The tourism sector has been the engine of growth for this country for over 5 decades, and tourists have been attracted by the glorious winter sun, gorgeous beaches but most notably the hospitality of the people, and the exquisite resorts and related complementary facilities.
Global tourism is poised to rebound following turbulence due to economic and political shocks exacerbated by growing terrorist threats in recent times. The growth forecast for Africa in particular is robust and projected at 5.5% annually for the foreseeable future and this is above the 4% global average and 134 million arrivals has been projected by 2030 according to UNWTO forecasts. Nearer home Gambia tourists arrivals are also poised to rebound following the twin blows of Ebola and the December 2016 political impasse. The sector has shown certain degree of resilience given the relative surge in numbers in the aftermath of the latest crisis(political impasee), due to the re-launching of operations by leading tour operators such as Gambia Experience, TUI and Thomas Cook- UK and Northern Europe and others. As the flow of tourists increase, there is greater need for destination Gambia “to become focused and strategic in their approach in order to maintain and improve their competitive positions”.
It is gratifying to point out the top level support and interest shown by the authorities of the New Gambia, which is amply manifested by the appointment of a proactive and dynamic Minister in the person of Hon. Hamat Bah, who is au –fait with tourism at operational level, given that he was one time General overseer of Mansea Resort – a three star hotel owned and developed by Nigerian investors. In my view the next steps will be critical and they should be geared towards winning the hearts and minds of all potential consumers in the target markets.
Over the years our image has been battered for reasons known to us all and this has impacted negatively on tourism as a hospitality industry. As one marketing expert once put it” we have always defined positioning not what you do to the product, but what you do to the mind. The ultimate marketing battleground is the mind”.
Another wise thinker cautions us “not to go to battle until you win the war”. Therefore we need to quickly devise effective communications strategy, anchored on effective positioning strategy to amplify one simple message in all our source markets that “the new Gambia is open for business in the area of tourism”. ‘Our game plan is designed for victory, excited and upbeat about these renewed optimism and endless possibilities in tourism. We look forward to forging even stronger relationships with all our partners as together we ensure that the tourist you send to The Smiling Coast will be rewarded with a great experience- one that will lead to growth in tourism numbers, extended stays, increased spend, reduced seasonality and improved geographic spread.’
The purpose of this write – up is to make a situational analysis of Gambia Tourism, identifying policy and operational lapses in terms of implementing the core recommendations of the Tourism Development Mater plan, highlighting success stories, while at the same time proffering the way forward.
First things first, at the level of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the “flight path” as encapsulated in the Tourism Development Master Plan (2006-2025) has been deviated countless times as successive members of the executive at top level crafted their own “flight paths” and “business plans” at variance with the core vision and mission of the Tourism Development Master Plan.
Consequently, what you have is a mix of intentions and action points disguised as strategic plans the more so from the period (2007- 2013)and all in conflict with each other, and not addressing the core issues raised in the Tourism Development Master Plan for a more viable and sustainable sector 2006 -2025 . Having said that, it is worth pointing out that the formulation of the first ever Tourism, Culture and Hospitality Strategy plan (2015-2020) was a step in the right direction and a very laudable initiative.
Firstly, the master plan called for strengthening of the capacity of the MOTC by setting up of the Planning Directorate through technical assistance to be able to supervise the implementation of the Master Plan at the level of the GTBoard. Instead time, energy and money were expended on certain issues not prioritized by the master plan from 2006-2011. Master plan Pages 18- 19.
PRODUCT CONSOLIDATION AND BEDSTOCK
The Master plan also pointed to the need for consolidation of the existing Tourism Development Area, gradual expansion and creation of extra TDAs, revitalization of tourism institutions and Gambia Hotel School as well as putting a freeze on land allocation for mediocre projects such as 3star projects for a given period of time. Consideration should only be given to special priority projects in 4 and5 star categories including complementary facilities such as marinas, golf courses, promenades and multi-purpose cultural centers etc. Instead land has been dished out willy nilly and today there is a bed stock of a little over 23, 000 , but only 10, 000 are in the 4, 5 star category.
