COVID-19 has significantly curtailed activity in The Gambia’s large tourism sector. Tourism is a crucial driver of growth, The Gambia Tourism Board stated that the industry has 42,000 people benefitting from direct employment in the tourism industry and the industry contributes to 20 percent of GDP. Travel restrictions put in place by the Gambian government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen decline in tourist arrival. According to figures from the Gambian Tourism Board, the tourism industry has lost $108 million in 2020 and a further $57.9 million of tax revenue due to the closure of vital businesses and hotels.
There was a 41 percent decline in tourist arrival in 2021. The 2019 collapse of Thomas Cook, the renowned British tour operator, which used to bring 40% of tourists to Gambia, led to a considerable decline in tourist arrivals in 2019. Since the fall of 2020, Gambian authorities relaxed travel restrictions and opened borders in preparation for the tourist season.
The number of hotels has increased significantly over the past decades, and there is still considerable room for expansion. There are vast stretches of coastline available for the building of hotels and other tourism facilities in the ‘Tourism Development Area’ designated by the Gambia government. The Government is most interested in the construction of hotels in the 4- and 5- star class ranges. The River Gambia is also open for the development of cruising, sport fishing, and eco-tourism resorts.
The tourism industry primarily relies on the charter market, with most tourists on package tours. Air travel links with the rest of the world are limited but there are direct and multiple flights per week to and from Europe, as well as some flights within the West Africa sub-region. However, international flight options are growing, with Air Senegal, TAP and Turkish Airlines expanding their routes to include The Gambia in the past two years, joining Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc as the major international operators in The Gambia. With a need to develop cultural tourism and the conference market, future government policies are expected to continue to promote tourism activities and encourage greater private sector investment. Potential government initiatives to support this include the consolidation of the existing Tourism Development Area and the expansion into new sites, where land will be allocated – at no cost and with minimum bureaucracy – to investors engaged in the development of top tier hotels, high class complementary tourist and business facilities, sports and recreational facilities, eco-tourism, river cruising ventures, professional game fishing and water-sport facilities.
The tourism industry is primarily seasonal, and most tourists travel during the Northern Hemisphere winter, while also avoiding The Gambia’s rainy season from June to September. Average hotel occupancy reaches 90 percent in the winter months, but barely reaches 25 percent during the rest of the year. Most tourists arrive through tour operators and many stay at hotels through all-inclusive packages. The country has two main and multiple smaller nature reserves, a small park for crocodiles, and a river island that is home to many chimpanzees, in addition to numerous craft markets.
Eco-tourism remains a nascent subsector, although there are limited establishments springing up along the River Gambia. There are also some efforts to integrate villagers into the tourism sector by offering their home villages as activity centers for the tourists, a Ministry of Tourism and Culture initiative.
Eco-Tourism: This presents an underexplored, highly viable niche market. The River Gambia provides opportunities for commercial hubs along its banks and is highly navigable. River transport and river activities present major untapped opportunities in tourism.
Birdwatching: The Gambia is home to more than 600 bird species and is a major hub along the seasonal migratory pathway of birds along the Palearctic region. Birdwatchers make up a significant number of visitors to The Gambia, and prospects in this sector are largely unexplored.
• Eco-tourism and nature activities - river sports and cruising, tour operators
• Up-country tourism
• Integrated resorts and family villas
• 4- and 5-star hotel development
Gambia Tourism Board