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Gambia rising

By Emmanuel Ukpong
27 February 2018   |   4:22 am
These are no ordinary times for The Gambia. Since Independence from colonial Britain in 1965, the smallest country on mainland Africa...

Gambia President Adama Barrow. PHOTO: CARL DE SOUZA / AFP

With the sweet scent of democracy and optimism in the air, Gambia’s new government and tourism stakeholders are working to retain the West African nation’s status as a Favourite Destination.

These are no ordinary times for The Gambia. Since Independence from colonial Britain in 1965, the smallest country on mainland Africa (size: 4, 361 sq. miles, pop: 1.8m) relished in over 50 years of stability and had just two leaders (Dawda Jawara and Yahya Jammeh ). It seemed Gambians would have preferred to be left in their elements. Until the Yahya Jammeh impasse of 2016-2017. A duly elected government, headed by Adama Barrow, is in place.

Now Gambians and its government have to learn the ancient science of Democracy anew. And it has not been a stroll in the park. The Barrow Government is feverishly setting up, retraining critical officers, building institutions, seeking foreign aids, talking to UN, IMF, the World Bank and other global agencies. It is a new dawn in The Gambia, and the country is rebranding. It has even hired a PR firm. Gambians have high expectations, and those would have to be managed by the new government.

For Barrow and his cabinet members, it has been a punishing schedule. Oluwasegun Ibidapo-Obe, Nigeria’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in Gambia, has seen it all. “I can tell you that it has been very busy here,” said in Banjul. “They on their own are reaching out; they are looking for help anywhere.”

The frenetic pace of activities for the new government is such that it was difficult for some officials to meet their interview commitments. Both the Minister of Tourism & Culture Hon Hamat Bah and the Director-General Gambian Tourism Board (GTB) Mr. Abdoulie Hydara were on assignment in far-away China. Ditto Director-General Gambia Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) Mr. Abdoulie Jammeh who, despite his best efforts, could not keep the appointment because of official commitments in Dakar.

Ambassador Ibidapo-Obe is not far from such action either. In fact, he is in the thick of it. “We are also reaching out,” he said. “So there is one event or programme and they need you to speak. The President needs me, and I have to be there; three meetings at the same time. They run things by anybody who cares to listen to them. The best place and the first place they come to are the embassies.”

Particularly the Nigerian Embassy, a magnificent white edifice in the exclusive Kanifing Institutional Layout. This was the centre of strategic activities for the successful Nigerian-led regional effort to ease out former President Jammeh.
If the Nigerian Embassy seems imposing, it is indeed as it should very well be. Nigeria has a long history of friendship with The Gambia, providing aid in cash and kind since the 1960s. Nigerian judges and lawyers have managed Gambian judiciary for decades, all paid for by the Nigerian Government. Nearly 300 Nigerian professionals including doctors, nurses and physiotherapists have just arrived in The Gambia, all for free. No dramatic show of gratitude is expected from Gambians. Ambassador Ibidapo-Obe aptly described the relationship as that of father and son. It is a duty. He said: “Nigeria does that because we are expected to do it. Who else is going to do it? It is like a father giving to a son; he is expected to do that.”

At 30, 000-strong, Nigeria also has by far the largest population of foreign nationals in The Gambia. Everywhere you go, there is an undeniable presence of Nigeria. Six of Gambia’s 12 banks are Nigerian. While Gambian banks get by with a handful of branches, Nigerian banks are expanding rapidly. For Nigeria’s GTB, having a branch on the busy Coastal Road isn’t enough; an e-branch next door is ready, merely awaiting commissioning. In a part of the city, a parish of Winners Chapel church is located directly across the road from IGI, the Nigerian-owned insurance company. At the next intersection, Nigeria’s Access Bank appears to be the biggest business in a large, white mall. The roads of Banjul are awash with billboards advertising Nigerian financial institutions.

Again, Amb Ibidapo-Obe: “The Nigerian banks have actually cornered the major businesses here… they have cornered the whole thing.”

Not too long ago, a Nigerian opened a commercial apartments business, and the Nigerian singer and multi-instrumentalist Flavour was invited to perform. Gambians remember the residence as well as Flavour’s performance.

Ordinary Gambians speak glowingly about Nigerians, their can-do spirit. Many have Nigerian friends and have visited Lagos for business and ceremonies. And quite a few attempt to speak Hausa and Yoruba.

