OPINION: ORBITING THROUGH GAMBIA TOURISM; REFLECTIONS OF A HUMBLE SPEECH WRITER

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Foray in to Tourism

It all began in the dawn of this millennium, precisely in January 2000 when I was called to attend an interview at the Public Service Commission (PSC) for the post of Senior Tourism Officer at the then National Tourist office- a unit set up in 1970 for tourism liaison and later in 1974 became the implementing wing of the newly formed Ministry of Tourism and Culture tasked with the core function of tourism management, promotion and development.

The interview went ahead as smoothly as possible under the able chairmanship of the late Sulayman Massaneh Ceesay, also a product of the Russian scholarship Scheme in the late 6Os and we even exchanged one or two words in Russian.  A few days later the secretary to the PSC one Saul Manneh walked in to my office at the NGO Affairs Agency in the Quadrangle to hand over my letter of redeployment to the National  Tourist Office as Senior Tourism Officer: Marketing. He gave one or two words of advice but one advice that stood out was the need to see this new assignment as a challenge given the enormity of the task at hand and that tourism is in the throes of a major challenge.  I later realized that he was referring to  the cessation of operations by FTI – a German Tour Operator and this had impacted negatively on tourism in terms of arrivals and also because the bumster issue had run amok and was out of control with all the concomitant effects on this volatile but lucrative industry.

Thanks were showered on him for the kind words of advice and assured him that I will rise to the challenge INSHALLAH armed with the inspiration of my role model Hag Hammanshold – the second UN Secretary General who famously said that “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 reported to the National Tourist Office, and then under the Directorship of Mr MBO Cham – a very experienced man, who actually loves Gambia tourism and was a real hard worker. His only crime was that he is honest and a sincere man who cared so much for the industry, but greatly misunderstood and this cost him the Directorship in later years.

Thus began my foray in to Tourism and following the usual protocols and introduction to the staff of the NTO and by extension the larger Ministry, the then   Permanent Secretary Mr. Omar Y.  Njie – of blessed memory and one of the strongest Permanent Secretary’s I crossed path with and admired as a true professional, was elated to know that my background was international relations. 

The late Omar Y. Njie cut his teeth as a career diplomat in the Gambia Foreign Service prior to his redeployment to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture including another former Permanent secretary Bai Ousman Secka – current Gambian envoy to Mauritania. It was a very sad day when with other colleagues, years later, I attended the funeral ceremony of late Omar Y. Njie at the Pipe line mosque.  He passed away after a long bout of illness.

At the office level, slowly but surely, I settled down to work, and realized that tourism in the Gambia was not at its best in the dawn of the millennium and the Director of Tourism Mr MBO Cham was evidently very concerned and saw my recruitment as a blessing to inject intellectual weight to a very demoralized staff complement.

Millennium Tourism Challenges

Work commenced in earnest and I started by tackling first the routine issues of responding to the myriad of requests by overseas potential tourists, repeat visitors who would write and occasionally make request/and or complain about one or two things about specific aspects of tourism in destination Gambia, but at the same time, weighing the enormity of the task at the macro level.  Tourism, as a dynamic  global industry, was undergoing through a gradual paradigm shift, from mass tourism to ecotourism, from sea, sun and sand to sustainable tourism, where the needs of the visitors are balanced against the needs of the hosts including focus on environmental, cultural and socio-economic impact of tourism for now and posterity, also known as Responsible Tourism. 

There were also very strong voices in the industry for policy shifts towards other more people centered forms of tourism such as cultural tourism and to mainstream the needs of small scale enterprises in tourism and at the same time encourage community led tourism development, and the need to encourage independent travel and encourage public –private partnership in tourism management and development at destination level.

 There was an urgent need to place emphasis on product richness and quality not just on price, thus the need for classification of Gambian hospitality outfits and to mainstream quality in tourism, and to shift emphasis from marketing spree to targeted marketing, source market diversification and “tribal” marketing,  as well as e.marketing to underscore  the emerging role  of the internet. All these policy options were against the backdrop of stiff competition amongst destinations as various nations chase the tourist dollar amidst global challenges exacerbated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and looming economic tumble.

The urgent need to put in place strategies geared towards tampering the negative effects of tourism at local level such as the notorious bumster issue, surge of prostitution in the TDA, child sex tourism as well as pedophilia, tourism environmental challenges and at the same time address the vital issue of  tourism product obsolescence were high on the agenda . Some of these issues were around since the inception of tourism, efforts were put in place over the years to address them squarely, but became more pronounced in the dawn of the new millennium and there could not have been a more appropriate moment to tackle all these challenges head on so as to create the foundation for a 21st century tourism destination.

