“There is a demand in the hotel industry - tourists are coming to Africa, especially in The Gambia,” says student Kebba Sarjo. “To serve them well, to serve them how they like, I have come here to acquire skills.”
Sarjo is studying for a certificate in rooms management. In the laundry section he learns how to use the industrial washing machines, dryers as well as linen pressing machine. “I’m training on how to launder and how to clean,” says the 24-year-old, who hopes to get a job in a hotel after his training.
Report: Revitalising The Gambia’s tourism industry with a new outlook
Different classes are underway at the institute, students in the kitchen are preparing “Menu 16” offering Boiled Egg Chimay - Grilled Entrecote Steak with Creamy Peppercorn Sauce, Fried Onion Rings, Roasted Potatoes - Crepe Normandy. It is a hive of activity with young people at the meat counter, grill area, pot wash and pastry section.
The tourism sector is vital to The Gambia’s economy. In total, it creates some 139,000 jobs or provides almost 19 per cent of total employment, according to a 2017 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council measuring both direct and indirect economic activity.
However, tourism was hit by the political crisis over a year ago when former strongman leader Yahya Jammeh refused to leave power. The number of European visitors dropped considerably and it took some time for tourists to return to the country.
The new government led by President Adama Barrow wants to improve the opportunities in the tourism sector and this is being supported by the EU-funded Youth Development Programme (YEP). The four-year project is focused on skills and wants to create new opportunities in what is frequently described as “The Smiling Coast of Africa”.
“Many young people are interested in the tourism industry because they feel like they can earn a living,” says Dawda Nyang, head of the Gambia Tourism and Hospitality Institute. Nyang has recently taken up post and is keen to bring his years of industry experience to further improving the institute.
Experts from YEP have been working with Nyang to revise the institute’s curriculum, to update the skills they are passing on to students. Various elements were introduced including modules on entrepreneurship. The new curriculum also goes beyond the typical resort setting and further involved industry players in the tailoring of the courses.
“It meets the needs of Gambia as a country, not just the hotels in the urban areas,” says Nyang, referring to the consultation they carried out with stakeholders. “Because at the end of the day we’re a school - we train, but we don’t employ - so it's important that we work with people who employ them,” the director general adds.
The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is providing 11 million euros of funding for the YEP programme, implemented by the International Trade Centre. Part of the roadmap agreed with the government focuses on improving skills. It also sees the opportunity of revitalising The Gambia’s tourism brand - expanding into more cultural, community-based tourism to help draw visitors to other part of the country, besides the resorts on the coast.
YEP helped Nyang’s school buy content manuals for the new courses covering information technology, cooking and pastry. He is realistic about the prospects in the hospitality industry - the salary is not great - “Gambia is not an exception,” he says, but it is dependable work, providing jobs for young people. Nyang is hoping to organise an exchange with YEP’s support so that some of his students can visit another hospitality and tourism training institute. He has also heard that two new hotels will be opening up soon, hopefully providing more jobs for his students.
Looking beyond sun, sand & sea
As well as The Gambia as a seaside destination, it is hoped that tourism could create other economic opportunities based on the country’s natural and cultural assets. These could help draw visitors away from coast and into the countryside. Some 250 kilometres from the Banjul area down the Gambia River lies Janjanbureh. YEP is supporting an initiative in the eastern town to try and promote local cultural and historic attractions.
Janjanbureh, lying on an island in the middle of the river, is home to the Kankurang Museum dedicated to the masquerade ritual. This is an important ritual in Mandinka society linked to the initiation of young people and the protection of society. The museum was originally set up with the help of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The Kankurang ritual is included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
YEP decided to support a group of local guides in this area, providing them with training so they can better accompany organised tourist groups who come to the museum. When small organised tours come through they are met with traditional music from drummers and an allocated guide spends some time talking them through the exhibits, explaining the different elements of the masquerade story and making the experience more professional.
“YEP came in to give us a support by offering us more training as local tour guides,” says Omar Jammeh, a local guide, and also member of the National Youth Council. “I think before the coming of this tour guiding we were almost all idling around the island,” he says. The guides get a small commission for the groups they accompany.
The other historical feature of Janjanbureh is the connection with the slave trade in the country - it was then known as Georgetown while under colonial rule. A large stone warehouse on the banks of the river acted as a prison, with slaves held in a dungeon-like basement before they were sold to be transported upriver. Tourist groups also come here to visit.
“We came together seven or eight years ago,” says local guide Jammeh, talking about the small group they have assembled. “We stand together as an organised group and also give out guiding services to visitors who are coming onto the island.” YEP wants to help groups such as this by pushing new attractions such as those in Janjanbureh.
YEP is working to create linkages between hotel providers and tour operators as well as provide better marketing for the Gambia River experience. And there is also the natural wildlife - Gambia is known for many different species of birds and also crocodiles.
“Basically without this I think life would have not been fruitful for us,” says Jammeh, referring to the work provided by the guiding. He would like to have more regular group trips so him and his colleagues can make more commission. At the same time, being able to earn something in Janjanbureh means he does feel the need to leave the countryside for the urban areas to find work.
There are a number of challenges in diversifying The Gambia’s tourism industry - providing the right marketing to encourage visitors other than the typical winter sun package holiday-goers, the infrastructure can be problematic such as the ferry crossing in Banjul, as well as the skills gap.
Nevertheless, many young Gambians continue to see tourism as an option for gaining dependable jobs, while the EU-funded YEP programme wants to help improve the industry to create even more opportunities, so many more visitors will experience a different side of The Gambia.
Reporting assignment supported by the International Trade Centre