But sometimes they are overwhelmed by the sheer energy of Nigerians and their tendency to live on the fast lane. This is in direct contrast to the average Gambian, who is laidback. This cool nature really works for The Gambia: crime rate is low, there are hardly any street fights, over speeding is a rarity. The only real presence of law enforcement is the traffic police on some busy intersections.

Thomas, an engineer from Belgium on a two-week holiday, gave a perfect illustration of the two countries. He said: “Gambia has no oil, no gold, no diamonds, so the average Gambian has nothing to really fight for. In your country Nigeria, there are too many stakes and they’re very high. You have a lot to fight for there.” This makes the Gambians naturally friendly and welcoming to visitors. It is indeed an idyllic country.

This explains its attraction to tourists.

Mr. Charbel Hobeika, Managing Director of Gambia Tours, the country’s leading destinations management firm, said, “The Gambian people are very friendly and welcoming. This plays a very big role in the number of visitors coming into the country.”

Fly Mid Africa (FMA) Boss Mr. Bakary Nyassi agreed. “The Gambia’s greatest resource is the people,” he said. “The people are friendly. Any Gambian you meet greets you with a smile. That is why we term ourselves the Smiling Coast of Africa. The tourist that is trapped by the winter has winter conditions; he is stressed, and if he travels out he wants to go and discharge that stress. So, he wouldn’t go to a place where he is not welcomed or where people add to the stress.”

But the top draw is the pleasant sub-tropical climate with two distinct seasons: the dry Savannah winds of November to June and the heavy showers, ushering in wet, luscious green from July to October. It is the dry weather with glorious sunshine and clear blue skies that the European tourists could kill for. Average mid-day temperature is 27c with cooling light breeze to boot. At night time, temperatures could drop to as low as 16c. By November, the beginning of the peak tourist season, many of the good hotels are booked solid by Europeans eager to escape the winter.

Thomas, who fled approaching winter chill in Belgium, said the climate was the major pull. “Do you know what 5c is like?” he asked rhetorically. “It is like putting your head in the refrigerator. The magic here [in the Gambia] is that even though it is about 28c or 30c, I am not sweating at all because humidity is very low.” At night, when Gambians are tucking into their blankets, Thomas and other European tourists are hitting the restaurants, bars and casinos for entertainment. Thomas, who was in The Gambia as recently as August, said the Smiling Coast remained his first choice even though there were cheaper destinations. He said: “I can spend half of what I am spending in Banjul in the Dominican Republic, have inexhaustible bar and fine food all to myself, spend all day on the beach and have fun but it can never be like Gambia because of the climate. I would still sweat in the DR but not here. ”

The numbers are good, and keep getting better. Exact figures are unavailable but every week, The Gambia receives as many as eight flights from the UK, five flights from Holland, two from Belgium and one flight each from Finland and Sweden. Flights from Belgium and Holland are split between Cape Verde and Banjul, according to Hobeika.

The trickle-down effect is a big boost to The Gambian economy. The hospitality subsector (hotels) alone employs well over 10, 000 people, including foreigners. Taxis, food sellers, vendors, supermarkets are all in line to benefit during the peak season. The sense of optimism is palpable in the air. According to Mrs. Marion Nyan, Executive Secretary of Gambian Hotels Association (GHA), the season is off to a good start. She said: “Business is better than last year; we are having a good start. You can even feel it in the atmosphere. People are coming in and out. Suppliers are doing good business. All these people are benefitting from tourism.”

Predictably, the arrivals are putting pressure on infrastructure. More investments are needed. Again, Hobeika: “If we don’t have new hotels coming up in the next two years, there will be bed pressure because everybody wants to come here. Where are we going to fit all these people? Government is working very hard to attract investors to The Gambia because it is safe and it is peaceful.”

Gambia Tours itself is leading the way. It has investments in three hotels, including the Senegambia Hotels, the largest hotel in the country, with 354 rooms. Its second property is the 96-room Sunset Beach Hotel. “Presently, we are building a new hotel with 140 rooms, 4-star standard with swimming pool right in front of every room located in Kotu Beach,” he said, adding with a glint in his eyes, “That could be a very good location for the Nigerian market because it is quality; Nigerians like quality.”

