Banjul — The young waitress waved at the empty tables as a clutch of idle cooks bided time in a corner of one of the Gambian capital’s trendy restaurants, all eyes fixed on the front door.
“Last year if you came here at eight, the place would be full,” she said gloomily.
The small West African country is among many exotic travel destinations bracing for a bad hit by the financial crisis as worried consumers delay far-flung holidays.
Only a six-hour plane ride with no jet leg from many parts of Europe, Gambia boasts sun, sea and a break from relentless grey on its Atlantic seaboard teasingly nicknamed the “Smiling Coast”.
Yet already in the December run-up to the high season, restaurants in the coastal capital Banjul registered a drop in guests. The three-to-one waitress-diner ratio seen in more than one establishment was less a “luxury” than a “worry” indicator.
Marketing director Lamin Saho at the Gambian Tourism Authority (GTA) said room occupancy was around 42 percent, down from about 60 percent in the same period last year.
“There is a decline compared to previous years due to the global financial problems,” he said.
Gambia draws some 100,000 visitors a year, a healthy record for a place that had only 300 in 1965, according to government figures, shortly after the first “tourists” ventured to this English-speaking enclave nestled inside Senegal.
Most visitors are European, with nearly half British (46 percent), followed by the Dutch (11 percent) and the Swedish (five percent).
“For British holiday makers things are now more expensive,” Saho said, with the financial crisis compounded by exchange rates that have seen the pound drop against the Gambian dalasis.
This spells bad news for Gambia because Britons traditionally spend more money than the thrifty Dutch, who prefer to stay in their all inclusive hotels.
Zimbabwe-born Londoner Beverley Brown, who works for a pharmaceutical company, came despite the looming recession back home.
But “my holiday was sort of a last-minute decision (…) I didn’t want to spend too much,” she said, adding “in my office I am the only person to go away this Christmas.”
Tiny Gambia — barely bigger than Jamaica though squashed in a slim, fertile stretch on either side of the Gambia River — depends heavily on tourism, and the drop could deal a hefty blow in a country struggling with high unemployment.
Though no official jobless numbers are available, the latest figures from the World Bank say 61 percent of the 1.5 million population live below the nationally established poverty line.
Some 16,000 people work directly in the tourism sector though the livelihoods of many more depend on business tourism generates indirectly.
Tourism recently surpassed the export of groundnuts as the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner, and now accounts for some 16 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to government figures.
Secretary of State for Finance and Economic Affairs Bala Musa Gaye, however, said that serious challenges had emerged this year and could continue in 2009.
“The Gambia will be affected directly or indirectly by the global financial crisis in terms of remittances from abroad, aid flows, foreign direct investment and tourism receipts,” he said.
While final 2008 figures are not yet in, the latest numbers from the Gambian Tourism Authority show that the 2008 summer season already took a hit. In May, June and July tourism arrivals dropped 26.4 percent, 15.7 percent and 14.1 percent respectively, and the usually busy winter season is not expected to be any better.
Government-trained tour guides, who work as freelancers at the country’s big resorts like Serrekunda, are already struggling with fewer — and penny-pinching — tourists.
“You can really feel it in the way they spend,” said Sheriff Mballow, the secretary general of the tourist guide association. “They spend less and are less likely to do business than before.”