OPINION: ORBITING THROUGH TOURISM - IN SEARCH OF THE CAPTIVATING ATTRACTIONS IN GAMBIA TOURISM

Friday, August 25, 2017

In an increasingly globalised and competitive world, it is imperative for tourism destinations to be more innovative than ever and to find ways and means of attracting tourists, hence new and exciting tourism attractions and services, says Dr Talib Refai – Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization on the auspicious occasion of the launching of the exquisite Fajara Craft market in 2011. Invariably the ability of destinations to attract visitors depends on a range of variables and factors including the quality, quantity, diversity, uniqueness and accessibility of its attractions and assets.

Attractions are without doubt crucial in drawing tourists and are arguably the most important component of destination’s resources, It can be argued  that most destinations offer for example, scenery, beaches, historical monuments, conference facilities, cultural and sporting events, but in the view of  Professor Ernie Heath – erudite professor of Tourism Management “this may be regarded as raw materials to be developed in quite different ways in  answer to the needs in quite different markets. In other words they could be made up in to distinct tourism products and are therefore not in themselves the products.” In a nutshell attractions such as the River Gambia and the Jarra Bureng  Koosee Festival are mere attractions and to evolve in to the “Benechin” tourism product  we have to  invest in the “ingredients”  and cook these  to get the  product.

In the Gambian context, based on key findings of the Tourism Development Master plan, The Gambia’s key selling point and main attractions include beaches, the agreeable weather, the friendly and welcoming people, peaceful relaxing atmosphere, vibrant culture, river and birdlife. It further reveals that “the range of attractions was the aspect that scored the most poorly with all other operators giving a rating of poor or satisfactory. The Gambia offers no traditional holiday destination attractions” On the positive side it concludes that ‘perceptions are that destination Gambia is safe in comparison with other African destinations”.

This finding should be viewed against the backdrop that the latest authoritative survey on Gambia Tourism reveals that the main factor that influences visitor travel to the Smiling Coast is climate, sun and beach which accounts for 61% followed by people and culture 29%.

Natural Attractions – River Gambia – Majestic and Imposing

Tourist attractions range from which little control can be exerted e.g. the River Gambia, Victoria Falls and Kilimanjaro etc. As pointed out in earlier pieces, there is so much potential tied to this natural tourist attraction of destination Gambia,

Invariably, deliberate efforts have to be mobilized through public –private partnership or otherwise to develop this natural attraction because “if Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt” then the ‘The Gambia is the River Gambia and the River Gambia is the Gambia’. Some years ago, when tourism authorities were busy trying to develop skydiving as an adventure product on our fast depleting coastline, a keen observer of Gambia Tourism rightly pointed out that the initiative is misplaced, and a better approach would have been to develop water sports and related river based activities as recommended in the Tourism Development Master plan. Here emphasis is on the development of river based products for those tourists who view the river as “add on’ to the holiday experience for cruising –bird watching, fishing and heritage/cultural tourism. As one travel writer on assignment to the Smiling Coast recently put it, “in addition to a country of happiness. Gambia is a country of birds. I’ll discover that during my trip to Janjang Bureh, where I crossed and used the river many times and then to the south bank of the Gambia River”. I am certain other tourists venturing upriver will feel much the same way.

Katchically Crocodile Pool -   Unique wonder ripe for upgrading

Overall, attractions can be classified in to three segments including historical/cultural and these include museums, theatres, opera houses, forts etc. In the Gambian context the national museum, Fort Bullen, Tange Village Museum, Mama Africa Art Gallery – Batokunku , the Kankurang Cenre in Janjanbureh as well as the Juffureh Revamp project and  the community run Katchically Crocodile pool are a fine catalogue of historical/cultural attractions of the Smiling Coast.

In my humble view the Katchicaly Crocodile pool is a unique and spectacular attraction consisting of nearly 90 crocodiles living idly in peace in the pool and well fed daily. The nearby museum presents a summary of Gambian culture, traditional customs, musical instruments, masks, utensils etc. However, a finding of a study conducted on the pool and the environment by a tourism intern some time back made interesting reading and recommends “that cleanliness, sanitation and the general aesthetics of the park need urgent attention”. It went further to reveal that certain tourists interviewed say that they have an interesting opinion of Katchically. For these tourists the park, pool and the general upkeep is work in progress and were of the view that a lot of upgrading needs to be undertaken to improve the general environment and ambience of the pool area to avoid the impression that the whole attraction is an “attape tourist”= trick to attract tourists. I must admit that of recent a lot initiatives have been undertaken by the custodians of  Katchically to make the site a truly tourist attraction, there is room for progress.

South Gambia Fish Landing – Captivating Experience

Another aspect of tourist attractions  include outdoor recreational such as national parks, forest trails, marinas and fishing sites such as the fish landing sites of Tanji and other coastal villages in South Gambia.  The captivating experience of Tanji Fish landing scene as an attraction is aptly captured by a Dutch travel writer when she observes that “throughout this chaos we come to the beach. I have been to many markets around the world, but never -never - something comparable to this. Well, to me there is a single big chaos, but there is never a little system here. I find the way right down to the water’s edge and decide to stand completely silent on a spot to just observe. It’s going to happen a lot. All the fishing boats have come in to deliver the morning’s catch. Diligent carriers went on shuttles between the beach and the boats to pick up the fish. Well on the beach side, the fish was carried to the next person waiting for the wheelbarrow. From here, the fish was diverted into a sales pitch or smoking room”.  The ambience is a major attraction for this tourist and vey captivating.

