Tourism in Gambia has been hit hard by the crisis sparked by ex-President Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to leave office as well as the threat of military action by regional bloc Ecowas. But there are high hopes that the return of new President Adama Barrow and the security provided by Senegalese troops stationed in the country will bring a change in fortune.
“We’re totally destroyed, all the hotels are closed, no business, it’s really affected us,” said Baba Cesay, the president of the Tourist Taxi Association. Cesay was sat in the shade with fellow taxi drivers on the Senegambia strip in Kololi, an area usually thronging with European holidaymakers.
Many tour operators decided to bring Europeans home at the peak of the political impasse with Jammeh, fearing a possible intervention by Ecowas. The strongman, who ruled the country for 22 years, had imposed a state of emergency and many Western countries had issued travel warnings advising their citizens not to travel to Gambia.
“It’s no good for me and I used to make a lot of money every day,” said Alex, a restaurant promoter working in the trade for the past 17 years. “You can look at the restaurant for yourself,” he said, pointing at the empty tables.
A sign at one establishment on the Senegambia strip read: “Due to the political crisis of our country in the past days that affects our business, the management have no option but to reduce some workers till further notice.”
Tourism is vital to the livelihoods of many Gambians and makes up an estimated 20 per cent of the country’s economic growth, according to international financial institutions. Furthermore, the political turmoil coincided with Gambia’s high season.
“The recent political crisis has negatively affected the tourism industry and, given the still fragile political situation, growth in this sector is unlikely to rebound quickly,” said an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The impact on tourism is felt strongly in a number of businesses in the Banjul area including hotels, restaurants, bars, taxis, craft markets and currency exchange. It has also hit some unlikely places, attractions such as the famous crocodile pools.
“They come to see the crocodiles because it’s a very interesting place,” said Sam, a guide at the Kachikally Crocodile Pool. Over 100 crocodiles roam around the pool freely, however there are no tourists. “Local people also come here to bless themselves with the water from the pool,” he added, explaining that visits from Gambians to the sacred shrine keeps them going.
The political crisis is not the first time tourism in Gambia has been hit in recent years. The regional Ebola crisis in 2014-2015 significantly reduced receipts from tourism, although there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
The new government has already lifted the state of emergency and the Gambian Tourist Board announced that tour operators have restarted flights. In addition, the Barrow-effect could have a boost on the number of visitors.
Many Gambians believe the new president and other members of the coalition, who are said to have experience in the sector, will help encourage more tourism and better market the country as a West African destination.
“The new government could also bring an increase of tourism arrivals – the main driver of the economy – as Mr Jammeh’s erratic policymaking had acted as a deterrent,” said the EIU’s analysis.