Empty beaches, empty pockets

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.

The threat of COVID in Samos

In Samos, the threat of COVID has revealed an unstable reliance on NGO’s.

Overcrowded and under-supported

On the Aagean island of Samos, the refugee camp built in 2016 to house 640 now has over 8,000 residents. Despite the feeling of standstill for much of the world since March, the circumstances causing the refugee crisis have not halted under the pandemic, meaning there is still a steady influx of new arrivals to the island. The overpopulation flows into the jungle surrounding the official camp, where there is no access to shelter or running water. There are also insufficient food supplies to feed the ever-growing population, with people having to queue for hours for meals, toilets and other essential facilities, crammed together in long lines.

To add to an already critical situation, the threat of a COVID outbreak looms over the camp. With conditions so overcrowded, social distancing measures are simply not possible. If the virus takes hold, the fatality rate will be extremely high. On top of this, the lockdown has resulted in NGOs being forced to scale down their operations on Samos due to staff and volunteers being evacuated back to their home countries. This has left the camp severely under-supported at a time when it is most in need,  highlighting the level of reliance that exists for NGO’s to uphold at least a minimal level of infrastructure for the residents.

"The world is not stopping because of Corona and the awful situation in this camp is not stopping."

– Chloé Mandelbaum, NGO worker in Samos.

Unprepared for the spread of COVID

In April, Human Rights Watch criticised the Greek authorities for their inadequate response to protecting camp residents from the spread of COVID. Greece, like most countries, enforced a strict lockdown from March to prevent the spread of the virus, with measures also put in place in the camps. These measures include limits on leaving the camp, except for buying necessities, suspending schooling and other activities and prohibiting visitors. However, in the face of the vast overcrowding, these restrictions seem futile. Chloe Mandelbaum, an NGO worker on Samos comments “there is no way to avoid the crowd, or to respect social distancing in the camp. And what about washing your hands if you don’t have soap, and there is no water because there is not enough for everyone?”. In many instances, the restrictions have in fact been exacerbating the situation. For example, people are waiting for hours in congested lines to get permission from the police to leave the camp.

In terms of the shielding the vulnerable, there has been no official measures put in place or advice given on how social distancing could work in practice. Many refugees suffer from conditions that place them in the high-risk category, for example, respiratory tract infections caused by the fumes of fires built to keep warm. The general unsanitary conditions within the camps also pose a great risk to the spread of the virus. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs has stated that the conditions in the Greek camps are ‘unacceptable already’ and Members of the European Parliament have described the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Under these circumstances, many believe it is only a matter of time before the virus hits, and when it does, experts warn of disaster.

The Aagean island of Samos.

Revealing an unstable reliance on NGOs

On Samos, the pandemic has forced NGOs to reduce their operations and many closures have occurred, leaving residents to effectively fend for themselves.  Only Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Med’Equali Team and Movement on the Ground have remained open, operating with reduced staff. Chloe Mandelbaum reports that UNHRC usually runs an information point at the entrance to the camp, staffed by volunteers, to meet new arrivals from the boats. This is a vital service to ensure people are directed appropriately to collection points for tents, sleeping bags and other necessities. Now, refugees arrive on the beaches with no one to meet or help them. This situation is even more concerning for lone children and other vulnerable groups.

The sudden decline in NGO support has exposed the danger of an over-reliance on NGOs to maintain the day-to-day operations of the camp on Samos, and others like it across Europe. With much of the NGO workforce made up of volunteers, and their capacity funded by donations, a situation like COVID brings to the surface just how unstable this set-up is. Even with lockdown restrictions across Europe now easing, the continued fallout of the pandemic will mean the situation in the camps will not be easily or quickly resolved. With millions out of work and many industries now in decline, the world is braced for an economic recession. A recession, the beginnings of which are already being felt, will undoubtedly result in a sharp decline in donations to NGOs, as well as dramatically impact the ability of people to volunteer. The situation highlights more than ever the need for organised government support to the camps, both from the countries who house them and from the EU as a whole. In April, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Luxemburg, France and Switzerland agreed to accept 1,600 children from the camps in Greece to be resettled. However, without further European countries stepping to grant asylum to refugees, the situation in camps like Samos will continue to deteriorate.

Abandoned boats and life jackets.

The future for Samos

Despite quarantine measures now being eased in the rest of Greece, the government has announced that the camps will be subjected to a further 2 weeks of quarantine from June 22nd- July 5th. This decision has sparked outrage and criticism from many against the Greek authorities for the treatment of migrants in the camps. Migrants are now facing yet more weeks of lockdown in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, whilst other parts of the country are preparing to welcome tourists. So far, there have been no recorded deaths in the camps and only a few infections, making the extended quarantine seem even more unjust.

On Samos, one positive that is starting to emerge is the resilience that is being built within the camp to lessen the reliance on NGOs. Chloe Mandelbaum explains that MSF have initiated a system of engaging refugees who have studied medicine to operate as volunteers with the Med’Equali team. Building this type of infrastructure is progress in the right direction, but the real issue of the migrant crisis continues. One hope for the future is that the pandemic has instigated the beginnings of a shift in people’s attitudes towards refugees, with a greater awareness of the inhumanity of forcing people to be confined into overcrowded camps. With the economy slowed, the environment being given a moment of respite and communities volunteering time for one another, perhaps this period of reflection will facilitate a more empathetic approach to our treatment refugees. For them, COVID is just one threat amongst many.

Inside the camp, Samos.