In the Gambia, Young Tourism Guides Adapt their Role as Coronavirus Guides
COVID-19’s Impact on African Tourist Resorts
In the Gambia, teams of young tourism guides in their first holiday season are doing something very different from what they learned in training. They have been redeployed to act as coronavirus guides for their local communities, raising awareness and explaining to their fellow Gambians how to prevent the spread of infection.
On Bijilo Beach in the Gambia, there are no fruit sellers in sight. On the beaches, the normally busy fruit seller huts are empty and everything is quiet. Such is the situation in many African tourist resorts in 2020, with tourism reduced to almost nothing.
Globally, tourism could lose around 120 million jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The number of holidaymakers travelling abroad is forecast to halve in 2020 as more than US$3 trillion (£2.4 trillion) gets wiped off global tourism GDP. This will be keenly felt by the many countries whose people depend on tourism. Two examples on opposite coasts of Africa are the Gambia and Kenya.
The Impact on Kenya and the Gambia
Tourism accounts for 9 percent of Kenya’s GDP and 20 percent in the Gambia. It provides a living to around 10 percent of Kenyans and nearly a fifth of Gambians, while acting as an important source of foreign exchange.
In both countries, the pandemic is damaging hotels and tour operators, putting people out of work, reducing GDP, and affecting thousands of small businesses in the tourism supply chain, such as providers of food, transport, and souvenirs. There are also wider consequences that may be less obvious. Poverty alleviation initiatives tied to tourism through youth and women’s empowerment programs are being set back. Tourism can also support conservation.
Response in Kenya and the Gambia
Kenya’s 51 million population is more than 20 times bigger than that of the Gambia. Tourism is usually the number-one source of income after agriculture for those in rural areas, especially on the coast and in places rich with wildlife. But for a country that specializes in high-end safari and beach holidays for rich westerners, the crisis has hit hard.
Early in the crisis, tourism associations advised their members on keeping clients and staff safe, as well as holiday cancellation policies. They negotiated with the government, tax authority and banks on how to protect businesses. Tourist businesses have now cut back to skeleton staff and business partners have been giving one another 12 months’ grace on debts.
The government is providing some financial support to industry workers through an economic stimulus programme. It has also mobilized tourism-association leaders into a taskforce to oversee reopenings. In the Gambia, tourism had already suffered in recent years from political unrest, Ebola and the collapse of Thomas Cook. It is also over-dependent on a few tour operators selling winter-sun holidays, and charter flights that find it more profitable to fly to the Mediterranean during the European summer. This imposes a “season” that limits the potential to bring in tourists all year round.
As well as deploying the youth tourism guides to help fight coronavirus, the Gambia Tourism Board has worked with the ministry of health to develop safety measures for hotels. The government is working with the UN to kickstart recovery efforts to safeguard livelihoods. Meanwhile, those in the industry have called on the government to provide tax breaks, moratoriums on loans and support packages for wages and economic stimulus.
Opportunity for Sustainable Tourism
The crisis is also an opportunity to develop more sustainable tourism. The Gambia has already shown a way forward by developing an alternative to “sun, sand and sea” packages known as The Ninki Nanka Trail. The trail enables visitors to discover the Gambia’s rich natural and culture heritage while experiencing the important oral legend of the mythical Ninki Nanka dragon said to reside in the creeks of the River Gambia.
Launched in February 2020 and set up with the help of an EU-funded Youth Empowerment Project, the trail aims to do two things: help the Gambia to reduce poverty in rural areas by diversifying into community-based tourism, while extending the season into the “green/tropical” months of July/August.
The Ninki Nanka Trail shows how tourism can be used to celebrate culture and facilitate meaningful engagement with communities, but there is much more that could be done in Kenya and the Gambia to target tourists that bring environmental and social benefits as well as economic ones. With stronger international support and a good vision for the future, it is a good moment to build something better than what was there before.
By Davina Stanford, Course Director, Responsible Tourism Management MSc, Leeds Beckett University, and Adama Bah, Honorary Doctor of Responsible Tourism, Leeds Beckett University. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.