 National Parks –   Jewels in the Crown, but not yet sparkling

In this category the Abuko Nature Reserve, Tange Bird Reserve, Monkey Park Tambi Wetland   National Reserve, Nuimi National Park are all highly rated national parks.  In the South Bank the Kiang West National Park located nearly Tendaba Camp is a major attraction and boasts about 250 species of birds. The Baoboling Wetland Reserve located directly across the KWNP in the North Bank is another major attraction. The main attraction in the mix is the River Gambia National Park located next to the WASSU Stone Circles and a major attraction for hippo viewing in the river Gambia and a number of chimps also reside in the wild sanctuary in the same area, Most of these reserves are not just nature parks, but attractions, providing excellent setting for fishing, boating, bird watching and wildlife viewing opportunities. Thus they deserve a lot more attention to evolve in to spectacular tourism products with well defined trails and themed accordingly.

Rise of Community Festivals

The other major attractions include events and these range from art/ festivals, home shows, annual cycling events, marathons etc. In the Gambia the biennial International Roots Homecoming festival has occupied pride of place in this category, The annual Gambia International Bird Festival, the second edition of which is about to be rolled out following the successful maiden launch in Tendaba last year is another major attraction for stakeholders in the birding circuit and has the potential to make destination Gambia the number one birding destination in this part of Africa. The International Fishing Competition as well as the Food and Beverage Festival all have occupied pride of place in the tourism calendar of events and are all poised to grow in scope and magnitude. The myriad of community festivals such as the Kartong Festival, Buring Koosee Festiva, Sukuta Dembadou Carnival and festival, Sanyang International Cultural Festival have all emerged given the need for product diversification at national and community levels and this is underpinned by a gradual foray in to other more people centered forms of tourism such as eco-tourism, cultural tourism and community tourism.

In practice it may happen that some products are core (primary) tourism attractions and others are ancillary such as the Stone Circles may be regarded as core attraction while the nearby museum may be regarded as ancillary product.

Furthermore every other destination contains tourism attraction, which will play a major role in attracting tourists. Kotler (1997) describes such attractions as product leaders/icons. In the Gambian context the Stone Circles of WASSU, Kunta  Kinteh Island and the Juffureh/ Albreda Circuit can be rated as flagship attractions. In Egypt the Pyramids and the Table Mountain of Cape Town can be regarded as flagship attraction in their own right. I have experienced similar flagship attractions in other parts of the world such as the Dead Sea in Israel – located on the lowest point on earth and its thick black mud is claimed to have healing powers as well as the Massada in the Negev desert of Israel, Petra- a historical wonder in Jordan. The Jenting Highland and Resorts in Malaysia are a natural wonder with exquisite   resorts developed on this mountain job – a true wonder and I always ponder why this great tourist attraction has not been declared another wonder of the modern world.

Way Forward

• At this stage of our tourism development, emphasis should be on thematic tourism, which has a narrow focus, where tours are motivated by a particular focus. This is broadly based and includes many form of tourism such as health/ wellness tourism, heritage tourism, agricultural tourism, sporting tourism, wildlife/ natural tourism, arts tourism, religious tourism, incentive travel, conferencing etc. A typical example of arts tourism is the Ballabu Wide Open Walls Project jointly initiated by the Makasutu Culture Forest and Gambia’s very own award winning artist Njogu Touray. The setting is the Ballabu –comprising of series of satellite villages of Mandinaring including Kubuheh and each year artists of world repute descend on these villages in the Ballabu to paint and forge beneficial bonds with the community. These tourists are attracted to the Smiling Coast not for the sea, sun and sand, but for a more loaded experience to paint and mix with the communities. The project has a strong community development dimension.

• Promote tourism themes that are cross cutting. These will include generic scenic beauty, food, art, culture, eco- experience (bird watching, dolphin watching, hippo watching) heritage experience (slave trade sites) youth tourism and a host of special interest tourism. Given the rise of student tourism, initiatives such as Camp Africa with sole focus on attracting the youth segment should be given added impetus so as to grow in scope and magnitude and in my view the forthcoming Senegambia Novelty Run for Peace is a laudable initiative and could easily be married in to tourism to expose the youthful participants to various aspects of our tourism along the marathon trail.

• Another area is volunteerism – popular amongst the youth and is a travel experience during which the traveler dedicates a portion of time to rendering voluntary service to a destination in an effort to create a positive impact. According to experts “the nexus between these two industries – tourism/ voluntarism is a travel experience during which the traveler dedicates a portion of time to rendering voluntary service to a destination”.  Foray in to these areas will surely complement the lofty aims of the marathon to raise awareness in the importance of peace, friendship and culture through sports.

• Consolidate the events tourism program/ calendar of events and the overall objective will seek to increase the scope and extent of these events and the facilities required for the purpose.

• Establish working groups of relevant stakeholders and such working groups should identify pilot projects in each programme and allocate a “champion” to spearhead these projects such the upgrading of Katchcally Crocodile pool etc. This should be done through public – private partnership and success emanating from the pilot projects could be replicated across the country. Such initiatives have made all the difference in South Africa – one of Africa’s foremost tourism destination,

• Develop special generic marketing campaigns to create awareness of these themes in relevant source markets.

The author 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)

Author: Lamin Saho