As with many coastal countries, The Gambia as a country has come to rely heavily on the tourism industry.
With a 37.28-mile shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean and an additional 279.6 miles along the Gambia River, the country is blessed with beaches, abundant wildlife in its Kiang West National Park and Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve, including monkeys, leopards, hippos, hyenas and rare birds and other attractions which gathers over 150,000 visitors from across the world yearly.
These tourist visits contribute above 20% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and remain a growing source of employment.
Little surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the attendant effect it had on international travel and tourism globally was greatly felt by The Gambia.
According to the World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals declined globally by 73 percent in 2020, with 1 billion fewer travelers compared to 2019, putting in jeopardy between 100 and 120 million direct tourism jobs.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in the Gambia, tourist arrivals fell from more than 235,000 in 2019 to less than 90,000 in 2020, and 19% of businesses closed.
Figures from the Gambian Tourism Board revealed that the tourism industry lost over $108 million (over 5.8 billion GMD) in 2020.
This contributed to the depression experienced in the country at that time, as in 2019, tourism contributed between 25 and 30% to the national GDP, depending on the report you look at.
One thing was obvious from the pandemic, The Gambian economy relied too much on tourism, a sector that can easily be affected by external shocks.
Tourism is the third-largest contributor to Gambia’s GDP, after agriculture and the services sector. The industry employs more than 110,000 people – 41,000 of whom are directly employed.
Two years after the pandemic and all lessons learned have been thrown away. While it was expected that the government would try to diversify the economy further to create less dependence on tourism, the government went the other way.
In other words, the government is attempting to revive the COVID-stricken tourism industry.
The idea behind this bizarre decision, as some government officials have presented it, is that The Gambia’s tourism industry suffered much impact because it relied on the European market.
In January this year, African News quoted a government official, Director of Marketing for The Gambia’s Tourism Board, Adama Njie, as saying, “From our perspective, we shouldn’t be too over-dependent on our source market. We were concentrating too much on the European market, neglecting our sub-regional market. Moreover, we have learned that now we have to embrace our sub-regional market… ”
The country hopes that luring African tourists from neighbouring countries will galvanize the industry.
A similar sentiment was also shared by Tourism Minister Hamat Bah. According to him, although The Gambia was seeking to learn lessons from international countries whose tourism industry was quick to bounce back from the pandemic, the ministry was also seeking to develop a strong domestic market.
RFI quotes the minister as saying, “Throughout the world, including France, the only countries that restarted tourism quickly were those with a very strong domestic market, and Kenya is the leading country in Africa,
“We also want to try and develop a very strong domestic market – it will help to move the tourism sector forward.”
This approach is however dead-on-arrival as statistically Africans are not good tourists. A glance at available data from the World Bank shows that no African country was placed amongst the top 20 countries in terms of outbound tourism.
Senegal the closest neighbouring country to The Gambia was not placed in the top 100. This begs the question, who are the African tourists the government is aiming to lure to revive its tourism industry?
Even analyzing the domestic tourism route the government is postulating, the demand will depend on how Gambia citizens and consumers can increase discretionary spending and considering the prevailing economic realities in the country, it will be difficult if not impossible.
There is no downplaying the importance of the tourism sector, but economic diversification would lay a more solid foundation for accelerated development.
Economies that are not diversified experience a decline in growth, accompanied by weak institutions, and stunted efforts at structural and economic transformation.
Such economies weakened by the lack of diversification are susceptible to global crises such as the COVID pandemic, and that was what happened to The Gambia.
Published on June 27, 2022