By Yunus S. Saliu
Tourism being a major contributor to the national economy of The Gambia is one of the sectors you will find active youth and women with different activities that Covid-19 has cut shorts their dreams by not only derailed activities but brought to standstill.
Coronavirus pandemic also known as Covid-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30th January, 2020 and pandemic on 11th March 2020 by World Health Organization (WHO).
When it strike in The Gambia 17th March, 2020 it was like a thunderbolt the confident Gambians and non-Gambians residing in the country were jittery of what could be next.
The pandemic did not waste time to take a toll on this country of over 2 million people and its meager economy, which ¹tourism is a major contributor to the national economy accounting for 12 to 16% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), supporting over 35,000 direct and 40,000 indirect jobs, and generating US$85 million in foreign exchange earnings, according to country’s NDP 2018-2021.
One of the important units in the industry that you can find women taking the lead is ground tour operator companies (category A). This category comprises five ground tour operator companies – African Adventures Tour, Discovery Tours, West African Tours (women proprietresses), Gambia Tours and Alkamba Tours (men proprietors).
Though Covid-19 did not only affect women-led tour operator companies “but affected every tour operator in The Gambia, tourism in The Gambia is dead, we are dead! There is no business since April last year (after the repatriation of tourists),” Ms Liane Burger-Sallah, CEO of African Adventures Tour said in an interview, giving the narration of what happened when Covid-19 strike in The Gambia, the impact, challenges, effective strategy put in place and safety assurance for the visitors in upcoming season.
“It is over one year now in The Gambia that we have been basically doing nothing, we have been trying to create some other things but didn’t work. We need to have people to tour around, we need to have people that want to see the country, and we need to have inflow at the airport, on the road, to go round the country. But it is not just happening, nobody is visiting the country. We are tour company (companies) for the visitors, and people of The Gambia, but unfortunately Gambians don’t really want to visit their own country – meaning domestic tourism is close to zero in the destination Gambia. So the tour operator companies are dead, too,” Ms Burger-Sallah lamented.
It is neither misinformation or disinformation but a reality, her lamentation buttressed the statement of Gambia Tourism Minister and Culture, Honorable Hamat NK Bah who had said, barely a month after the destination recorded its first coronavirus pandemic case while government of The Gambia closed all its borders and airspace from all flights except for medical cargo flights on 23rd March to curb the spread of the pandemic in the country, that “tourism is dead” in the country.
But the statement, according to many stakeholders was referred to be ‘controversial’ been declared so soon.
People are not having job and income to feed families anymore, women in the sector are facing the same challenges with their men counterpart in the industry as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak whose duration and scope is still unknown, though vaccines now on circulation. However, the challenges for the tour operators does not only limited to the existence of their businesses but the lives of everyone that work and depend on tourism industry. Tour operators in The Gambia receive the hardest hits in the sector hence many in the industry are looking up to them to bring tourists to the destination.
“We can’t plan any leisure activities because destination Gambia source markets are all on lockdown and restriction, the closure of hotels, small and medium size businesses at every level within tourism areas are having catastrophic ripple effects and it hits large numbers of employees. Travel booking was all cancelled air spaces and borders closed down,” too.
As the pandemic hit the destination, among other huge challenges is that ²most of hotels are saddled with unsettled invoices from Tour Operators amounting to over D350 million dating back to December 2019.
The Spread of Covid-19 in The Gambia
The spread of Covid-19 pandemic in The Gambia started with imported cases and the infection of this case started within the tourism base communities which includes Banjul City Council and Kanifing Municipality among other developing places in the country.
Listening to the story of Ida Bobb, a tourism vendor (exact work in the industry not reveal) narrated her experience at the early discovery of pandemic in the country.
In her narration “Coro (coronavirus) almost cost me my marriage. My husband and I are both working in the industry, I’m a tourism vendor and my husband is driving a tourist taxi. Barely three weeks after the first death of coro (covid-19 related death) in The Gambia was registered I developed flu, which I knew it was just normal common fresh cold, so I didn’t take into consideration as listed part of symptoms of coro. My husband who had been very observant of me started distancing himself and even diverted my children attention from me!”
