The Gambia: Reviving the tourism industry

Tourists stopped coming during the country's electoral crisis, but the new government is hopeful good times are ahead.

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    Bakau, The Gambia - With his legs crossed and his gaze fixed firmly on the tarmacked road in front of his small shop, Pap Sidibe looks worried. His business depends on tourists, but no matter how hard he wills it, none appear.

    The 49-year-old father-of-three longs for the old days, when he could make $300 a week selling his sculptures as souvenirs. But these are lean times and now he's lucky if he takes home $20 a week. 

    "It is very slow," he says as he adds the delicate finishing touches to a traditional drum made of wood and cattle hide. "I don't remember, ever, it being like this."

    "Things were nice before the election," he continues, referring to the vote in December when the country's opposition candidate beat the incumbent, Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power since leading a military coup in 1994. Jammeh responded by rejecting the result, although his attempts to hold on to power were thwarted by the regional bloc ECOWAS.

    "A day, I used to sell more than 10 sculptures," Sidibe explains. "[But] I haven't sold anything the last five days. At most I sell one sculpture a week now. It is very stressful and hard."

    Too low for the high season

    February and March are typically the high season for tourism in this tiny sun-soaked West African country, as European tourists flee the cold winters of the northern hemisphere. But that changed when the elections were scheduled for December.

    The country witnessed a hard fought campaign as, in an effort to unseat Jammeh, the opposition formed a coalition behind Adama Barrow. Western embassies in the capital Banjul started issuing statements advising their citizens who wished to visit the country to exercise caution.

    After the electoral commission declared Barrow the winner, Jammeh refused to step down. Those embassies then warned their citizens to stay away.

    As the political deadlock dragged on and ECOWAS threatened to send in troops, the embassies evacuated their people.

    "A total of 30 flights [a week] from Europe used to land at Banjul bringing in foreign tourists," explains Adama Njie, the director of marketing at The Gambia's tourism board. He is trying to find ways to bring those flights - and their passengers - back.

    "After the political impasses, all the flights stopped," says Njie, raising his index finger to emphasise the point. "Hotel occupancy went from 98 percent to zero. Absolute zero. That was beyond shocking to everyone."

    Bringing tourist back

    A short drive from Banjul, Djemba hotel sits in a prime location - the blue and white one storey building hugs the sandy beach of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and faces the restaurants and the main road on the other.

    It used to be a tourist magnet and in normal circumstances would have been fully booked at this time of year.

    But these are unusual times, and Malleh Sallah, a broad-shouldered, clean-shaven man in a grey suit, is pacing up and down the marble-floored lobby, talking on his phone. On the other end of the line are European tour operators whom he's trying to persuade that his country is safe. He wants them to start sending their tourists back.

    "We are down by more than 60 percent on where we should be in terms of the numbers of tourists that we should be seeing at this time of the year," says Malleh, who is the hotel's manager in addition to being the chairman of The Gambia's hotel association.

    He has been in the industry since 2000 and says he has witnessed many setbacks before, but none of this magnitude.

    "We have had elections before in our country. All previous elections were very peaceful. It is true [an] election is a nervous time for the industry and some tourists stay away. But the last one was nothing short of a disaster," he reflects as he takes a seat on a leather sofa in the hotel lobby.

    "We have 250 rooms. Only four were not occupied. Then two days after the election, all 250 rooms were empty and all the tourists were gone."

    Malleh employs 275 people in the three hotel he runs. So far, he says, he has decided against laying off any of his staff.

    "As hoteliers, we decided to keep all our staff. The government is trying its best to help us in terms of giving us concessions and has promised to lower the fees and taxes we pay."

    READ MORE: Barrow to be officially sworn in as Gambia's president

    Good times ahead

    The tourism sector is one of the country's main revenue generators, contributing 20 percent of its budget. It also employs thousands of people.

    In the town of Bakau, a group of young men are sitting beneath a mango tree near a stagnant body of green water. They are the employees of Kachikally Crocodile Pool. It's a popular tourist attraction with more than 100 crocodiles, some as old as 74.

    "Tourists come to see us feed the crocodiles," explains Kemp Jadama, a 27-year-old guide who has worked at the pool for seven years.

    "These crocodiles only eat fish, so tourists can touch and take photographs with them," he adds.

    "Before this political problem, we used to get 600 or more tourists a day. Now we are very lucky if we get 30 a day."

    Peter Omtzigt and Diny Koekoen, a couple from the Netherlands, are among the few tourists visiting the pool. They say they are glad to have finally made it to The Gambia.

    "We were meant to come at the end of January, but we postponed it because of the political situation in the country," Koeken explains. "We were advised against visiting Gambia."

    "We have been here for nine days and we have absolutely loved it," adds Omtzigt. "We will absolutely recommend to anyone to visit Gambia. Beautiful country."

    The country's tourism board says that the worst of the storm has passed and they expect record numbers of visitors now that there is a new government.

    "Last year, 116,000 tourists came to our country. This year, we expected 190,000 tourists to come to our country," says Njie, from the tourism board. "Travel warnings have been lifted. Flights are slowly coming back. We are back in the Commonwealth. Gambians living abroad will also be visiting the country now that the former president is gone. We are at the beginning of the good times."

    It is an optimism shared by Sidibe, the sculptor. "The new government will bring them back," he says, taking a wet cloth to remove the dust from the sculptures lined up in front of his shop. "I'm sure. Very sure."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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