|TOURISM, SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND SMILES|
The Gambia has won renown for its hospitality, unsophisticated charm and cultural diversity. Its 33 years of tourism has witnessed the growth of an industry contributing about 12% of GDP and employing the second largest section of the workforce. In addition, it represents one of the fastest growing sectors and provides substantial foreign exchange earnings. A study sponsored by the overseeing Department of State for Tourism revealed that, apart from the prepaid packages, visitors spend approximately US $20 million in the country every year. The attraction has been the all year round conducive weather guaranteed by a sub-tropical climate, a fascinating cultural heritage, interesting sights and sounds such as an absolutely enthralling species of about 550 species of brightly coloured birds.
In addition to these are vast, 250-acre nature reserves offering a taste of paradise for nature lovers. Yet, the country's greatest attraction is the ineffable majesty of the Gambian welcome. As Dirk W. Dathe, Managing Director of Senegambia Hotel notes, "the 'Smiling Coast' is not just a slogan, I have hardly found a place where the people are as friendly as here. It's a natural friendliness you can hardly find elsewhere." The proximity of the destination: a five and half-hour, jet lag-free flight from Europe is an extra.
The myriad advantages point to a certain potential, harnessing which the tourism authorities aim at concretising the fortunes of the industry by addressing its setbacks, and by attracting more investments. The tact is to revitalize and diversify the sector through adequate promotion, innovation, quality improvement and broadening the product range.
The revitalization exercise is in the top gear. An unprecedented 1 million dalasis promotion campaign is billed to aggressively sell the destination, "we are printing 20,000 brochures to project the image of Gambian tourism, we are also making promotional videos for presentation at international tourism conferences," comments Yankuba Touray, Secretary of State in-charge. Hitherto, poor marketing has resulted in significant drops in number of visitors. Another problem, 'bumsters' (hustlers) menace, is being closely monitored. A recent demolition of all illegal beach bars is expected to deprive the 'bumsters' of a hideout and the Tourist Guide Scheme seeks to train and assimilate them into the industry as useful guides.
Diversifying Gambia Tourism involves a shift of focus from the traditional package-tour business and a foray into the up-market. "We need to make tourism contribute more to the economy, we need to diversify the industry, explore the upscale market and realize the full potential of tourism in this country", posits Touray, explaining the government's drive to encourage five-star facilities and luxury projects catering for the high-spending traveller.
Underscoring the potential for high demand of up-market facilities is the high occupancy rates at the two five-star hotels in the country. Attractive taxes, free land and low labor costs would also underpin the viability of such projects. Farid Bensouda, international hotelier and Managing Director of Coconut Residence, one of the two 5-star hotels, analyses The Gambia's competitiveness. "Taxes are reasonable, very fair, the land is cheap and the labor is cheap. Colleagues in the Caribbean pay 10 times than I do, or 10 to 20 times in the south of Spain."
The environment is enabling and incentives for investments in up-market tourism are huge. These include a three-year tax holiday, duty waivers and exemption from customs duties, sales tax and turnover tax. Investors needn't bother about buying the land either; acres of beautiful properties await investors free of cost of the TDA. The all-inclusive market is also welcome; government has earmarked a special site to cater for it without disrupting the workings of the present system. In 1998, the rejection of the all-inclusive package led to the withdrawal of Frosh Touristik International (FTI), a German operator, with a prospect of about 20,000 visitors form the Gambia market.
"We are negotiating with Air Tours, new owners of FTI, for their return into the market", State Secretary Touray points out.
A number of other projects have been designed to broaden the smile of the 'Smiling Coast', the tourism image of the Gambia. Plans are afoot, under the Kombo Coastal Roads Project, which aims at expanding the road network serving the country's most beautiful beaches, to develop the southern Atlantic Coast from Tanji to Kartong.
The beautiful expanse of land, bathed by both the ocean and river, offers a rare nature's paradise and an ideal site for vacations. The Gambia is also targeting the American and French markets.
Recent breakthroughs in direct air travel between Banjul and New York will ensure a steady stream of American visitors into the Gambia and further consolidate the ROOTS Homecoming Festival; a cultural initiative attracting Diaspora Africans to explore the continent's rich cultural heritage. Another perk is the VISA connectivity of the Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) of Gambia's leading bank, Standard Chartered Bank, giving credit-card-holding tourists 24 hours access to cash.
The diversification move includes an emphasis on ethno and eco-tourism. Investors are welcome to take advantage of the potentials in deep-sea-fishing, cultural tourism, nature reserves and parks development, bird watching, luxury river cruises and up-country tourism development. Sporting clubs, conference facilities and golf courses are other investment opportunities that could earn special privileges and attractive profit margins.