Banking on tourism in Banjul

The streets of Banjul are often quiet, especially at night. Some hustle and bustle occurs during the day and on weekends, but for the most part The Gambia’s capital city is quiet. Traffic starts to flush into this port city around 6 a.m. when travellers enter the ferry port en route to the other side of the country, crossing the Gambia River or continuing north to Senegal.People look tired and hungry. Sellers, who hawk everything from pastries and fruits to washcloths and shoes, begin their days early before sunrise to make an honest living off these passersby.

Residential hubs and slums are situated along the perimeter of the city. Some homes are made out of wood with aluminium roofs while others are solid concrete throughout. The most fortunate of residents have wrought-iron gates surrounding their properties, adorned with barbwire for added protection from petty theft. This capital city boasts large political buildings that make the rest of the city look miniscule. It is home to the president’s village, which is encircled by gates and police guards. Going anywhere near it creates a large spectacle of car checks and identification checking.

The city’s hotels bustle with mainly British tourists, who are drawn to the former colony by flight availability, good international relations between the two countries, and the fact that Gambia is an English-speaking country.

And while the government has hailed development of the tourism sector as a way to help alleviate poverty, other issues such as promoting gender equality, improving maternal health, and reducing child mortality and HIV infection need to be addressed if the UN Millennium Development Goals are to be realized.

Growing the tourism industry

As of 2010, tourism has surpassed agriculture (in the form of groundnut exportation) to be the biggest foreign exchange earner in The Gambia. While both are major industries, tourism is not as stable year-round but is growing at a more rapid pace.

When the tourism industry kicked off in the ‘70s after Gambia gained independence, there were only two unclassified hotels located in Banjul. As business grew, other hotels were built, but mainly outward from Banjul and concentrated in beachfront areas.

In 2012, the travel and tourism industry directly and indirectly supported 17.7 percent of the country’s total employment and contributed 20.3 percent of GDP, according to a report from the World Travel and Tourism Council. The Gambia Tourism Development Master Plan notes that “a serious contribution to the Government’s poverty reduction strategy is to seek double or more the number of tourism-related jobs in both the formal and informal sectors,” and that “tourism still has the potential to make a major contribution to the Government’s efforts to grow the Gambian economy, helping address issues such as poverty reduction.”

A local worker in the hospitality industry, who did not want to be named, says that foreigners are warmly welcomed in Banjul and locals are happy to help integrate tourists into the culture. Many tourists even opt to travel to the provinces and take a local name, usually of the Wolof dialect and appointed by the chief or villagers, which they can then take home and share with their families. Other tourists do not make it much further than a one-day outing to Albert Market, the hub of downtown Banjul.

Entering the market, one is greeted by a “security guard” (for tourists) who offers to escort you around. Often this is just an ordinary civilian hoping to rack in a few extra dalasi. Sellers hawk woodcarvings, bracelets and necklaces, and workers in the tailoring section have colourful cloths hanging from the roofs of their stalls down to the sidewalk. The tailors have a competitive nature, and there is boasting about who can have garments made before tourists even leave the marketplace. Others maintain that taking their time will produce better quality and is also a good business tactic to get those tourists back another day, to perhaps buy something more.

The market pulls its fair share of tourists. But to really grow Banjul’s tourism appeal it will be important to upgrade heritage buildings, improve street quality, and upgrade public spaces. Infrastructure rejuvenation should benefit the industry, as well as locals. Cleaning up the city centre will not solve all the problems though, since there is a need for stronger urban planning and design for long-term development strategies.

Divided experience

In Banjul there is a great divide between what a typical tourist will experience compared to many residents when it comes to access to services and ‘luxuries.’

It is almost guaranteed that nightly Banjul and its suburbs lose power. When a city such as Banjul and its surrounding areas go almost every night without electricity it’s hard for people to be productive and get around. There is not an abundance of trees to use as firewood so dumpsites serve as fuel for bonfires for everything from lighting the roads to food preparation.

From afar, the citizens of Banjul gaze to the areas like Senegambia and Bijilo, highly trafficked tourists areas and hubs for nightlife, about a 25-minute drive down the main highway outside of Banjul. There they see the shining lights from hotels, which ensure stable power and hot water by running on generators and using water tanks.

In downtown Banjul the roads are unpaved and people cluster in the “car park” areas trying to hail communal taxi vans to get from urban to rural areas. Children sit on street corners holding and shaking cups, begging for money, begging for food, begging for anything that can help sustain them for that moment in time. The sun scorches down and there is limited access to water.

Tourism not a silver bullet

Peter Gomez, owner of West Coast Radio, has been running a weekly tourism programme for six years with guests from the Gambian Tourism Board. The programme streams internationally online and aims to attract tourists by engaging dialogue with locals and past visitors on topics such as ecotourism adventures and the diverse species of bird life in The Gambia.

Gomez does not have faith, however, that the programme is attracting a broad international audience beyond the British. Most people listening to the tourism programme are locals, and no matter how affordable accommodation is, Gambians typically do not have an interest in touring through The Gambia. It is too difficult to travel through the country because of the poor conditions of the roads and terrible telecommunication, says Gomez.

“Roads open up places,” he says, and until there is further infrastructure development tourism will not grow.

While tourism may bring in valued revenue it is also problematic, largely because employment in this sector is not stable. Tourists only come for five or six months out of the year, according to local hotel workers, and it’s estimated that 44 percent of high season tourists are repeat visitors. Some people in the hospitality industry say they rely on short-term contracts for catering events in the off-season, but this does not provide a stable income stream.

If tourism in relation to development is seen as the industry that will help solve social and economic problems as many government officials, taxi drivers and business people say it will, then its economic benefits should also be shared with those in need across the country, especially in the most underdeveloped areas. Instead, there is a massive wealth gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in Gambia, with roughly 75 percent of the rural population classified as poor. The worst-off lack access to fundamental human needs like food, shelter and safe drinking water.

Toward the Millennium Development Goals?

Inadequate administration and capacity have failed to move The Gambia forward to reaching most of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goals like reducing by half the number of people living under $1 per day are suffering insufficient progress and will not be met, according to the UNDP.

The MDGs were agreed upon as global targets but in most part are related to individual nations’ interests. A major problem with the MDGs is that to reach them most of the work is done through small-scale initiatives, often to the exclusion of millions of people.

This is evident every day as you walk the streets of Banjul.

Development initiatives cannot always rely on international assistance or corporate charity. The Gambia does not seem to have a comprehensive action plan to build capacity and sustain the livelihoods of its citizens. Something like the provision of water and sanitation is primarily an engineering challenge, but also often includes an educational element and is connected with shelter, politics and human rights. These multi-tier elements cannot rely on being tackled by one industry.

Tourism alone will not develop Banjul, not socially and politically anyway. Yes, in terms of infrastructure, it may lead to more paved roads and hotels to serve international visitors looking for weeklong, all-inclusive vacations. But social services show few positive improvements. Employers still fail to give employees health insurance or even paid maternity leave, community centres are generally privately operated and constructed by some NGO or another, and schooling is not regulated or monitored. All social services, one might assume, would be improved if tourism as a mode of development were truly a success story.

Ultimately, change needs to come from the governmental and administrative buildings that sit on Independence Drive, and at the grassroots level. Banjul has a lot of potential. In all its despair there is much beauty. Its potential is just waiting to be harvested.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Photo: A tailor in Albert Market. Emily Smith.




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