interviewBy Amie Sanneh
In today's edition of Know Your Public Institutions, we introduce below the Gambia Tourism Board. We were able to conduct an interview with the Director General, Mr. Benjamin Roberts, who was able to tell us what the Gambia Tourism Board is all about. To know more about them, please read this piece.
Foroyaa: Can you please introduce yourself for the benefit of our readers?
GTB: My name is Benjamin Roberts; I am the Director General of the Gambia Tourism Board.
Foroyaa: When was Gambia Tourism Board established?
GTB: Gambia Tourism Board was established by an Act of parliament in August of 2011.
Foroyaa: What are the roles of GTB?
GTB: The role of the GTB is to implement the policy of tourism as conceived by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. What this entails is implementation of the regulation of those policies regulating the tourism industry as a whole. As you may be aware, the tourism industry is quite a complex and big industry. It comprises of tour operators, ground tour operators, hotels, restaurants and associations such as the Gambia Hotel Association, the Travel and Tourism Association of the Gambia, the Tourists Taxi Association and the Craft Market Federation and the Tourism Official Guides. So there are various associations within the industry and it is the mandate of the GT Board to ensure that the policies that are conceived by the Ministry of Tourism is implemented vis a vis the entire industry and industry stakeholders.
Foroyaa: How does GTB operate?
GTB: The GT Board is made up of four departments; you have the office of the Director General at the top, of course with support from the governing body or the Board of Directors who are the overseeing body of the institution. Now within the office of the Director General or below the office of the Director General, you have the Directorate of Marketing, which is one of the core mandate of the Gambia Tourism Board, you have the Department of Product Develop, Investment and Culture, you also have the Quality Control and Licensing Department and of course the Finance Department. So those four departments and the office of the Director General is what constitute the Gambia Tourism Board. Each department is responsible for the various organizational aspects of the Gambia Tourism Board. Marketing Department is what sells the destination outside of the Gambia and within the Gambia as well so everything relating to marketing destination and the relationship between the destination and the tour operators and the public relations and marketing firms outside of the country; all of those activities are actually under the purview of the marketing department. Now the Product Development Department Investment and Culture is the department that is responsible for ensuring that investors are attracted into the destinations through investing in various facilities so all of these hotels that you see owned by foreign investors were being facilitated by the Product Development, Investment and Culture Department. It is also the mandate of the Product Development Department to ensure that the products are up to standards, that new products are developed and that existing ones are maintained to the standards expected. The Quality Control and Licensing Department is the Department that ensures that hotels meet the standards that are established by the Gambia Tourism Board in terms of hotel classifications, in terms of hygiene, in terms of service delivery, in terms of the requirements as established by the various other government units vis a vis the various operational aspects of these establishments, the restaurants, the tourist taxi drivers so the control everything relating to quality and licensing, and also the annual licensing renewals; all of those things are under the purview of that department. And of course Finance is responsible for the administration aspect of the Gambia Tourism Board and ensuring that the board runs an institution optimally and ensures that it is in good financial sounding and make sure that the revenue that are being generated are invested wisely for optimal use.
Foroyaa: What are your main objectives?
GTB: The primary objective of the Gambia Tourism Board is to market the destination and ensure that we bring tourism to the country. Our objectives are aligned with Vision 2020. If you look at Vision 2020 and you look at the overriding objectives for the tourism sector, one of the overriding objectives is to increase the tourism arrival numbers from the current level of hundred and seventy-five thousand to half a million (500,000) by the year 2020. So our main objective is ensuring that we achieve that by 2020. Of course the achievement of that has to be done gradually, so our focus on marketing we believe will help us achieve that but also some focus on product development because it is one thing to market for people to come to the destination but when people do come to the destination they also need to see the products, the products have to be appealing to make them to want to come again but the primary objective is marketing, product development and quality control and service standard delivery.
Foroyaa: How do you work with your various stakeholders you have mentioned?
GTB: We believe in a collaborative approach. Tourism is a cross cutting industry, meaning us alone, we would not be able to do everything on our own as I mentioned to you earlier. We have various stakeholders, the hoteliers, tour operators, the grand tour operators, the tourist taxi drivers, the craft market federation, the bars, the restaurants you name it. Now for us to be able to work and to work amicably and to achieve our objective, we have to be seen to be collaborating. Yes we are the regulators but in terms of the implementation of those regulations, we need to adopt a collaborative approach, we need to dialogue, we need to engage each other. We believe that is the way we can achieve our objective so we pay attention to that, we pay emphasis to collaboration, dialogue and that is why when I first took office in May, the first thing I did was to have a meeting with all of the stakeholders to better understand there challenges, their issues, their problems and to decide to work on the modalities in terms of having a better work together to achieve our overriding objective of bringing half a million tourists into the destination so our approach is more of collaboration.
Foroyaa: We are now in the tourist season, how is the tourist season faring? Is it operating as expected?
GTB: So far so good. Thank God we have made much progress. Our preliminary indications and engagements with some of the hoteliers is that year on year, month on month they have an increase in the tourism arrival numbers. I just received the arrival numbers last week in terms of November 2012 compared to November 2011 interms of December 2012 compared to December 2011 and January 2012 compared to January 2013. Now what we have realized is that in December there was a slight drop of 0.5 percent in the arrival numbers. Now in November there was an increase of 28 percent in 2012 compared to 2011 and in January there is an increase of about 10 percent above that of 2012. So indicatively things are good, but as you are aware the season goes up to the end of April and sometime in May. So we are hoping that we will be able to maintain that momentum. Our expectation is that 2012/2013 season would see an increase of 10 to 15 percent, that is our target and we are hoping that in terms of numbers, we will be perhaps very close to the hundred and ninety thousand mark compared to the hundred and seventy five thousand in 2011/ 2012 season.