In search of a strategy for sustained Tourism Development

Then enter Honorable Yankouba Touray, who from the word go unveiled a very ambitious programme of tourism revitalization to cut across both the demand and supply side aspects of tourism development.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now concluded he was thoroughly briefed about the ailing industry and the need to inject more vigour and dynamism in tourism to be able to tackle and redress the myriad of policy and operational challenges. Given that his task was caught out neatly for him, he straight away went to work and as the saying goes charity begins at home, his first task was to give the entire office a face lift and as such his own office was spruced up and with new furniture and the entire office repainted to give it a new aura and as he put it “tourism as a strategic sector should have a high profile and the starting point is the office”.

I concur, because in other tourism destinations, that is the case and tourism is accorded the status of a strategic sector and their ministers of tourism are considered very important personalities of the executive including the Permanent Secretaries of their respective Ministries of Tourism. On their foreign trips these high level executives are even accompanied by their Personal assistants who dish out their business cards as and when necessary and take briefs accordingly to facilitate the Minister’s engagements. All these gives the aura of importance and the significance attaches to tourism as a key and commanding sector in those countries... In the Gambian context, certain “technical Ministers” of Tourism during the former regime sometimes travel on official missions unaccompanied, even leaving their Permanent Secretaries behind, apparently to “cut down cost” and usually rely on host agencies to prepare their briefs and reports, wrong! The authorities of the new Gambia should discourage such practice.

As a shrewd and prolific Minster Yankuba Touray also used to summon regular briefings of his senior personnel including the seasoned   Director of Tourism and I suspect the objective was so debrief them to know the extent of the task at hand. Various measures were put in place to commence in earnest the Tourism Development Master Plan study with support from the African Development Bank. In a bid to tamper and roll back the negative effects of tourism, the AG Chambers had an assignment and this was to draft the Tourism Offenses Bill which eventually became the Tourism Offenses Act to tackle child sex tourism, pedophilia and the bumster syndrome.

Taskforces and Institutional Development

This was followed by the setting up of various task forces with specific mandates to tackle an ailing industry and to boost the Institutional framework including the setting up of the Gambia Tourism Authority, which was central in the strategy to be able to serve as the key implementing arm of the Ministry and to handle the myriad of emerging tourism challenges head on. The creation of the GTA was therefore a very strategic move and a giant step for tourism development in destination Gambia.

Series of other taskforces were constituted as well to kick start development at both demand and supply side including special task force on Destination Marketing, special task force on the resettlement programme for small scale operators such as beach bar operators, juice processors, craft market vendors – the overall objective was to revisit the modus operanda of this small scale operators, enhance their operational environment so as to boost their morale and inculcate in them a sense of responsibility and nurture in them service culture and tourist friendly attitude..

There was another taskforce on tourist taxis – these are the officially recommended tourist taxis painted green, and their services are vital for tourists, but overtime, guest complaints about poor customer care and product obsolescence have become common and the need to revisit their operations was apparent. Another key programme was the task force on the official tourist guides- a very important scheme set up by the first minister of Tourism during the second republic Ms Susan Waffa Oggoo, – the lady with the winning smiles and the Minister I once referred to as the “number one marketer-in- chief of Gambia tourism, I think it was during the annual tourism convergence at the Kairaba Beach hotel in 2005. She also initiated the International Roots Homecoming Festival in 1996 as well as the tourism week in 1995 to mark the 30th anniversary of Gambia Tourism. These were wonderful initiatives indeed and kudos for that and it was also under her watch that the National Tourism Policy 1995-2000 was formulated.

The need to revisit the Tourist Guide scheme with a view to consolidating it was very apparent, with a view to beef up the depleting stock as members of the original cohort went in search of greener pastures.

As the only graduate of the National Tourist Office, I rose to the challenge when I was tasked to craft a project proposal for the attention of the UNDP, for funding by FASE- Fight Against Social and Economic Exclusion Project, then under the able stewardship of Mr. Ernest Aubee, and to serve as the executive secretary and lead coordinator of the second phase of the tourist guide training project in conjunction with the National Youth Service Scheme. Other relevant tasks forces followed and these included the high level task force on security which was formed to lay the ground for the setting up of the Tourist security Unit. I straight away rose to the challenge and took my pen to document all the major conclusions and recommendations for each of these relevant task forces. In the process I became so au-fait with the issues in tourism that to date this has been one of my core strengths.

