Gambian Tourism Popularly referred to as the “Smiling Coast of Africa,” The Gambia, the smallest mainland country on the continent is a popular tourism destination in the West African sub-region, attracting more than two hundred and nineteen thousand (219,000) tourists in the 2018 – 2019 tourists season according to authorities.
The sector also creates more than one hundred and fifty thousand (150,000) jobs for the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled nationals who engage in different types of jobs in the industry.
However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the entire industry into a ghost town leaving behind empty hotels, motels, guesthouses, restaurants and tourists taxis, a situation that also creates joblessness for the thousands that work in the sector.
Gambian news media Chronicle.gm engaged multiple stakeholders to gauge their views on the development in the sector, their recollection is of shattered expectations and a lack of government support in the industry.
Ebrima Ceesay, Acting General Manager of the Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Responsible Tourism (ASSERT), disclosed that the association comprises of one hundred and eighty (180) small scale operators in the tourism industry, revealing that all these operators have been pushed out of the tourism industry without any support forthcoming from the government since the outbreak of the virus.
“The situation in the tourism industry is really devastating at the moment, all the operators are in limbo and wanting to know when will support come from the government. The situation before the COVID-19 was bad and now one can say the situation is worse because all the businesses are closed down,” Ceesay disclosed.
He added: “Unfortunately, the government hasn’t rendered any support for us, this is a general cry we have been making long before the COVID-19.”
The ASSERT Supremo described the 2019 – 2020 tourist season as the worst ever in The Gambia, revealing that the industry was first hit by the bankruptcy of the Thomas Cook Group, the political shake-off between Operation Three Years and the Gambian Government and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another sector of the industry adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is the tourists taxi drivers of the tourism informal sector. They are left with two choices either to park their vehicles or resort to normal taxi driving as all tourism enterprises remain closed.
Baba Ceesay, President of the Tourists Taxi Drivers Association of The Gambia, chronicled how members of his association are faring since the first case in the country was announced, disclosing that over 90 percent of the tourists taxi drivers association members are forced out of work as a result of the closure of businesses in the tourism industry.
“Right now all tourist taxi drivers in the country are out of job because of the COVID-19 due largely to the closure of hotels, motels, guesthouses and other tourism enterprises. I can tell you, out of desperation, some of our members are currently back to normal traffic where they are earning very little compared to the industry,” says Ceesay.
He added: “We were promised to be given $50 every month for a period of three months, this was disclosed to us by the tourism ministry, but up to date no support is coming from the government. I want to appeal to the government of The Gambia to waive taxes for us in the coming season, this will help us to maintain our businesses.”
Sheikh Tijan Nyang, Principal of the Institute for Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG) and former director of tourism in The Gambia, has also added his voice to the growing frustration in sector, observing that the industry is at a critical stage as all businesses remain closed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to him, many operators have made huge investments in the sector including loans taken from the banks with the intentions of paying back after the season, arguing that if the government fails to bailout operators there could be a disaster after COVID-19 as they may go bankrupt.
“Our expectation as an industry was for government assistance in the form of subsidy in order to salvage the industry. We also expected the government to advise or intervene with the banks to put on hold all interests on loans taken by key players of the industry, as well as for government to support all stakeholders with soft loans as done in Senegal, Ghana, Cape Verde among other countries in the subregion,” Nyang expressed.
He said, over five hundred thousand (D150,000) arrears are pending on the shoulders of students attending ITTOG, arguing that these arrears may not be recovered due to the impact of the pandemic that left many parents and guardians penniless.
Nyang calls on Gambian government to support tourism institutes with funding that will help to address the payments of teacher’s salaries, adding that licenses fees due to Gambia Tourism Board and Municipal Councils should also be waived if these tourism training institutes are to survive after COVID-19.