The advent of tourism in the Gambia in 1965 comes with great expectations for a young independent nation that does not have many natural resources at the time. Depending on agricultural products for export to earn the much needed foreign exchange, Bertil Hardingâ€™s accidental visit was a blessing that will resonate in various spheres of Gambiaâ€™s development agenda. Since then, the tourism industry continues to immensely contribute to economic, social and environmental development of the Gambia. It is healthy to ask ourselves along the way why tourism? Why are tourists interested in one of the smallest countries in Africa? How can we sustain the spirit of improving destination Gambia? Finding answers to these questions will open more issues and more questions to ponder on in future articles and together we can all make a difference for ourselves and the future â€œFor the Gambia, our homeland...â€Â
This is an important question that every Gambian or people living in the Gambia needs answers to because it helps us to understand why certain issues are prioritised for tourism purposes. I must point out that whatever we do in developing tourism, we must be cautious that to make the destination sustainable, we must do it with the spirit of â€œmaking better places for people to live in and visitâ€ (Cape Town Declaration on Responsible). No matter how much we put into satisfying our external customers (visitors), the rights of the internal customers (hosts) must be adhered to in all development plans. Let us now get to the answer of our question, why tourism?Â
Tourism is one of the leading industries in the Gambia and a major source of foreign exchange earnings and employment. According to the WTTC 2012 Travel and Tourism Economic impact Report on the Gambia, tourism contributes a total GDP of GMD4, 033.1mn (12.6% of GDP) in 2011, with a possible rise of 7.8% in 2012, and 5.3% p.a. to GMD7,304.4mn in 2022. Total employment contribution of the industry in 2011 and other jobs directly supported by the industry stood at 25,000 jobs (3.7% of total employment). The expected rise of employment in 2012 is 7.1% with a 2.5% p.a. rise to 34,000 jobs (3.6% of total employment) in 2022. This has shown that the economic contribution of tourism to the Gambiaâ€™s development agenda cannot be overemphasised. Though the economic contribution is huge and growing, we must understand that it goes further than that.
The economic contribution filters into improving the standard of living either directly or indirectly. Tourists who come to the Gambia have lots of philanthropic gestures benefiting individuals, communities and other organisations. From social amenities to health, education housing, tourism continues to improve the quality of living for the Gambian people. Tourism has potential to succeed in cultural preservation and revitalisation. â€œtourism is a cultural process as much as it is a form of economic development, and the destination of the tourist and the inhabited landscape of culture are now inseparable to a greater degreeâ€ Ringer(1998).Â
Way back in 1988, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) recognised that â€œthe environment is tourismâ€™s baseâ€¦tourism depends to a large extent on natural resources, both for passive tourism (i.e. sightseeing) and for participatory tourist activities (e.g. hiking/trekking, water-based sports, etc.). The tourism industry and tourists are becoming much aware of conservation efforts because they know their activities will not be sustainable once that very environment they depend on depletes. This is done through parks, reserves, bird sanctuaries and other conservation areas that extend to marine ecosystems.Â
WHY ARE TOURISTS INTERESTED IN ONE OF THE SMALLEST COUNTRIES IN AFRICAÂ
The Gambia, though small in size and population, has a lot to offer to the rest of the world. The Gambia is virtually a winter-sun destination, meaning visitors mainly use it to escape the cold winter weather in Europe for its abundant sunlight and sandy beaches, hence, a sun, sand and sea(3S) package destination butâ€œ The Smiling Coastâ€ has a typical characteristic of hospitality that can hardly be found in most countries around the world. Apart from the traditional 3S, the Gambian people are warm and absolutely welcoming. We extend unconditional welcome to everyone that arrives in our country. This is a big strength to the popularity of The Smiling Coast. We boast of a high repeater percentage of visitors and the secret of that lies in our smiles, being very friendly to visitors. Other attractions like the Kunta Kinteh World Heritage Site, Katchikally Crocodile Pool, the Reptile Farm, etc. are part of some interesting excursion itineraries which Whatâ€™s On Gambia will dilate on more in future articles. The fact is that there is a potential for tourism activities in almost every Gambian town or village.Â
HOW CAN WE SUSTAIN THE SPIRIT OF SUSTAINABILITYÂ
Itâ€™s about time we take a break from old unusable academic theories and move on with proactive replicable success stories from around the world to make the Gambia a sustainable destination. Some of the problems we are faced with are direct air access to some originating areas like the United States of America. The reader might ask why the United States? The African American Market is a force to reckon with as blacks tries to connect with their roots through pilgrimage (cultural visits). The Gambia is lucky to be the basis of Alex Haleyâ€™s book and one time popular TV series, Roots. We should take that advantage once again and repackage it if air access is facilitated. Some of our one time traditional originating areas like Scandinavia too need massive revitalization. The Gambia Tourism Board with allied stakeholders has been putting together efforts to tap the Nigerian market, which could improve the low period or off-season. But this is not even to make us sustainable, the people who are the strength must change their attitudes towards the industry and this has to be a collective responsibility. In the formal sector, improving the quality of service delivery, bringing new initiatives and innovations are all paramount to destination sustainability in terms of visitor frequency, arrivals and spending. Tourism product development must be a workshop for all.Â
Let us take a collective responsibility to develop the tourism industry for â€œto the Gambia ever trueâ€.Â
Alhagie Bojang is a Gambian based in the UK. He holds a Masterâ€™s Degree in Responsible Tourism Management from the Leeds Metropolitan University.