Speech Writing and Rising through the Ranks

Perhaps one of the key and notable outcomes of this role was not only to grasp the issues to my finger tips, but to metamorphose in to the humble official speech writer of the tourism industry at policy and technical levels. Concurrently, I also rose through the ranks from Senior Tourism Officer -NTO, Marketing Officer- GTA, Marketing Manager- GTA, and Director of Marketing GTA/GTBoard to Director of Planning, Ministry of Tourism and Culture, thus completing “the orbit through tourism space”.

The task of a speech writer is colossal, because you are called to duty at any time to prepare written statements for key officials, and subjects cover all the issues under the sun, and apart from style and presentation, mastering the semantics, trends, one is tasked to lay out the facts as the subject matter specialist, in a very coherent manner and to reflect official policy and to clearly lay emphasis on issues of colossal significance for the day.  In a nut shell you have to wear the cap of the high level official who will eventually read the script and read his or her mind, literally to “decode” with a view to pointing out exactly the key issues he/she was going to articulate either at operational or policy level and pinpoint all that needed to be said on the auspicious occasion without any ambiguity.

A very difficult and onerous task indeed, but what aided me most was the mastery of the issues to the core and the GOD given writing skills. This has aided and abetted me greatly and I sometimes give credit to ALLAH, given that for almost seven years I was schooled in another language- Russian, a very difficult eastern/Slavic language rooted in Greek syllables with 35 alphabets, as opposed to English with 22 alphabets and roots in Latin. How I was able to make a comeback with my skills in writing the English language despite the corrosive effects of learning and speaking the Russian language (Russki Yasik)- the medium of instruction during university days in Ukraine for almost seven good years still baffles me. But in this world noting is impossible in my view, if the will is there and the blessing if Allah at ones disposal. Just to point out that my master’s degree thesis “Kursovaya Rabota” (course/academic work), on the theme “Regional Integration as a strategy for economic development and cooperation with special reference to the European Union” was researched, written and defended in Russian.

Personal Development: Capacity Building in Tourism and Destination Marketing

Cognizant of the fact that my area of study and specialization – International Relations is not synonymous with Tourism, that even though I have been gradually grasping the issues, I needed to polish my training credentials in tourism, I there and then decided to take every training opportunity that came my way.  Accordingly I undertook series of specialized training in destination marketing and tourism management and strategy in diverse centres of learning such as the prestigious University of Bocconi in Milan, Italy, Cyprus School of Tourism Management in Nicosia, Kaoshiuing Hospitality Institute in Taiwan, the former Commonwealth Tourism Centre in Luala Lumpur, Malaysia as well as the Mount Carmel International Training Centre in Israel.

Overtime I cut my teeth as the humble tourism speech writer par excellence and I can safely say that there was hardly a Permanent Secretary, Minister of Tourism   from 2000 -2012 who have not benefitted from my speech writing skills including all the Director Generals of GTA/GTBoard such as the seasoned and pragmatic Mr Kaliba Senghore who used to call me “Alifabaa” and Mr Alieu Mboge- a seasoned manager.  Perhaps the high point in this journey was when I was called to duty to serve as the Executive Secretary and one of the lead coordinators of the now defunct African Travel Association (ATA) Annual Congress, which was ably hosted by destination Gambia in 2010.

In the same vein, in one of the tourism convergences at the Kairaba Beach Hotel, then minister of Tourism and Culture Ms Fatou Mass Jobe- Njie, surprisingly even called me aside after an eloquent speech delivery to commend me for a wonderful job in crafting a very rich and pointed speech for her and I think it was the launching of the high level training programme on Tourism Statistics supported by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in June 2012.

Sequel  to that  the  then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture  Mr Momodou Joof – a man I consider a wordsmith, cultural expert, and one of the best writers in the system, then, and very eloquent and articulate also discovered my writing skills and to my amusement he would occasionally call me to his office and make complimentary remarks about my writing skills and how my draft statements have left lasting impressions on him especially the draft statements I authored for the President of the Republic and the Honourable Minister  of Tourism and Culture on the occasion of the high level convergence of ECOWAS tourism ministers in Banjul in July 2012.

Conclusion

 In a nutshell, even if I have not been rewarded for my speech writing skills enough, and later felt abandoned by my professional colleagues during very trying times, due to ailment, but those kind words were highly appreciated and were a source of inspiration and went a long way to show that people appreciated and valued my little and humble contribution in making the tourism industry reach higher heights. Tourism is a complex system of integrated parts, and one thing is clear, to grasp the nitty-gritty of tourism, one needs to understand and grasp the issues that make tourism tick. On a final note this piece is dedicated to the current DG, GTBoard, and an upright man who also benefitted from my speech writing skills when I was COMCEC Project Coordinator in 2016. Unlike many, he did not only say “thank you” but I was rewarded handsomely as well.

By Lamin Saho

The author operates as 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)