Saturday, October 29, 2016

Random thoughts on certain aspects of the state of Gambian tourism

Tourism has been and continues to be - to some extent - a significant contributor to Gambia's GDP and thus has always played a central role in the country's economic growth and development strategies.

For at least two decades, The Gambia has been the leading tourism destination in the West Africa region by dominating the Scandinavian, UK and German markets prior to expanding to other European markets.  

The steady growth of the industry was made possible because of meticulous, regular and careful planning and the aggressive marketing of the product.  In addition to providing much needed employment to the local population, the sector provided unparalleled investment opportunities for Gambians to participate in and benefit from a growth industry that held great promise.

Government did not only play a catalytic role in attracting foreign investments to develop tourism and the associated infrastructure, it performed its regulatory function, proactively, as a quality control measure.

That was then.  This is now.  In Yaya Jammeh's Gambia, like other aspects of the economy, tourism suffered from inappropriate policies, general lack of transparency and rampant corruption resulting in a precipitous decline in The Gambia as a tourist destination.  Jammeh has become a major player in the economic life of the country by transforming himself from a leader of a country to the premier businessman he's become, distorting the market and thus prices in the process.

In the public sector, he has hijacked the public procurement system by becoming the ultimate arbiter. He invites private investors as sole bidders and proceed to award contracts without competition.  He's known to even influence the award of contracts on externally-finance projects of the World Bank, African Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank to name a few.  

Quasi-government institutions are forced to award contracts, invest in dubious and financially unsustainable business propositions as well as forcing institutions such as the Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation (SSHFC) into divesting under the most disadvantageous of circumstances to the public interest.
Sunbeach Hotel

The use of public funds (which probably included workers contributions toward their pension) in the volatile and seasonal nature of the hotel industry,  For example, SSHFC was forced by Jammeh to buy Amie's Beach Hotel, renamed Ocean Bay Hotel with Jammeh reportedly owning equity shares.

We've come to learn that the  Swiss-Gambian-Romanian businessman, Nicholae Bogdan Buzaianu has leased the hotel from SSHFC for 10 years and he has bought nearby Sunbeach (formerly Sunwing) Hotel. We are still investigating the details of both deals.

It must be noted that Gambian hotel workers with several years service and who have been contributing towards their retirement were forced to forfeit future benefits when these hotels changed hands.

The tourism landscape has also been dramatically impacted by 22 years of dictatorship.  The increasing  militarization of the tourism development areas, particularly the beaches and the immediate hotel perimeters in the name of security has turned off a great many tourists and has caused discomfort.  Many tourists have complained about the increasing presence of soldiers in tourist areas that gives the feeling of an occupied city. The ever present present AK-47-toting soldiers on patrol and the numerous checkpoints they are subjected to, and harassed in the process reinforces this feeling.

The state of Gambian tourism is not encouraging.  The number of first time visitors has been going down while repeat visitors have slowed to a trickle for the reasons outlined above.