Gambia: Interview with Benjamin A. Roberts

Benjamin A. Roberts

Minister of Tourism and Culture (Government)

Benjamin A. Roberts

Europe is in an economic crisis, the USA is also having economic problems and the Arab world is not politically stable, all signs show that Africa could be the next destination for investments. What is your point of view about Africa as an investment destination, and how do you see Gambia in the region?


There are lots of discussions concerning Africa being the next frontier in terms of investment potential and also in terms of economic development. For this reason, businesses are interested in investing in Africa where they will get the most return on investments; this is an important opportunity for Africa as an emerging frontier.


Europe still remains a powerhouse notwithstanding the global financial challenges and the low growth rates over the past few years. Africa still has a lot to learn from the western world and with all the foreign direct investments coming into Africa, technology transfer remains an important issue and it is key if we are to achieve our overall economic development aspiration or if the view that Africa is the next frontier is to become a reality.


There is a need to build institutions in Africa as these are critical for realization of investments, especially foreign direct investments. Having the relevant policies and clarity on the policies is crucial and so is economic stability.


Notwithstanding the above, Africa is very capable of being the next frontier even despite Europe’s current economic circumstances or the challenges inherent in the developing world. Some of the challenges that Africa is currently facing, such as political instability and inadequate institutions make it difficult to harness the foreign direct investment that come into Africa making it difficult for investors, in general, to realize the expected returns on their investments.


Concerning The Gambia, the country prides itself in terms of overall economic stability, which its citizens and residents have enjoyed since 1994. This is due to the fact that our economic policies are relatively more predictable and that government has managed well our political stability. Without these, it would be very difficult to attract investments that would generate decent returns to investors.


The Gambia is quite unique. It is the smallest country on mainland Africa and it is economically and politically stable, and is relatively open with great ease of doing business. Businesses, in general, have easy access to policy and decision makers and the movers and shakers of the country.  All these are critical links and contribute to the turnaround time in investment facilitation. All of these place the country in a good footing to attract investments.


One of the challenges the country is confronted with, which we need to overcome, is the lack of awareness of the country as a formidable investment or tourism destination. It would seem the country is well known outside but there are still a good number of people who do not know much or anything about The Gambia. The country is currently creating awareness by means of publications in magazines and also in other media outlets. From the tourism perspective, we believe a lot has to be done on the online platform.



Tourism is the second most important sector of The Gambia’s economy after Agriculture, contributing between 16 to 18 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Can you mention the current main projects?


The projection in terms of contributions to GDP is around that figure (20%).  Of course, we know that tourist arrivals fluctuate from season to season and for a number of reasons; I can refer to volcanic ash eruption of 2007 and 2009 and around that time most European aircrafts were either grounded or left with the option of flying uneconomical routes to get to their destinations. Another is the global financial crisis, which we are still struggling from.


As a country (Gambia) we are guided by Vision 2020 and the specific sector pronouncements. In regards to the tourism sector, our aspiration is to increase the contribution of tourism to the GDP from the current 16% to 25% and we intend to achieve this by the year 2020. We are also committed to increase our tourism air arrivals from the current 170,000 mark to half a million (500,000) by the year 2020. It is quite a laudable aspiration but a challenging one as well but we are determined to achieve those goals.


Achieving these goals requires bringing greater awareness to the destination.  In terms of what has been done to achieve these goals – we have contracted PR and Marketing firms around the globe. However, we have not been able to have PR & Marketing representation in every destination from where we originate tourists due to financial constraints and for this reason we have to be very strategic in terms of where we engage PR and Marketing firms. Among the contracted PR and Marketing Firms are Glenaki in Belgium, Avia Reps in Germany, ATL in Nigeria, Hills Balfour in the UK, Baltus in the Netherlands and we are looking at contracting Interface Tourism in Spain with plans to contract another PR and Marketing firm in Russia. We also have plans to contract PR Marketing firms in Scandinavia, hopefully operating from Sweden to cover Norway and Denmark. We believe these PR & Marketing firms will create greater awareness about The Gambia as a Tourism and investment Destination and also help achieve our targeted tourism arrival numbers.


Among other plans is to extend our reach to various online platforms. We recently completed the development of phase one of our website and we also launched our Facebook and twitter pages some 7 months ago together with newsletter feeds for tourists.


We have instituted surveys at the airport on tourists and from which we have created a database that we use to inform tourists about developments in Destination Gambia.


We are now also looking at creating videos that could be launched on our YouTube channel. We recently developed a destination video for the first time and this would be translated into the various country languages from where we originate tourists – that is – Dutch German, and Spanish.  We are also working on a Turkish version.


There are different initiatives taking place at the level of the GTBoard guided by a 5-year Business Plan with 60 action Points to be implemented over a 5-year period and out of which 42 have already been implemented.


Within the Business Plan, some of the strategies focus on product development and enhancement of existing ones. The need to develop new tourism products is as a result of current hotel capacity challenges.  This is the reason for some of our tourism outreach missions to attract investments in new hotels, the recent of which is our visit to Turkey and engagement with Green Park Hotel Group.


Currently the demand for hotel beds is greater than the supply and this has been for the last two seasons, especially during the winter months of November through April. 


Beyond the development of products, we are also looking at creating festivals; an example is the festival introduced in 2012, the Food and Beverage Festival. The last edition was held in February 2014 and it was very successful while the next edition will be held in February 2015, which will coincide with the country’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations.


