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The Gambia seeks to reinvent its tourism

(Banjul) Facing the ocean, Malleh Sallah, owner of a luxury hotel, opens his arms as if to embrace the sumptuous landscape: “This is a characteristic beach of The Gambia. Before COVID-19, it was full.”

Posted Dec 22 2021

Laurent Lozano
France Media Agency

The white plastic convertibles under the palm trees and the straw umbrellas are empty. Yet in Tamala, a four-star establishment near Banjul, and elsewhere in The Gambia, the tourist season has been launched since October.

Only an Ivorian producer and his artist, as well as a couple who spend their last hours here before returning to the Netherlands “where it freezes” appreciate the view. You have to move away from the beach towards the restaurant and the swimming pool, to find more people.

Dutch, Africans, the future may be there. The Gambian tourism industry wants to break with its dependence on charter flights from Britons attracted by the ” sea, sun and sand (sea, sun and sand) and low prices.

It intends to attract customers from elsewhere in Europe, but also from Africa, even Gambia itself, lovers of idleness or businessmen.

“We were too focused on the European market and neglected the sub-region”, says Adama Njie, marketing director of the Gambia Tourism Board, the national office, “we are betting a lot at the moment on the market of the sub-region and the Gambian tourism”.

Aware of its vulnerability, The Gambia had already undertaken, before the pandemic, to diversify its clientele.

The virus overtook it and hit tourism hard in the small country, nicknamed with its 80 km of shores and immense beaches on the Atlantic, the “smiling coast” of Africa.

In 2019, Minister of Tourism Hamat Bah estimated the direct and indirect share of tourism in GDP at 30%. International institutions estimate it at around 20%, a godsend for a poor country of two million inhabitants which mainly derives its other income from agriculture and transfers from the diaspora.

Colossal losses

In 2019, The Gambia struggled to overcome the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook, which occurred just before the start of the season during which the British tour operator was pouring in hundreds of visitors almost daily.

With COVID-19 in 2020, “everything stopped overnight,” recalls Malleh Sallah, muscular co-owner of the Tamala, a flagship hotel with its 140 rooms and high-end services.

“We have lost billions of dalasis (100 dalasis = $2.30), more than 200,000 jobs, direct or indirect, which has caused social problems; we have seen a delinquency appear that we did not know about, ”said the Minister of Tourism to AFP.

Tourist arrivals have fallen from over 235,000 in 2019 to less than 90,000 in 2020, 19% of business has closed and after years of growth, The Gambia has suffered recession, according to the International Monetary Fund; Another 25,000 people have fallen into extreme poverty, almost 1% of the population.

“Last year at this time, the hotel industry was dead,” said Malleh Sallah, co-owner of five hotels: of the thousand employees of the Djeliba Leisure Group, only 250 kept their jobs.

Three of the establishments of the Djeliba Leisure Group, closed for seven months, have reopened. Usually full in this season, the Tamala is only 70% occupied. Overall, activity represents 30% of what it should be and very many establishments have not reopened, says Mr. Njie, of the national office.

Tour to Africa

The Gambia turned to Africa: the Senegalese neighbor, the Nigerian giant, Ghana.

Promoting the image of a hospitable destination and little affected by COVID-19, it is also seeking to attract more scheduled flights and fewer charter flights to Banjul airport.

The recent service by Air France connects The Gambia to major markets, such as the United States. This is the promise of a more flexible and more spendthrift tourism than that of tour operators.

The German tour operator TUI “is gradually replacing Thomas Cook”, says Adama Njie. Dutch, and to a lesser extent German and Scandinavian, tourists are beginning to supplant the British, he says, although the latter remain visible on beaches and in bars.

“British tourists are important to us, but they are no longer the only ones we rely on”, says the owner of the Tamala, “at the moment, 80% of our rooms are occupied by people from the sub-region”.

The last few months, with the pandemic, but also the presidential election in Gambia and the risk of unrest, have shown that the European market is “very sensitive”.

“There is less nervousness in the domestic or regional market, we Africans are more immune to political events and some of these viruses,” he jokes.

Mr. Njie sees “very positive signs”, but “this is the new normal: what happens next will be dictated by what COVID-19 has in store for us”.

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