Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Gambia's thriving tourist industry

By Ben Mensah

The West Coast of Africa has the potential to become a tourists' haven if governments set their minds to the task. The Gambia realised this after the television series 'Roots', based on Alex Haley's novel, created a curiosity for black Americans to see the country. This article deals with what Gambian tourism has to offer.
The current year has been an uncommonly good tourist season for Africa's tiniest country, the Gambia which in- evitably sets nationals of other West African countries wondering why the Gambia, which shares the same vegetation, has come as close to being all things to all kinds of tourists.

The accelerated inflow of tourists has made tourism the Gambia's most economic activity since its inception some two decades ago. For starting with a modest turnout of about 660 tourists in 1965/66, the number of tourists has shot up to about 46,000 this year giving the industry the highest rate of growth in the Gambian economy.

Its pride of place has been aided and abetted by various factors, among which was the advent of Alex Haley's famous novel, 'Roots' in which this Black American traces his ancestry to a village in the Gambia called Juffure. The instant impact of this book and the television series based on it, not only on the Black Americans, but also the curious whites, was to virtually drive them to discover the hitherto little known West African country. The exercise of tracing one's family tree which suddenly became a common pastime among Black Americans, saw many of them trooping to the Gambia in the footsteps of Alex Haley.

This unique development was given a further boost by the two main characteristics of a country which has never had an army. The fact that the Gambia, since its independence from British colonial rule on February 18, 1962, had had a stable government and is one of only two West African Bank. countries currently pursuing a demo- cratic pluralistic society (the other is Senegal) does not only appeal to tourists looking for a peaceful congenial place to spend their holidays, but also afforded the government an opportunity to pursue and review its policies in the overall interest of the nation.

Agriculture is the priority of Sir Dauda Jawara's government and accounts for 94% of the country's foreign exchange earnings, 60% of per capita income and with fishermen, 85% of the work-force. Government efforts in the promotion of agriculture are manifested in the activities of the Gambia Produce Marketing Board, set up in 1973, to ensure stable prices for the farmers produce such as rice, palm- kernel, cotton and above all groundnuts. There is also the Gambia Co- operative Union which accounts for 60% of purchases from the indigenous growers to the Produce Marketing Board. But the crucial task of production is largely done by the private sector who are financed mainly by the Gambia Commercial and Development

"The fact that the Gambia, since its independence from British colonial rule on February 18, 1962, has had a stable government and is one of only two West African countries currently building a democratic pluralistic society appeals to tourists looking for a peaceful place to spend their holidays."

The net result of these government and private efforts in agriculture is that there is enough food supply which creates a favourable atmosphere for investment in the tourist industry.

The country's first and second five year Development plans provided a large investment in the tourism sector in the form of infrastructural develop- ment for hotels at a designated area known as the Tourist Development Area, with accommodation of about 2,000 beds.

There are nineteen hotels all over the country with a total bed capacity of about 4,000. The bulk of these are located along the beaches. Investment into the industry is both government and private. The private sector, either indigenous or foreign, benefits tremendously from the government's liberal investment policy. It is projected that two new hotels with a total bed capacity of about 1,200 would be built in the next two years.

But there have been regrettable aspects of the effort to promote tourism in the country. Discernible social maladies have been introduced by the foreign tourists and even though the government realises this and seeks to control it by refraining from the promotion of tourism on a mass scale, a further regrettable development is the lack of a policy to promote internal tourism. This has deprived the ordinary Gambians easy access to the exotic facilities for holidaying in the country.

But there is no doubt that the contribution of tourism to the economy has been appreciable, for in addition to its contribution of about 6% to the Gross National Product, the industry employs about 3,000 Gambians directly and about 2,000 indirectly in the associated activities such as handicraft, horticulture, trade, fishing and in other ancillary services.

The serene atmosphere of the Gambia was rudely shaken by the coup attempt of August 1981 when a number of tourists were caught up in the violent events.

Luckily for the country, it has recovered without any lasting damages and tourists still have confidence in the stability and peaceful nature of the Gambia.

In the past, the bulk of the tourists have emanated from the United States of America where an office of the Gambian Tourist Board operated an effective public relations network.

But while the US flow continued there has been an overwhelming upsurge in the traffic from the United Kingdom overtaking the US and Scandinavia and necessitating a transfer of the office from the US to the UK. Last week the Minister for Information and Tourism, Mr Landing Jallow, was in London at the start of a European tour not only to stress the tourist potential of his country, but also to stress the need for the opening of the London office.

It became apparent to the journalists who were his guests at the Gambian High Commission that his government was determined through the new London office not only to attract tourists to the Gambia but also to make readily available to them agents who would listen to their problems relating to such things as the behaviour of airport customs staff, taxi services, flight schedules and hotel services, with a view to improving upon them.

Dancing at Bijilo bantaba - the Gambia National Troupe

Beach resort

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