May 13, 2020, 2:14 PM
Tourism – The Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs
It has been pointed out elsewhere that tourism is the goose that lays the golden egg in the Gambia and it was also stressed elsewhere that we should make sustained efforts to protect and preserve the goose that lays these golden eggs so that we can continue to reap the benefits that accrue from the eggs. The eggs come in many forms, shape and colour and in one instance the eggs take the form of employment generation and over the years tones and heap of employment have been generated by tourism to the extent that it ranks among the main generator of employment in the Smiling Coast. The World Travel and Tourism Council report that tourism and travel are responsible for creating 19% of total employment in the Gambia. In another instance the benefits come in the form of wealth generation and it has been widely believed that tourism is ranked amongst the foremost generators of wealth in The Gambia both directly and indirectly. Thus prompting the Hnourable Minister of Tourism and Culture to stress that” the growth of tourism in recent years confirms that the sector is today one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and development. It is our responsibility to manage it in a sustainable manner and translate this expansion in to real benefits for our local communities, creating opportunities for jobs and entrepreneurship and leaving no one behind”.
In another angle tourism is in the forefront of efforts to conquer poverty and many MSMEs and SMEs have proliferated across the length and breath of the country being direct beneficiaries and participants in tourism in such ventures anchored on ecotourism or small scale enterprises in tourism such as bicycle rentals, tour guiding, bird watching, niche tour operating revolving around culture, heritage and the ecosystem. The list is endless not to mention the various activities related to hospitality such as food catering, lodging and accommodation, and all the related services in a resort setting.
As such tourism has been recognized as a strategic sector of the national economy and succeeding governments over the years have put in place policies and strategies to anchor tourism on a firm pedestal in terms of human resource and institutional development, product development, infrastructural enhancement and travel facilitation, regulatory framework as well as policy formulation, not to mention the various efforts in quality control and destination marketing.
The outcome of these interventions have been positive as evidenced by the upward surge in arrival numbers, source market diversification, proliferation of trendy resort and hospitality facilities in the Tourism Development Area and other areas frequented by tourists. At this stage it must be pointed out that Gambia Tourism has always been about people and their interaction with visitors. The visitors have always been treated like royalty in hospitable, peaceful and leisurely environments and invariably over the years the Gambian people continue to put a smile on the face of these visitors to ensure that the repeater rate remain on the high side lending credence to the saying in Mandinka that ‘ niye dingdingolu moi alli ngata na feya dula kototo, woto jeh diyatelaleh”- roughly meaning children flock back to a playing ground because the previous foray was delightful. The Smiling Coast is indeed a delightful destination thanks to a range of reasons including genuine hospitality of the people, charm and rich heritage and culture of the diverse peoples, including greet religious diversity and tolerance, social cohesion, culinary delights, balanced and unspoilt natural endowment /ecosystemand above all peace and tranquility.
The Effects of a Global Pandemic
Then enter Corona Virus/COVID 19 and this global pandemic is poised to throw spanners in tourism. This is against the backdrop that tourism is a travel and experience based industry where the customer comes to the product. Given that social distancing and stay home, travel later is the mantra of this pandemic tourism bears the brunt as airports are closed, borders sealed and potential tourists advised to stay put. In the Gambian context this translates in to empty hotels, deserted restaurants, grounded excursion trucks and coaches, deserted hospitality hotspots and abandoned airport. What a bad omen for tourism. A stroll along the once bustling Senegambia Strip was a bad experience given that this once bustling centre of leisure and hospitality has been reduced to a ghost town with the bumsters gone and the craft markets once aptly called BENDULALU (meeting place) deserted as the customers (tourists) are nowhere to be found. The tourist guides closed shop as a consequence and the trendy restaurants and other eateries closed. The beauty of Gambia tourism is the fringe benefits and the trickle down effects it engenders for the local people who are rightly the custodians of Gambia Tourism Product as the saying goes “if you want to experience the people visit The Gambia, but if you want to encounter wildlife visit Kenya or Tanzania”. Gambian people are indeed the linchpin of our tourism brand and many a Gambian have been proud stakeholders of this people oriented industry and partake in various ventures in both the formal and informal set up to give that great experience to the visitors either as tourist guides, waiters, bird watchers, craft vendors, fruit juice sellers, tourist taxi drivers, bicycle rentals, bumsters, restaurateurs, hotel operators, forex dealers, life guards, lodge operators and all the other small scale operators in tourism. The CORONA Pandemic is threatening livelihoods and a whole industry anchored on peace, people and hospitality.