In a nutshell, we have a proliferation of hospitality establishments scattered across the length and breadth of the Tourism Development Area, with limited high quality bed stock and limited complimentary facilities to adequately cater to the needs of discerning tourists. This is injurious to attracting quality and high spending tourists.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AND PRIORITY PROJECTS
The Master Plan placed lot of emphasis on product development and recommended a three pronged approach, and these include broadening of the product base and the market segments, diversifying the market base to attract niche tourists, developing new and exciting products by adequately addressing the emerging needs of the huge repeater base of 52 %. At the same time there is the need to penetrate new markets such as Russia and the USA with vigor and intensity and recapturing the German market, so as to break the overdependence on a narrow source market base in Western Europe and the Nordic countries which account for 86% of all arrivals was underscored.
In the same vein, priority projects were identified to be implemented within a 15 year period in the short, medium, and long time basis, across the main critical areas of capacity building at institutional level, destination marketing, product development, infrastructural development and quality control.
These projects have not been given the priority they deserve, perhaps due to lack of requisite finances and consequently, the Gambia Tourism product is tired and in dire need of rejuvenation and regeneration, if we are to compete effectively and increase market share, and decongest our over reliance on sea, sun and sand as well as package tourism.
This is worrisome given the shift in focus of global tourism trends, from mass tourism to tourism of the individual, preference for quality products by the new tourists, emphasis on quality service and exciting experiences to fit neatly with the needs of the modern/discerning tourist, which is oriented towards education, experience and entertainment.
DEMAND AND SUPPLY SIDE DEVELOPMENT- MARKET DIVERSIFICATION
The other aspect which has a direct bearing on the foregoing is the demand and supply side development given that tourists crave novel experiences in new destinations and want to know what there is for them to do in a destination and active steps need to btaken to create the mix of products that appeal to our visitors especially the first timers, which account for 48% according to the latest GTBoard survey.
Gambia tourism is overwhelmingly leisure based; about 98% of tourists visit just for leisure according to a recent GTBoard survey, invariably there is the urgent need to revisit our product portfolio and craft exciting and interesting demand driven products not only to satisfy the craving of our huge repeater visitors projected at 52%, according to latest GTBoard survey, but also revitalizing existing products for new markets in Eastern Europe such as Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, Nigeria in the sub region as well as our existing traditional markets.
MARKET SEGMENTATION AND POSITIONING POLICY
The scope of destination marketing will potentially include anyone, anywhere in the world who could conceivably buy Gambia tourism products as a tourist destination. Essentially this is quite a substantial mass of potential customers,
It is in the same vein that market segments have to be identified and demand side products developed (tourism development which is focused on the needs, expectations and wants of the tourist segments- (positioning strategy) to cater to the tailor made needs of these target segments such as bird watchers and other nature based segments such as fishing, adventure tourists, eco-minded tourists, heritage tourists, conference incentive groups, educational and professional visits, business travelers. This is line with major trends in tourism development – tourism of the individual and micro segments as opposed to mass/package tourism.
NICHE TOURISM VERSUS SEA, SUN AND SAND
The consolidation of our core beach product revolving around the sea, sun and sand is another priority area, to complement the niche products. Given niche products such as ecotourism are buzzwords, but the reality is that most of the tourism infrastructure available in destination Gambia is for conventional tourism. Makasutu is a fine example of ecotourism, and as a flagship product has created more interest in the Gambia than any other development in recent times.
But according to Chris Rowles head of the Gambia Experience ‘ the reality is probably that only a few hundred a year could stay at Makasutu, when you need over a hundred thousand tourists a year to support the industry and make tourism successful.” I concur, but going forward, destination Gambia should consolidate the core beach products, in which there is competitive edge, but at the same time a gradual foray in to niche tourism is desirable, given the long term benefits of this shift in focus in terms of the geographic spread and potential of tourism as a tool for poverty alleviation at community level.
By Lamin Saho
The author is tourism and marketing consultant and was formerly Senior Tourism Officer (National Tourist Office)-2000- 2002. Former Director of Marketing, GTA/GTBoard/ (2006-2012) and briefly served as Director of Planning, Ministry of Tourism & Culture (2012)