and the Al Kharafi Group invested in the 5 star Sheraton Hotel, thus raising the profile of Gambia’s international bed stock and raising the figures to7000. Other hospitality outfits such as the Corinthian Atlantic was taken over by the Libyans and transformed it into Laico Atlantic. The Libyans further went on an investment spree to develop Jerma Beach Hotel, Liptis and the Nigerian also showed some interest and invested in the Banna Beach Hotel and renamed Mansea Resorts. In the area of Eco-tourism which was increasing gaining prominence, this was given a boost with the unveiling of the award winning Makasutu Culture Forest. This world renowned eco- lodge was a major boost in terms of genera rating good publicity for the Gambia. This was preceded by the launching of an Eco- Tourism Strategy in 2003/. The Sandele Eco – Retreat also made a proud entrance.

The Tourism Development Master Plan was completed in 2005 and submitted to Cabinet through appropriate channels. The blue print undertook a comprehensive evaluation of the industry and charts a way forward. In my view this has been a living document and its relevance cannot be overemphasized in the sustainable development of tourism. Did it need fine tuning? Certainly, at the same time tourism stakeholders launched the Responsible Tourism Policy in April 2015 to serve as another blue print for sustainable tourism development and this was indeed a milestone,

In  February 2010 the Hotel Classification Programme was finally launched and true to GTAs mandate of promoting, regulating and guiding the tourism industry to its zenith, this marked the official rolling out of the first ever hotel classification scheme, with technical assistance from the Netherlands Foundation. On the auspicious occasion the then Minister of Tourism pointed out “that with hotel classification, good customer service delivery can be assured, a scenario which will play a crucial role in determining whether visitors repeat their Gambia experience.”

The Smiling Coast in quest to cement its reputation as a MICE destination – (Meetings, Incentives, conferences and Exhibition Centre) hosted the 35th Congress of the Africa Travel Association in high profile fashion and this convergence attracted participants from far and wide including from the sub region, and he USA. The congress was rated a resounding success and in my humble view the highlight was the trip to the Land of Roots in Juffureh and Kunta Kinteh Island and the fanfare and ambience was indeed captivating including the wrath laying ceremony whereby each participant was given a calabash with flowers and these were thrown in the River Gambia as a tribute to all the victims of the infamous slave trade.

Then came the reforms and the objective of which was to reengineer and transform the Gambia Tourism Authority to the GTBoard in 2011. The official reason was that the GTA over time was defocused and there was the urgent need to put in place a more focused institution to focus on destination marketing as its core mandate., Accordingly the GTBoard Act was promulgated, and the birth of the GTBoard as the latest institution tasked with the mandate to promote, develop, and regulate tourism was actualized

The Scourge of Ebola - “Guilt by Association” 

The Ebola epidemic derailed the forward march of Tourism in destination in 2014-2015 as the destination became “guilty by association” given that not a single case of Ebola was ever reported in this country, but our location in the affected sub-region was not a blessing. Thus tourist numbers plummet and tourism as an industry bore the brunt. This notwithstanding the International Fishing Competition as well as the Food and Beverage Festival were consolidated in the calendar of events as well as select community festivals.

Signs of a robust recovery were looming in the horizon in 2016, especially after the launching of the International Birding Festival in Tendaba by the GTBoard, on the eve of the winter season but all that came to a halt with the protracted political impasse. Given susceptibility of tourism to unrest, history was gain repeated when travel advises were issued by home governments of the tour operators and overnight all tourists deserted the Smiling Coast. With the tourists gone, hotels empty and no sign of peaceful breakthrough to the impasse “the people of the Smiling Coast, who for more than five decades have been hosting and putting a smile on their face and that of their visitors had to abandon their beloved country and became refugees in neighboring countries- thus the Smiling Coast became” the Crying Coast” for a brief period, and normalcy was restored, thus ushering in the new Gambia.

New Gambia Reforms

The new Gambia is undergoing a transformation and myriad of reforms are in the pipeline to overhaul an undo 22 years of autocratic rule. That governance style impacted terribly on tourism as a hospitality industry and “our image has been battered for reasons well known to us all’. The country was isolated, tour operator fatigue became the order of the day as most international tour operators downscaled operations or ceased operations completely and the industry bore the brunt of this disengagement. The good news is that the authorities of the new Gambia are cognizant of the key role of the tourism industry and its elevation to the level of a strategic sector will not be out of order. Reforms touching on improving good governance, open foreign policy and improvement of human rights including constitutional and institutional reforms are laudable as these will impact on tourism positively, given that tourism thrives on good publicly and image.

Having said that I would like to humbly remind our new authorities that gone were the days when nations count on their natural endowments and attractions to spur tourism. Most Tourism destinations have wonderful natural attractions, but they have gone a step further to not only create the conducive environment for tourism to thrive through direct investment such as Cape Verde (one of our competing destinations), but also deliberately put in place strategies and pro- tourism incentives and strategies to serve as fertilizer for the growth of tourism, ranging from developing air access, overall travel facilitation. and addressing product obsolescence  A case in point is the fact that the portfolio of aviation is under the purview of the Ministry of Tourism in Senegal to underscore its significance in the scheme of things.. Another area that needs urgent attention is high energy costs for the sector and by extension high cost of aviation fuel and high tax burden on tourism business units across the board and to up the efforts in marketing.

The author Lamin Saho is a 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)

Lamin Saho