Foroyaa: Sometimes back, an announcement was made that the tourism season will be an all year around. What is happening to this now?
GTB: Yes, I think that announcement would have been made in view of the strategies that have been put in place. Currently, that is the objective. The objective is for Gambia to have an all year round tourism season. As we speak today, we have been able to sign a deal with Thomas Cook and also our ... indications that another tour operator would also be operating from October and end in May. As you are aware, the tourist season starts in November and ends in May so beginning 2013/2014 season. Thomas Cook and other tour operator have opted to begin operations in October that is one month before the usual season and ends in May which is one month after the usual season. To achieve all year tourism is not going to be an easy objective. What we have under taken to do is to ensure that at least we increase it gradually, as we have increased two months, one month before the usual start and one month after the usual end. We will be looking at increasing them gradually. We are putting plans in place to help us achieve that objective. We currently looking into the United States market and also in Europe because one thing we realize is that the off season which is end of April all the way to October also coincides with the summer holiday of students, university students. So we are looking at seeing how we can market the Gambia into destinations tied with culture; we have roots, we have Alex Hailey, we have Kunta Kinteh which has some cultural dimension so that the students will come on an exchange with the University of the Gambia of course to be spending one or two weeks. We believe that the fact that is the low season, tourists ... we also discussing with hotels if they could bring the rates down so that it would be affordable for the students so that we can also at least extend that season, maybe from May /June because July is the rains and some people don't like rains. At least if we can extend it up to mid of July by which time the rain usually starts, we think we would have make a progress in that extension aspiration.
Foroyaa: Do you have the required support needed for your office to function normally?
GTB: What do you mean by support?
Foroyaa: What I mean is whether your institution is financially strong and whether you have the support from government and your stakeholders.
GTB: I think I mentioned earlier that in terms of the stakeholders we collaborate a lot, we do a lot together; we dialogue a lot because I think it is through that dialogue and collaboration that we could achieve our objectives. Now in terms of support from the government, yes, Gambia Tourism Board is a subvented institution but our subvention is minimal. What we do is we generate our own funds from our operations. When tourists come into the country, they pay a development levy of 5 pounds (sterling) per tourist so we use those funds to actually steer the affairs of the institution. We also issue licensing to various stakeholders so those license proceeds are also used to steer the affairs of the institution. When investors come, local or international, to invest in the industry we collect what we call a development levy, which is refundable of course, but during the construction phase whatever facility they are developing we usually give them an 18 months. During that phase we have the opportunity to invest those funds for it to generate revenue for us before we do the refund at the end of the construction phase. So these are the various avenues that we use to sort of supplement what it is that we get from government. And yes of course we work in close collaboration with the Ministry. I think that is public knowledge we do things together. We try to work hand in hand because I think that is the only way that we could achieve what it is that we actually intend to achieve.
Foroyaa: What are some of the challenges that your institution is faced with?
GTB: I think first and foremost, the major challenge is what happens in the global trend as you are aware the Gambia is part of a global scene. You are aware of the global financial crises and the impact it has, because tourism is leisure and people will go on holidays if they have the additional income to go holidays. Most of the tourists are foreigners. Yes, Gambians ordinarily can partake in the business by patronizing the hotels but we know that is very minimal and is more in terms of conferences and workshops. So we depend a whole lot on the outside world to take holidays in the Gambia. Now if there is global financial crisis outside it makes it very difficult for those holidays to be taken because people prioritise between holiday and basic living. So the major challenge is what happens globally, the global shocks so any financial crises that are out there, any challenges with terrorism and stuff makes people not wanting to fly, so all these things are challenges. So what happens in the global world actually have a lot of impact in terms of tourism obtains here locally so that is one fundamental challenge. Another fundamental challenge is we just come back from a five day tour upcountry to look at the tourism facilities and in terms of the standards they are not up to standard. I think we also have challenges when it comes to the stakeholders within the industry meeting the basic standard requirement. I think there is challenge in that one as well. Of course the issue is always not having enough funds to invest but those are things we are working on with stakeholders to try to see what we could do to help improve on that. I will give you an example, Lamin Lodge was closed for some time because of certain issues relating to standards. When we went too on the countrywide tour, there are some facilities that of the motels and some of the hotels in Barra, the standards are not there and the same apply to some of the facilities in Basse as well So I think those are the core issues. Another challenge is wherever you have a facility that is multi faceted with lots of stakeholders I think trying to get all the stakeholders to do the right thing is sometimes difficult. Yes, there are regulations, there are rules but for some people they will take advantage of the fact that there are so many people within the GT Board when it comes to implementation and enforcement and there are occasionally things that you can't control or you put it in check today tomorrow it goes back to where it was. I can use the bumsters as an example. We have a challenge with that we did a coastal tour some months back. We walked from Banjul all the way to Kartong on the beach to look at the facilities on the beach. We have a lot of illegal structures on the beach which are not supposed to be there naturally. Those would have implications in terms of the sanitation of the environment so those are also challenges. We have illegal structures on the beach, we have some facilities on the TDA that have been allocated for development they have not been allocated and some of them are in the courts. So those are also challenges we are working on resolving. So the challenges seemed to be seamless but notwithstanding there are challenges we can address but it would be gradual because you want to do it in a way that is collaborative and not necessarily impeaching your authority for example on the stakeholders.