Foray in to Tourism
It all began in the dawn of this millennium, precisely in January 2000 when I was called to attend an interview at the Public Service Commission (PSC) for the post of Senior Tourism Officer (Marketing) at the then National Tourist office- a unit set up in 1970 for tourism liaison and later in 1974 became the implementing wing of the newly formed Ministry of Tourism and Culture tasked with the core function of tourism management, promotion and development.
The interview went ahead as smoothly as possible under the able chairmanship of the late Sulayman Massaneh Ceesay, also a product of the Russian scholarship Scheme in the late 6Os and we even exchanged one or two words in Russian and I think it was ( Kak dela) how are you?. A few days later the Secretary to the PSC one Saul Manneh walked in to my office at the NGO Affairs Agency in the Quadrangle to hand over my letter of redeployment to the National Tourist Office as Senior Tourism Officer: Marketing. He gave one or two words of advice but one advice that stood out was the need to see this new assignment as a challenge given the enormity of the task at hand and that tourism is in the throes of a major challenge. I later realized that he was referring to the cessation of operations by FTI – a German Tour Operator and this had impacted negatively on tourism in terms of arrivals and also because the bumster issue had run amok and was out of control with all the concomitant effects on this volatile but lucrative industry.
Thanks were showered on him for the kind words of advice and assured him that I will rise to the challenge INSHALLAH armed with the inspiration of my role model Hag Hammanshold – the second UN Secretary General who famously said that “faced with the world of others, one learns that he who has fully absorbed what his own world has to offer is best equipped to profit by what extends beyond its frontiers- the road inwards could become the road outwards”.
I reported to the National Tourist Office, then under the Directorship of Mr. MBO Cham – a very experienced man, who actually loves Gambia tourism and was a real hard worker. His only crime was that he is honest and a sincere man who cared so much for the industry, but greatly misunderstood and this cost him the Directorship in later years.
Thus began my foray in to Tourism and following the usual protocols and introduction to the staff of the NTO and by extension the larger Ministry, the then Permanent Secretary Mr. Omar Y. Njie – of blessed memory and one of the strongest Permanent Secretary’s I crossed path with and admired as a true professional, was elated to know that my background was international relations.
The late Omar Y. Njie cut his teeth as a career diplomat in the Gambia Foreign Service prior to his redeployment to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture including another former Permanent secretary Bai Ousman Secka – current Gambian envoy to Mauritania. It was a very sad day when with other colleagues, years later, I attended the funeral ceremony of late Omar Y. Njie at the Pipe line mosque. He passed away after a long bout of illness.
At the office level, slowly but surely, I settled down to work, and realized that tourism in the Gambia was not at its best in the dawn of the millennium and the Director of Tourism Mr MBO Cham was evidently very concerned and saw my recruitment as a blessing to inject intellectual weight to a very demoralized staff complement.
Millennium Tourism Challenges
Work commenced in earnest and I started by tackling first the routine issues of responding to the myriad of requests by overseas potential tourists, repeat visitors who would write and occasionally make request/and or complain about one or two things about specific aspects of tourism in destination Gambia and to attend relevant fora on tourism at various levels, but at the same time, weighing the enormity of the task at the macro level. At the same time undertook a tour of the industry to interact with key stakeholders and even joined some tourists on military style Lorries to have a firsthand experience of the product and interact with some tourists. One of these trips took me to the land of Roots – Jufureh as well as the Bintang Bolong Lodge – a true ecotourism haven and the boat trip on the Bintang bolong with its green ecosystem and rich bird stock was very captivating and the eco minded tourists had a field day full of fun.
Tourism, as a dynamic global industry, was undergoing through a gradual paradigm shift, from mass tourism to ecotourism, from sea, sun and sand to sustainable tourism, where the needs of the visitors are balanced against the needs of the hosts including focus on environmental, cultural and socio-economic impact of tourism for now and posterity, also known as Responsible Tourism.
There were also very strong voices in the industry for policy shifts towards other more people centered forms of tourism such as cultural tourism and to mainstream the needs of small scale enterprises in tourism and at the same time encourage community led tourism development with a view to increasing the reach and impact of tourism, thus the need to expand the geographic scope of tourism. At the same time there was a felt need to put in place policies to enhance the forward and backward linkages of tourism with other productive sectors of the economy and the need to encourage independent travel and encourage public –private partnership in tourism management and development at destination level were also high on the policy agenda.
There was an urgent need to place emphasis on product richness and quality not just on price, thus the need for classification of Gambian hospitality outfits and to mainstream quality in tourism, and to shift emphasis from marketing spree to targeted and niche marketing, source market diversification and “tribal” marketing (emphasis on micro segments such as bird watchers, surfers , adventure seekers), as well as e.marketing to underscore the emerging role of the internet. All these policy options were against the backdrop of stiff competition amongst destinations as various nations chase the tourist dollar amidst global challenges exacerbated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and looming economic tumble.
The urgent need to put in place strategies geared towards tampering the negative effects of tourism at local level such as the notorious bumster issue, surge of prostitution in the TDA, child sex tourism as well as pedophilia, tourism environmental challenges and at the same time address the vital issue of tourism product obsolescence/service quality levels were high on the agenda.
Some of these issues were around since the inception of tourism, efforts were put in place over the years to address them squarely, but became more pronounced in the dawn of the new millennium and there could not have been a more appropriate moment to tackle all these challenges head on so as to create the foundation for a 21st century tourism destination.
In search of a strategy for sustainable Tourism Development
Then enter Honorable Yankouba Touray, who from the word go unveiled a very ambitious programme of tourism revitalization to cut across both the demand and supply side aspects of tourism development.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now concluded he was thoroughly briefed about the ailing industry and the need to inject more vigour and dynamism in tourism to be able to tackle and redress the myriad of policy and operational challenges. Given that his task was cut out neatly for him, he straight away went to work and as the saying goes charity begins at home,. Thus his first task was to give the entire office a face lift and as such his own office was spruced up and with new furniture including the conference room and the entire office repainted to give it a new aura and as he put it “tourism as a strategic sector should have a high profile and the starting point is the office”.