Some Perspectives on Post Covid 19 World
However in every dark cloud there are silver linings and as pointed out by the Director General of the GTBoard during an assessment tour of the industry recently that tourism is resilient and will rebound in the strongest of ways post COVID 19. I concur and further take a cue from one great thinker who famously pointed out that “the world is a book, and all those who do not travel read only one page”. As such the urge to read the entire book will always propel people to travel and the pull and push factors will always ensure that this great industry withstands all shocks, trials and tribulations and rebound.
INSHALLAH tourism will rebound, but given the huge blows it is sustaining at the moment it is prudent for us all to proactively take stock with a view to reflecting on the way forward post Covid 19. In this front few things come to mind and these include the need to pay more attention to a trend that has been picking steam over the years and that is the phenomenon of “staycation”. According to one economist tourism bears the brunt in the face of economic downturn as people shelf this luxury to a later date to take care of more pressing needs. Invariably Post COVID 19 world will be a very interesting world, but one that will be defined by fiscal discipline, financial prudence and this obviously will impact profoundly on tourism at all levels.
Another major trend worth paying attention post COVID 19 is domestic tourism. Obviously domestic tourism and staycation are two sides of the same coin, but for destinations such as ours there is the urgent need to put in place strategies to make domestic tourism a reality as overseas arrivals will certainly be affected post COVID 19. Gambians more so those who can afford it should be encouraged to patronize our hospitality establishment as a matter of priority so that these facilities and operators can stay afloat.
In the same vein sub regional tourism also comes to mind. Given that our major source markets such as UK, Germany, Holland, Spain are in the throes of CORONAVIRUS pandemic and arrivals will definitely be affected, thus the need to vigorously look out for source markets in our neighbor hood in the sub -region.
As part of COVID 19 survival strategies, more emphasis should be placed on niche tourism, given that mass tourism will be hardest hit by the global pandemic. The need for low volume, high impact tourism cannot be overemphasized to attract the type of tourists best suited for post COVID 19 world, and here emphasis should be on quality, high value and high impact tourism as opposed to high volume, less impact tourism. In this new dynamics, Muslim Friendly Tourism comes to mind and is poised to become a major niche, going forward for a range of reasons and authoritative studies have pointed out that Muslim travelers are on the increase and a significant portion of those travelling for whatever motivation would like to have an element of halal tourism during their travels. It is therefore imperative to pay more attention to MFT in post Covid 19 world as a complement to conventional tourism. Moreover MFT is expected to soar around s240 billion in the next five years.
At the same time, the need for policy support in terms of stimulus package and pro tourism incentives to augment and reposition our destination cannot be overemphasized in terms of product development and regeneration of tourism products anchored on the principle of low volume, high impact tourism. The time to reposition destination Gambia is now and here I mean deploying both objective and subjective positioning strategies to be able to survive the shocks of the CORONA VIRUS pandemic and all the concomitant effects on this volatile industry. The need for a stimulus package for the tourism industry cannot be overemphasized given that this is one sector that will bear the brunt of this global pandemic going forward. Let’s start thinking global given the global dimension of tourism, but act local. As recently underscored by one African leader “exceptional situations call for exceptional measures. The primary responsibility for dealing with the crises lies with us”.
By Lamin Saho
The author served as Senior Tourism Officer, and Director of Marketing GTA/GTBOARD as well as briefly served as Director of Planning, Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Currently operates as a tourism consultant.