Empty beaches, empty pockets - the impact of COVID in The Gambia.

The global tourism sector has been hit hard by COVID, standing to lose an estimated $3.3 trillion from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. For countries like the Gambia, where tourism counts for 20% of their GDP, the effects are felt even more harshly, putting huge numbers of Gambians automatically out of work with no clear indication of return. The sudden standstill has emphasised, firstly, how much the Gambia depends on consistent tourism to bolster their economy, and secondly, the lack of security net for the thousands of individuals who make up the tourism supply chain.

A recently published report by the International Labour Organisation suggests that one positive is that the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to facilitate a period of transition,  from the informal economy of the tourism sector to a more formal system. Workers in hotels and other tourist businesses are often employed on a casual basis, working very long hours for modest pay checks. While implementing national laws and regulations to protect workers is of course valuable in the long-term, in the Gambia, with over 48% of people living in poverty, at the moment people are simply desperate for any work that will put food on the table.

"Throughout my business life, this is the darkest time I can remember."

– Lamin Jawala, Hotel Manager, Rainbow Beach Resort

Community value of tourism

Despite the Gambia being the smallest country on the African continent, its white sand beaches and diverse wildlife makes it a top tourist destination for sun seekers from all over the world. To serve the swathes of tourists, resorts, hotels and thousands of small businesses provide employment to nearly 1 in 5 Gambians. In the Sanyang Paradise beach area, Lamin Jawala, 52, works as the manager of the Rainbow Beach Resort. During peak season, when the resort is bustling with tourists, Lamin can earn up to $3,000 a month. Now, the resort is deserted, Lamin is surviving on overdrafts and his staff are suffering without wages. With a return to normalcy still a way off, Lamin’s mental health is deteriorating, he comments ‘this is the darkest time I can remember throughout my entire business’.

Lamin’s growing anxiety is understandable. As the manager of a resort like Rainbow Beach, he is responsible for many people’s livelihoods in the area. Along the Gambia’s coastline, resorts are at the epicentre of communities, providing income not just to resort staff, but to the tourism supply chain as a whole. For example, taxi drivers ferry guests to and from the airport, beach boys serve drinks to thirsty guests from stalls, and many small shops make a living selling souvenirs. Without the resort providing guests to the area, everyone’s incomes are compromised.

Lamin Jawala, manager of Rainbow Beach Resort.

Gambia’s struggling economy

COVID has certainly escalated the unstable economic situation in the Gambia, however, things were far from rosy before the pandemic hit. In December 2019, a boat headed for Europe capsized, resulting in the death of 62 Gambians. Those who lost their lives were just some of the thousands of Gambians who are willing to risk the arduous journey to Europe, in the hope of finding more prosperous opportunities. With youth unemployment in the Gambia above 40%, and the cost of living having skyrocketed in recent years, it’s not surprising that many are opting to up sticks, however dangerous the journey may be.

The tourism industry has also suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. The Ebola outbreak, the collapse of Thomas Cook and the political unrest have all had an impact. Additionally, the Gambia now operates on a seasonal system, with tourists predominately being served from a select few operators that sell winter-sun holidays. This dramatically limits the earning potential of businesses outside of peak season, keeping tourism staff on low wages. Ousman Bojang, 41, has worked in the tourism industry for 14 years, currently employed at the African Princess hotel in Banjul as senior waiter. Before COVID stripped him of his wages entirely, Ousman was earning just $100 per month, with 40% of his income going towards supporting family members in his home village in Jinak. Ousman’ situation is not uncommon in the Gambia, making the impact of COVID even tougher. Despite Ousman’s meagre salary in Banjul, it is preferable to agricultural work in his village, where Ousman has been forced to move back to whilst he waits out the pandemic. Ousman comments, “the whole pandemic has made me feel frustrated and hopeless”.

Rainbow Beach Resort’s empty reception area.

No safety net

With the tourist sector now on its knees, both business owners and workers are desperate for the Gambian government to offer some support. Lamin at Rainbow Beach states “We are not approached by the government during this trying time. We are the most affected and I want the government to talk to us. At least if they can talk to us, that will give us hope.” So far, the government has not been forthcoming with any support mechanisms. Frustratingly for Lamin and others, on June 10th the government announced that lockdown was to be extended for a further 21 days, making the hope of international tourism returning to the Gambia anytime soon unlikely.

Across the African continent as a whole, the pandemic has exposed the lack of social security mechanisms in place for citizens. The reality is that countries like the Gambia do not have the funds available to support the thousands of citizens now out of work. In March, the World Economic Forum urged central banks to initiate a system of re-circulating money back to developing countries via a process of quantitative easing – buying countries debt. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Cash Transfer schemes do offer some relief, however, such schemes are often targeted at specific groups, for example in the Gambia the scheme is aimed at single mothers, making it irrelevant to people like Lamin and Ousman. Clearly, more needs to be done to support developing countries through the pandemic, both by their governments and the wider global community.

Deserted stalls on the beach in Sanyang Paradise.

Is sustainable tourism the answer?

In many countries, there have been some positive environmental impacts  from the pandemic keeping tourists away. For example, the transformation of Venice’s canals from murky to clear has been widely reported on. In Africa however, the impact of no tourism on the environment is more complicated. In recent years, eco-tourism has transformed the nature of conservation in Africa, engaging communities in conservation and channelling resources from wealthier countries to support conservation efforts. Tourism still poses challenges to the environment, such as the carbon emissions from international travel and simply too many tourists, but without it, conservation areas risk becoming another casualty of the pandemic.

The Minister of Tourism and Culture has declared that the Gambia plans to use this opportunity to develop a more sustainable approach to tourism. In February 2020, the Ninki Nanka Trail was set up to help expand the tourist track out to more rural areas, creating community-based tourism and extending the peak season. There are also plans to develop regional and domestic tourism to try and alleviate the reliance on international visitors. These plans may be well intentioned, but in the short-term individuals like Lamin and Ousman are struggling to survive. Lamin is also fearful of what effect unemployment will have on the youth, who may be forced into more nefarious means of making money without steady employment. Whether considering the impacts on businesses, individuals or the environment, the fallout from the rapid decline of the tourism industry in the Gambia is likely to be far reaching.