“The flu persisted till following week, my husband without letting me know took our children to their grandmother, while in the house he will never get closer or advise me to visit hospital. I got to realize his plight when I overheard his discussion with someone saying ‘she’s sick and ‘am afraid of this virus. This triggered my wariness,” she explained in a teardrop.
According to her, this led to fracas co-tenants and other neighbors too become more cautious of her while she cannot move freely in the compound to an extent of moving out to her mother’s place.
“Two weeks later, I got well, my husband comes to take me home but I refused going with him, he cannot share my worst moment with me, he cannot die for me. It was a tough decision for me to make to come back to the house.”
The pandemic has really impacted on people and the industry, Ms Haddy Darboe, Senior Officer Activities and Promotion at Gambia Tourism Board (GTBoard) stated. Though she is not a victim of Covid-19 but she is one of the recipients of the fear and trauma the pandemic created.
“I was not personally infected by Covid-19 but a neighbor who is a doctor was infected. She contacted it through one of her patients she was caring for. This female patient’s husband who was infected come from UK and infected the sick wife unknowingly, while the doctor got infected through her patient,” she explained.
The situation, she said caused fear among the neighbourhood while the said doctor received some backlashes for not stay at home.
Also, Ms Darboe is one among those that suffered financially when everything come into standstill, her office were among others that its Ministry passed instruction to be receiving half salary, which went on for not less than period of six months.
“You can imagine the suffering caused by the pandemic with current situation in The Gambia where everything is super expensive because with full salary things were hard to attain talk-less of going home at the end of the month with half payment,” she said.
Misinformation and Disinformation about Covid-19
According to Ms Darboe, both misinformation and disinformation didn’t have time to generate within the industry because “there is no activity going on in the industry, when the President declared State of Public Emergency, all borders and airspace from all flights were closed except for medical cargo and food assistance. Hotels, restaurants, casinos and other tourism establishments within the industry were all closed.”
Gathering opinions of people within the industry, one general consensus is that through the Government declared State of Public Health Emergency, Covid-19 has violated rights of people taking into consideration the imposed curfews, a different restriction which is still on in The Gambia.
Alieu Bayo proprietor of Bush Whackers Tour (a local tour operator) said covid-19 invaded people’s rights and forced many people out of jobs, “while employers unpleasantly sacked or stopped their employees from job till date.”
“It (Covid-19) violated people’s rights because you are not free to move around, do usual things independently. Even the curfews here and there to an extent of harassment from service men (military people) in some areas, all these are rights violation caused by covid-19. Even though they are put in place to control the spread of the pandemic.”
Since April last year, everything comes to a halt, booking cancelled immediately and “look around when did you see a flight bringing in tourists last,” he asked rhetorically saying they (people in the industry) are not on strike but on ‘no job situation.’
Effective Strategy Put in Place
In a joint effort, apart from the government mandatory guidelines and regulations for the opening of the tourism industry, before the season which supposed to start in September 2020, Ms Liane disclosed that the Travel and Tourism Association of The Gambia (TTAG) and Gambia Hotel Association (GHA) created an awareness video showing the world that The Gambia is a safe place to go for holiday. This was made with recovery plan – to work closely together with constructive dialogue between stakeholders and the authorities which include the Gambia Tourism Board (GTBoard) in particular, and be more proactive in consolidating existing source markets.
Upbeat for Next Season
Now that the vaccines are in circulation across the world, Gambian tour operator companies are optimistic about the upcoming season. “The vaccines are circulated and inoculation is ongoing there is hope, tourism will back to its feet,” Ms Liane expressed with confidence.
However, as at 21st April, 2021, ³the current total confirmed number of Covid-19 cases in the country stands at 5,820, total recoveries is 5,272 while total death confirmed is 173.