Its history covers one of the darkest periods of Africa’s past but its future appears bright as increasing numbers of western tourists see Gambia as an alternative destination to Kenya and Tanzania.
As one of the smallest nations in sub-Saharan Africa, both in terms of size but also numbers (only around 1.5 million people live there), Gambia was a relatively undiscovered destination for tourism until the 1977 publication of Alex Haley’s book Roots, which traced the American author’s ancestors back to the mighty River Gambia, from which the country takes its name.
While there remains debate about aspects of Haley’s book, and in particular that of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, there is no debate about the fact that the River Gambia played an infamous role in the slave trade.
Hundreds of thousands of African people who were captured throughout the West African region were chained, imprisoned and then shipped out from James Island in the middle of the Gambia river off the town of Juffureh, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, the southern part of the United States and South America.
Those that survived the terrible ordeal of the journey, and thousands didn’t, were then sold as slaves to plantation owners in the Americas.
Today, James Island is barely a shadow of its former self, having been eroded by the fierce tides of the River Gambia over hundreds of years, but the remains of the fort are still there to remind tourists of the island’s dark past.
But a trip to the Gambia is not only about remembering Africa’s dark past and the role played by both colonialists and Africans themselves in the slave trade.
It is also a vibrant, colourful but most of all safe environment in which tourists of all nationalities (Gambia plays particular host to thousands of African Americans trying to trace their own roots) can be seen enjoying the vibrant music culture or the street markets until late at night.
Gambians are justifiably proud of the fact that crime is rare in Gambia and criminals are sometimes treated without mercy as witnessed by the execution of nine prisoners on death row by President Yahya Jammeh in August and September of last year.
Jammeh’s critics, and he has many, said the prisoners were not criminals but political opponents, but talk to people in the street and it is clear the president has popular support even though, unlike in Kenya, Gambians don’t talk much about politics.
Some say the reason is it is dangerous to do so — the president’s posters are everywhere to be seen around the capital Banjul and the press is nowhere near as free as it is in East Africa — but Gambia does not have the feel of a repressive society, as for example Kenya did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Most Gambians are too interested in trying to make a living to worry about politics and like East Africa, economic growth has been good over the past ten years averaging between five and 6.5 per cent, mainly through growth in the agricultural and tourism sectors.
There remain problems, for example Gambia is a major producer of peanuts, but its exports to the United States are restricted by quotas and the subsidies given to US farmers.
Gambia’s tourism industry receives over 100,000 visitors a year and is the second highest earner of foreign revenue.
Tourists, attracted by the short flying time (five and a half hours) and the same time zone as the UK, mainly come from Europe with package tour operators from UK making up over 50 per cent of visitors.
The remaining visitors arrive from the US, Germany, Norway, Sweden and other countries.
Moreover it is estimated that around 44 per cent of high season (winter) tourists are repeat visitors to Gambia, showing a loyalty factor that other countries in sub-Saharan Africa would find hard to beat.
While the tourism numbers are around one-tenth that of Kenya, they continue to grow and the possibility of budget airlines such as EasyJet or FastJet flying customers direct between London and Banjul could push the numbers higher still.
Gambia does not, of course, have the safari experience that Kenya and Tanzania have to offer, but it is one of the best destinations in the world for migrating birds who inhabit the mangrove swamps around the River Gambia in their thousands.
Tour operators such as the Gambia Experience, which has consistently been at the top of tourists recommended travel companies in the UK, and which uses almost entirely Gambian staff, specialise in the migrating bird field, but also offer trips to local schools, health clinics, bee keeping co-operatives as well as safaris to nearby Senegal.
The country also has some spectacular beaches, particularly in the south and around the tourist resort of Kotu although there are concerns about beach erosion in some areas.
Like Kenya, Gambia has had difficulty in trying to ensure that while as many people as possible benefit from tourism, that tourists themselves are not too put off by the beach “bumsters” selling everything and anything under the sun.
One positive step forward has been that few tour companies now offer ‘all inclusive’ deals at beach hotels, meaning that most tourists now move out of their resort and try out different destinations for their meals and shopping.
The fact that Gambia is safe, you can walk along the beach in complete darkness without fear of being mugged, has helped to develop small local businesses like juice bars, fruit sellers and beach restaurants, most of which are owned by Gambians themselves.
Nevertheless, Gambia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and like Kenya and Tanzania, many thousands of people are either out of work or dependent on seasonal tourism employment.
Aside from a few Spanish visitors, few westerners visit the Gambia during the hot and wet summer, meaning that enough has to be made during the winter months.
In an effort to diversify, Gambia has, like Kenya, gone increasingly down the road of eco tourist lodges, but unlike Kenya these are both upmarket and simple places, allowing both ordinary and wealthy westerners to visit.
Indeed, Gambia’s future success may well be down to the fact that it is very much an affordable destination.
Even at Christmas time and New Year, traditionally the most expensive time for tourists to visit, a family can holiday to Gambia for around £3,500 ($5,250) and outside of this period, prices drop as low as £1,500 ($2,250) to £2,000 ($3,000).
The cost of living moreover, is cheap with meals out costing around £10 ($15) to £20 ($30) for a family of three and local birdlife and monkey safaris costing between £10 ($15) and £30 ($45) per group.
Outside of the Roots trip on the River Gambia, highlights include the sacred Katchikali crocodile pool, the River Gambia National Park, the Abuka National Nature Reserve and the wild and remote Jinack Island.
The Gambia likes to be known as the “smiling coast” and while for many, life remains a struggle, it is a peaceful country and has the potential to challenge its rivals in East Africa in the future.