Hobeika, who was born in The Gambia, is a third generation tours manager. His grandfather arrived in The Gambia from Lebanon in 1924. Under his guidance, Gambia Tours has grown to become a success story. “We are the biggest company in this industry,” he said with a tinge of guilt, adding, “It is not nice to say it about myself but we are number one.”

Hobeika is joining forces with Gambia’s well-organized stakeholders to launch a fresh initiative to woo the Nigerian tourists. The 30-member GHA, the Tourism & Travel Association of The Gambia (TTAG) and other major stakeholders now have a better understanding of the Nigerian market. Nigerians are not big on shopping – they’d rather go to Dubai or London for that – but are likely to visit for wedding and honeymoon breaks. And there is a near unanimity that Nigerians are big spenders.

Discovery Tours is a mother and daughter business nestled on the Bamboo Drive, Bijilo, just off Coastal Road. The entire drive is covered with thick bamboo trees. Monkeys could be seen prancing and jumping around. Farma Njie is a veteran of the tourism business and is retiring. So, it is her daughter, Oumie Sise-Sallah, who does most of the heavy lifting these days. Bright and enthusiastic, Oumie wasted no time in laying out her ambitious plans for the Nigerian market: she needed just one per cent of Nigeria’s 180 million population to visit The Gambia. “One per pent would be really, really good for our two million population,” she laughed.

It is not wishful thinking. At a recent stakeholders meeting, Oumie told the gathering that the way to reverse the seasonality of the tourism business in Gambia was to penetrate the Nigerian market. There are ongoing talks with Nigerian tour operators such as Wakanow and Peacock Holidays. A series of promotional activities are being planned to woo the Nigerian tourists. More information on The Gambia is being given out. They are pitching the hotels, the hospitality and the culture.

Again, Oumie: “There are so many similarities between the two cultures, so when you come here you feel at home and warm. We have the markets. We have people to prepare the best egusi soup and pounded yam. We can make it work. I know Nigerians love Coco Ocean [Resort] a lot. It is one of the best, if not the best here.”

It appears to be yielding early fruits. Discovery Tours was gearing up to receive a Nigerian family on the day we visited. Farma even proudly showed an award she won at Ikechi Ukoh’s Akwaba Travel Market 2017.
The real nectar is the Nigerian’s spending power. The mother and daughter team admitted they would rather have a Nigerian couple over for a weekend break than a European couple for two weeks.

But beyond the zeal to open up other markets, Gambia’s tour operators have quite a few cobwebs to clear. They need to improve the products, according to Liane Sallah-Burgers, Executive Secretary of TTAG. And then there is the disturbing matter of bumsters and hustlers. Over the years, sex tourism in The Gambia has been accepted as the norm but Sallah-Burgers believes it is not helping the product. “This is quite an issue for us because they’re on the streets basically harassing people coming here for holidays to sell things,” she said. “It doesn’t really make people unsafe but when you come on a holiday, you want to enjoy it in peace and quiet.”

Sallah-Burgers, who is Dutch and has lived in The Gambia for 22 years, wears two caps, doubling as the Managing Director of African Adventure Tours. She said members were concerned about the bumsters and hustlers phenomenon, and were moving to “eradicate” it. Another headache is “illegal” tour operators who sell excursions at cut rate, cutting off TTAG members in the process. She explained: “These are illegal sellers, we cannot compete with them and this is not being controlled properly.”

She regretted that generations of Gambians had been suppressed for many decades and therefore lacked the basic knowledge of setting up businesses that would create jobs and buying power. “This is how it works in a nutshell. But people don’t know this here; they go for fish money; that’s how people call it, fish money” she said.

Tourism accounts for up to 22 per cent of Gambia’s GDP, next to agriculture. Barrow’s government is looking to grow it to 25 per cent in 2018.

Again, Sallah-Burgers: “Gambia is a tourism destination. If we want to grow as a tourism destination, if your main income is coming from the tourism product, it means that people need to change from going from day by day into planning and organizing.”

Thankfully, Gambia’s major industry stakeholders such as the GHA, TTAG, Gambia Tourism Board (GTB), GCAA and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture have a long and productive history, some active for over 30 years. FMA is promoting regional integration and feeding the country with much-needed traffic. All hands are on the deck. Gambian tourism can only get better.

Ukpong, a former Aviation Correspondent of The Guardian and Managing Consultant at The Mavis Company, could be reached on