Mr. Benjamin Roberts, Director General of the Gambia Tourism Board (GTB), said the stakeholders in the tourism industry need to collaborate with one and other for the benefit of all and not to encroach on each other's domain. He stressed the need for equity and fair play to prevail if the benefits that government envisages for the industry is to trickle down to everybody.
He was responding to concerns raised by the official tourist guides regarding the constraints in their operations and how the hotel owners and tour operators deal with them.
At a press conference held recently, the association of the official tourist guides complained about the lack of due recognition by hotel owners/managements and ground tour operators in The Gambia which they said is hampering their operation to serve as guides. They however blamed the Gambia Tourism Board, which is the regulatory body in the industry, for not doing much in getting them established or deployed in the hotels.
According to the guides, their association was formed in 1997 and their members were trained by the government to serve as official tourist guides and provide guide services to the tourists visiting the country. They have identified as a constraint the lack of a proper office space as they are now using a temporal place with a roof but without walls and situated at the entrance of Kairaba and Senegambia hotels, adding that Gamcel was even willing to fund the construction of a permanent office for them but the management of Senegambia Beach Hotel refused to accept the building of a structure there as it claims ownership of the place. The official guides explained that initially they were allowed to operate in the hotels but that after two months the tour operators objected to their presence and as a consequence they were denied access by the managements. They however singled out the Kairaba, BB Hotel and Kombo Beach hotels as having been supportive to them at one time or the other.
They explained that they pay tax out of what they get in providing guide services to tourists, but questioned how they will be able to continue doing this if they are not allowed to operate in the hotels.
The GTB Director General, after being intimated with the above issues raised by the official tourist guides, agreed that there are challenges facing the official tourist guides and which he came to know about during the meetings he had with them. He said following his assumption of office, he had a series of meetings starting in May last year (2012) with all the stakeholders in the tourism industry, including the official tourist guides. The objective of these meetings, he said, was to acquaint himself with the challenges that the various stakeholders are facing and to identify what strategies there are to be employed to address them.
Mr. Roberts explained that his first meeting with the guides was for consultation concerning the challenges and also to enquire about the nature of their association in terms of operation and membership. He said the guides explained to him all the constraints they face including the lack of the requisite support from the hotels, office space as well as the negative publicity about them that is given to tourists by the tour operators.
On the issue of lack of support from hoteliers, the GTB DG said he raised the issue with GHA at his meeting with them but said what they are saying is that they are ready to accommodate the guides only if they get themselves to organize better. He said the hotel owners are accusing them of harassment and being unruly and fighting over tourists amongst themselves and with taxi drivers.
On the issue of office space, he showed a letter from the management of Senegambia Beach hotel dated the 13 December and which is notifying the Board of its expansion plans to use the place which is temporarily housing the guides for another purpose. He said GTB wants to meet management for them to proceed with this gradually and to consider providing support services to the relocated guides to enable them to overcome the challenge of physical access by allowing their representative to be stationed in the hotel area and access to communication to facilitate contacts with the others when guide services are needed by the tourists.
Mr. Roberts disclosed that they have presently assigned one of their managers to identify an ideal location within the vicinity for the guides to operate from and which will enable them easy access and contacts.
On the issue of training, he acknowledged that the government did train the official guides at the time they were established. He added that most of those who were trained are no longer there as some have gone for greener pastures hence the need for training for the new ones who, he said, constitute the majority. He disclosed that this has even coincided with the proposal presently being made by ASSET for the training of the official tourist guides. He said the plan is for this ASSET - GTB training of tourist guides to take place probably in May, which is immediately after the end of the official tourist season and before the first rains.
The GTB DG agreed that the guides pay an annual licence fee of D525 each in order to serve as official guides. He added that it was even proposed for the guides to register as an association and not as individuals as it is easier for one to negotiate with hotels on behalf of a group than an individual.
On the issue of the enrolment of members, the GTB DG said the guides told him that membership is done through referrals or recommendations from older members. He said it was suggested to them that they need to revisit their code of conduct in consultation with GTB to make it more responsive to the needs of its membership. He said as it stands now the association needs to regularize the way it operates and get its members to be paying their dues to make the organization sustainable.
He reveals that a third meeting was to take place at the Officers' Mess involving the guides, tourist taxi drivers and the Board. He said this meeting is important as cases are often reported involving the drivers and guides over one encroaching on the work of the other as well as the Bird Watchers.
He concluded that there is need for all the stakeholders to collaborate with one another and that the Board will be working to ensure that this mutually supportive relation prevails in the industry.