By Cameron Roberts | March 2016 | 10 minute read
Visitor numbers to The Gambia took a heavy tumble because of its close proximity to Ebola-affected countries but it’s slowly regaining its status as a winter sun and wildlife idyll.
"The Gambia is a safe destination with very low crime and the people are renowned for being friendly and welcoming, hence it is affectionately known as ‘the smiling coast”
LOUISE THOMAS, MARKETING AND PR EXECUTIVE, THE GAMBIA EXPERIENCE
Bird watching: With hundreds of endemic species The Gambia is a paradise for birdwatchers. Clients should check out The Tanji Bird Reserve where they can see more than 250 species in their natural habitat
The Roots excursion: Learn about the slave trade and The Gambia’s colonial legacy. The excursion includes visits to Kunta Kinteh Island and a boat trip up the River Gambia
Wassu stone circle: A UNESCO World Heritage site, these 11 stones are the African equivalent of Stonehenge. The mysterious circles make a great attraction for first-time travellers and seasoned visitors alike
Matasuku forest: The so-called ‘Holy Forest’ is accessible to visitors via an activity centre within the trees, which allows them to take walking tours of a 405-hectare forest and interact with indigenous wildlife
Sports fishing: Fish such as dorado and sailfish are plentiful off the Atlantic coast, via Banjul. Highlight to anglers the wealth of excursions focused around deep-sea fishing - these are available from the capital
Senegambia craft market: Located in Kololi, on the western coast, the craft market is popular for carved sculptures, handmade clothing and jewellery
Mandina Bolong: One of the tributaries of The River Gambia, the Mandina Bolong gives visitors a glimpse of traditional villages, unspoilt landscapes and stilted accommodation on the riverside
Banjul: The capital offers The Gambia in a nutshell, with bustling markets, a rich history, access to offshore fishing and wildlife all making it a ‘must do’ for first-timers
Beaches: The Gambia’s appeal as a winter sun destination is not just down to its year-round sunshine, but also its fabulous beaches. Beach-lovers should make a beeline for Paradise Beach in Sanyang, for its stunning sands, and Leybato for a quieter experience
History: The destination has a variety of museums showing off artifacts from its colonial and tribal history. Visitors should not miss The National Museum of Banjul for ancient artifacts and the Kachikally Museum and Crocodile Pool for the chance to come face to face with a ‘sacred crocodile’
Perception versus reality
As Louise Thomas, Marketing and PR Executive, The Gambia Experience, explains: “In 2015, tourism was greatly affected by the Ebola outbreak, and negative media coverage prompted a precipitous decline in visitors, despite there being no cases in The Gambia.”
While the misconceptions surrounding the spread of Ebola took the bottom out of The Gambia’s tourism industry, a more reasonable pricing of its products and other global concerns are contributing to its recovery.
Winter sun competitors, including Egypt and Tunisia, have fallen from favour as they struggle with their ‘high threat from terrorism’ status from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Moving forward, The Gambia is anticipating a rise in UK tourists on the back of its ‘safe’ status and year-round sunshine.
Thomas continues: “The weather is reliably hot, averaging 31C and with long sunshine hours. And as it’s on the same time zone as the UK, there’s no jet lag.”
Away from external influences, The Gambia offers a natural appeal and cultural diversity. Eco-lodges are becoming more and more widespread, the country has a sizeable leatherback turtle population and large areas of untouched forest – meaning nature-lovers are sure to fall for the destination.
A range of special-interest attractions and accommodation options are also big plus points. "Accommodation includes ‘green lodges’, wildlife reserves, luxury boutique hotels, family-friendly beachfront hotels, spa resorts and simple African style hotels,” adds Thomas.
What the experts say
“The UK market continues to lead the way in visitor numbers. Despite a downturn in 2014, which was felt by the whole of West Africa, UK arrivals didn’t fall as much as other markets such as Germany and Switzerland, and we ended 2015 on 26,764 visitors.
“Over the next 12 months the destination aims to increase UK visitation by promoting its diversifying products and services. Special emphasis will be placed on The Gambia’s events calendar including the International Bird Festival.
“For agents, we are in the process of setting up an online training programme with Travel Uni, which will offer incentives encouraging them to learn more. We also plan to launch a new and improved website. We will also team up with our tour operator partners to organise more fam trips this year."
SAMUEL HANCOCK, SALES AND MARKETING DIRECTOR, THE GAMBIA TOURISM BOARD (GTB) UK
Accommodation: The Ocean Bay Hotel, Cape Point, has been refurbished. The family-friendly resort has gained a sushi restaurant called ‘Buddha’. The hotel features in the Gambia Experience’s programme.
Airlift: The Gambia Experience has a new charter option with Titan Airways. The Star service available onboard offers clients access to First Class lounges, priority boarding and a complimentary bar service.
Events: The first Gambia International Bird Festival will take place this October. The five-day feast for ornithologists will showcase a variety of prime birding locations and will brief attendees on rural tourism and bird conservation.
Where to book it
A 13-day Senegal and Gambia River Cruise with Explore takes small groups on a two-day cruise of the River Gambia and includes a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wassu Stone Circle. Prices start at £1,934pp including flights.
The Gambia Experience has a 10-night package that includes a stay at both the luxury Ngala Lodge and Madina Lodge, both accommodations known for their ‘natural credentials.’ Available for £1,248pp, including flights.