For decades, The Gambia has built a reputation as a haven for tourists willing to pay for sun, sand, sea… and s*x.
But its tourism board has ambitious plans to give a makeover to this tiny west African nation known until now to tourists mainly for muscular young men selling themselves on beaches to much older women from Europe.
Abdoulie Hydara, director-general of the Gambia Tourism Board, dreams of his nation becoming the next Kenya or Zimbabwe — African countries whose wildlife and nature attract well-heeled visitors from across the globe.
“We need to develop new products on the way, while maintaining and improving what we already have,” Hydara told AFP, enthusing about the country’s little-known chimpanzee colony and varied birdlife.
Hydara plans to put The Gambia on the map for ecological and cultural tourism, ending reliance on cheap package tours delivering tourists to beach areas close to the capital, Banjul.
To achieve this, experts and industry insiders say The Gambia must improve infrastructure and deal with its image as a cheap but sometimes seedy destination.
The government must also do more to tackle its reputation for lax monitoring, which leaves Gambian children at risk from paedophile tourists, NGOs believe.
At 10:00 pm on a Saturday night in the popular Senegambia tourist zone, the idyllic family vacations that Hydara evokes feel a million miles away, lost in a sea of strip lighting and a bevvy of teenagers flirting mechanically with potential punters.
On this strip, men, women and children are for sale at a price negotiated via “bumsters”, some of them sex workers themselves, others working as pimps.
Couples with four decades between them sit awkwardly over drinks and smoke at the Time Inn pub, the teenagers saying little to clients mostly visiting from Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.
Lamin Sady, 29, who sells shells on the beach during the November-April tourist season, said many of his friends sleep with, and in some cases marry, much older women, which, he said, was due to their inability to provide for a Gambian wife.
“They don’t have a compound, they don’t have a car,” he said. The older women “assist them, uplift them, give them a car and help them travel to Europe.”
Some bumsters are also responsible for arranging child clients for sex tourists, often with the knowledge of the children’s parents, said Gambian child protection expert Njundu Drammeh.
Drammeh, the national coordinator at The Gambia’s Child Protection Alliance (CPA), said many parents turned a blind eye to children returning from the beach with large amounts of money, or encouraged “sponsorship” of their child through school with abuse attached.
“Sometimes they see a tourist involvement in their home as a kind of godsend, as luck for them, for the family and for the child,” Drammeh said.
Not a single tourist has been prosecuted for paedophilia in The Gambia, Drammeh said, and no full study has been undertaken on the magnitude of the scourge.
But a member of The Gambia’s dedicated tourist police, who gave his name only as Lamin as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said it was a problem sadly familiar to the force.
“Mostly, it is pornography, taking pictures of the private parts of little kids,” he said, anger in his voice.
Although measures have been taken to discourage sex tourism in hotels, and 24-hour tribunals established to deal with cases involving tourists, Gambians are the ones prosecuted.
“Last October, we had a total clampdown on bumsterism in this country… One or two (notorious bumsters) are now currently serving prison sentences for hassling tourists beyond acceptable levels,” said Hydara.
The Gambia’s image problem is also pressing given that tourist numbers were hit “badly” by the country’s political crisis in December and January, according to Hydara, adding his target of 195,000 visitors would very likely be missed this season.
The vast majority in this poor nation of 1.8 million have little opportunity to benefit from the revenue brought in by tens of thousands of visitors, who provide 20 percent of The Gambia’s GDP each year.
The key is to tap Asian and Russian markets, as east African nations have done, Hydara said, and to raise awareness of the country’s rich colonial history and slave trade landmarks.
Historically, an incredibly poor road network and the river that divides the nation almost in two have hindered The Gambia’s ability to take tourists out of the small areas where they visit.
Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa, an upmarket British-based safari company, told AFP a “very wide gulf” remained between The Gambia’s current offerings and the holidays he organises for clients in Kenya or Tanzania, which average 5,000 pounds ($6,500, 5,800 euros) a head.
“Chimps are potentially a big enough draw to really kickstart what they have there,” McIntyre said, referring to The Gambia’s primate population, but cautioned “they would need very good guides”