Still on strategy, we are trying to get more schedule airline into The Gambia. We have had some success in this plan because we have brought in Binta Canaries from the Canary Islands, Vueling Airlines from Barcelona with connection possibilities with Germany. We have also managed to win back FTI, a charter operator that used to be a major player in the 1990s and early 2000s from Germany.


We are also working on facilitating connections from the USA. Delta Airlines used to fly to Gambia, however they do not operate this route anymore. I believe they were overly ambitious in the past when they operated two flights per week and given the low load factors they stopped their operations. We are working on a close collaboration with the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority and we hope with their support and collaboration, example attending of airline trade fairs like the Routes in Chicago, we will eventually create an air access link from the USA.



What are the strategies being explored at the level of the Ministry to capture new markets to increase the income from arrivals?


The Ministry of Tourism and Culture is more of a policy making body. However, through its satellite institutions, like the Gambia Tourism Board, National Centre for Arts and Culture, and The Gambia Tourism and Hospitality Institute, the Ministry is able to influence plans and activities for implementation. The Gambia Tourism Board has a standing MOU with the Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency and a Tourism Investment Forum is to be held from 16th to 18th October 2014, which is intended to attract foreign direct investments from countries like Italy, United Kingdom, Nigeria; Spain, amongst others.


The contracting of PR & Marketing firms are also intended to diversify our market base and help in attracting different classes of tourists, especially high spenders, but this also necessarily means we should have more schedule airlines and reduce our dependence on Charter flights.  Equally, the Tourism Product Suite must be enhanced to give tourists options and we must also develop our various niche markets – for example, birding, Eco-Tourism, Community Based Tourism such as home-stays, gastronomy, conferencing, and Sports Tourism.



What have you learned throughout your career that you implement as the Minister of Tourism?


I have been blessed, fortunate and lucky to have certain opportunities in life. I schooled in the USA where I did my first degree in Economics and Finance and my first Masters at The University of Manchester and my second Masters at the University of Singapore. When I came back home in 2003 I decided to take up employment with the Databank Group in Ghana. I was there for about a year. About this time, I was away for 12 years so I decided that I wanted to come back home to The Gambia. So in September 2004 I came back home and was still working with the Databank Group but with the subsidiary in The Gambia. At the time, we had aspirations to set up a Stock Market or brokerage firm in The Gambia as one did not exist but at some point I realized that it was not going to happen and it has still not happened. So I decided to leave and went to work with Standard Chartered Bank where I worked for six years and in October 2010 I resigned as an Associate Director and decided to join the Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency (GIEPA) as the Director for Business and Export Development. After 18 months, I left for The Gambia Tourism Board and after 28 months I am now here as Minister for Tourism and Culture.


So the experience I have accumulated over the years is what guides me in my role as Minister and for the most part I strategies primarily from a business perspective. I tend to think more like a businessman than a politician although I am aware that the two are inseparable.


I have had many experiences and feel that for us to progress as a nation we need to be more ambitious, we need to set targets and I hope that the experiences that I have been able to gather from my previous assignments and the opportunities that I have had will also help me to make meaningful contributions in my capacity as Minister. I believe that what we have set out to achieve in Vision 2020 for the tourism sector is possible, it is not going to be easy but with commitment, dedication, monitoring and reassessment of our strategies we would succeed. I have also been fortunate during my days at GIEPA to be in the lead for the development of our Nation Export Strategy working in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat and that has given me a broad perspective of our overall economic aspirations which would help in me making meaningful contributions to our economic development plans.



Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers as potential investors?


I would want potential investors to know that we are quite serious in terms of facilitating foreign direct investments as we recognize how that can help us achieve our economic development aspirations. The country is economically and politically stable with easy access to decision and policy makers at the highest level and with all the requisite support.


The government is focused to ensure that the conducive environment is created for businesses. If you look at the various Doing Business Index reports published by some of the international organizations, there is improvement in terms of the respective parameters reported on for The Gambia. The initiative taken by the Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency to create a Single Business Registration Window, a One-Stop-Shop initiative, is in efforts to create a more conducive business environment for investors. The various incentives that are put in place by the government through GIEPA and by extension the Ministry of Trade are also supposed to facilitate and attract foreign investments. The various initiatives pursued by respective institutions like the Gambia Tourism Board to provide land for those that want to come and invest in the tourism sector with a lease period of 50 years (with the possibility to renew) without having to purchase the land, are incentives that I want to bring to the awareness of investors.


But the most important concession for investors is also the tax break; the five-year tax break, especially for those who intend to export their produce to the sub region in which the tax break is for 8 years. We like to consider The Gambia as a soft landing for those entering Africa for the first time and those not too comfortable with Africa given the usual negative media coverage on Africa. We are an English speaking country with close proximity to Europe. We are also a member of the ECOWAS, which is a community of over 300 million consumers. This presents an opportunity to investors seeking export markets in West Africa. So despite our small market size, 1.8million people, the sub-regional market in itself presents great market access opportunities. We are also globally renowned as a friendly and hospitable people and hence our label as “The Smiling Coast of Africa.” I want to seize this opportunity to welcome all foreign investors with investment interests in Africa to come and explore investment opportunities in The Gambia and to also come and enjoy the Smiling Coast of Africa.