'Bumsters' to Get the Bum Rush. (the Gambia)

African Business, April 2002 | Go to article overview

'Bumsters' to Get the Bum Rush. (the Gambia)


The 'travelphobia' induced as a result of September 11 could be the making of The Gambia's tourism expansion. The small west African country has set itself an ambitious new target for visitor arrivals. But first, says Dr Karamo Sonko. it must deal with the menace of the 'bumsters'.

Ten years ago, when I was a professor in Regis University's MBA Programme, in Denver, Colorado, I circularted a British tour operator (Thompsons Travels) brochures on The Gambia to my students. Hardly any of them could believe, at first, that they were looking at an "African" country. "Is The Gambia in the Caribbean?" they asked. "No," I replied, "look at the Head of Africa and you will find that it is the Nose!"

This pleasant surprise encouraged me to organise a Seminar on International Tourism, focusing on The Gambia and other "unknown" West African destinations. The result was subsequent urgent calls by my students to set up an "Africa Tourism Project", which, unfortunately, I could not do as I had to leave the American Rockies to work for the UNECA in the Horn, rather than the Nose, of Africa.

Tourism was started in The Gambia in 1965 when a small group of Swedish tourists arrived on a chartered flight. For the next two decades or so, Swedish and other Scandinavian, tourists, tour operators and investors dominated the sector.

Then British tourists took over as the largest group. However, a British Government Travel Advice, following the 1994 coup d'etat, drastically cut their numbers for the subsequent two years, before bouncing back again after the cancellation of the Advice in 1996. From its very modest origins, the number of tourists visiting the tiny West African destination now averages to about a 100,000 a year.

This year is a particularly buoyant one, with a forecast well in excess of the annual average. In spite of a score of world-class hotels and about an equal number of small hotels and self-catering lodges, tour operators and hotel managers are already throwing mud at each other for over-bookings in 2002. During a visit in February, I had the shock of hearing hotel managers complaining about too many" instead of "too few" guests!

Ambitious promotion programme

The Gambia Government, aware that the real potential of tourism in the country is far from being fully exploited, has embarked on an ambitious programme of promotion. In order to direct this programme in a systematic manner, it set up the Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA) in November, 2001, as an autonomous public agency.

Many Gambians welcome this move as both timely and essential and believe that, if empowered, the Authority can eliminate political interference and promote professionalism in the sector.

At the same time, the government has officially announced its target of attracting a million tourists to The Gambia by the year 2020. According to the GTA's Director-General, Habib Drammeh, this target is actually not as ambitious as it seems. Despite the events of September 11, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has projected that total annual arrivals in Africa will rise from 28m in 2000 to 77m in 2020. This is still a minuscule proportion of the total projected world-wide arrivals of 1.6bn in 2020.

Ironically, the post-September 11 epoch may be the best time for The Gambia to pursue its one million tourist objective. There are two superficially contradictory reasons for this. Firstly, the immediate drastic decline in global tourism after September 11 has forced even the most popular of destinations to examine ways of at least maintaining pre-September 11 numbers.

Secondly, this decline could create major gains for a small, relatively unknown, destination such as The Gambia, provided the authorities are able to seize the moment. In fact WTO data reveal that African arrivals are so far the least affected. Although worldwide arrivals dropped by 11% in the last four months of 2001, arrivals in Africa fell by only 3. …

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