Gambia fears tourism crisis after Thomas Cook collapse

BANJUL (Reuters) - Fatou Jallow borrowed money this year to spruce up her beachside restaurant in Gambia, expecting the usual winter droves of European tourists keen to sample her hearty stews and spicy West African rice dishes.

FILE PHOTO: Women stroll along the beach at Senegambia, Banjul, Gambia January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo

Then Monday's news hit: Thomas Cook Group TCG.L, the travel operator that brought around 40% of Gambia's annual visitors seeking sun and white-sand beaches, had collapsed and was cancelling all future flights and hotel bookings.

The fallout is global, with tourists and tourist destinations affected in North America, Europe, India and Africa.

But few countries fear the impact like Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country whose locals make most of their money in the tourist season, which is just about to begin.

“When I heard the news, I nearly collapsed,” said Jallow, who employs a dozen people at her restaurant in Kololi, a seaside resort town on the Atlantic coast, just outside the capital Banjul.

“Tourism is my life.”

Tourism accounts for 30% of GDP in the former British colony, which has been a popular destination for Europeans since the 1960s.

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The industry has been a key driver behind Gambia’s recovery from an economic slump in 2016-17 and the economy had been forecast to grow 5.4% this year.

Optimism has been on the rise since the end in 2017 of former president Yahya Jammeh’s despotic 23-year rule during which he plundered the state’s modest coffers.

Now, workers in the industry, from hotel managers to tour guides, fear more tough times are ahead.

“Many tourists have canceled their bookings in my hotel,” said Sidi Colley, who manages a complex of bungalows bordering a palm-fringed private beach.

The business had been planning to increase its staff to 60 for the high season - which runs from October to April - from 22 workers currently, but this will not happen if tourists do not come, he said.

Around 57,000 British customers had already booked hotels or seats on charter flights for the upcoming season, according to the national hotel association. This equates to around a quarter of all tourists to Gambia during the whole of last year.

It is not clear how those who booked via Thomas Cook will now make the trip. The government plans to ask other airlines and travel companies to roll out more services to make up for the operator’s collapse, Tourism Minister Hamat Bah told journalists on Monday.

“It was a great shock to learn [about] their bankruptcy,” he said.

Vendors at the Senegambia craft market said they had taken out loans ahead of the tourist season to boost their stocks of traditional instruments, wood carvings and jewelry.

“We borrowed a lot of money. If the government will not intervene to invite other tour operators, it will be catastrophic,” said Ndey Jeng, who sells a range of dyed cloth at the market.

“Since the announcement of the collapse I cannot eat well, I cannot sleep.”

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Edward McAllister and Susan Fenton