The collapse of Thomas Cook has been devastating not just for the 21,000 directly employed by the company but also to countless suppliers throughout the UK, across Europe and even in Africa. The Gambia is one of those countries severely affected as the airline flew in 45% of holidaymakers last season. However, the country affectionately known as “the smiling coast of Africa” hasn’t been drowning in sorrow but instead proactively looking to diversify their customer base and offerings.
The fly and flop business model is no longer seen as the way forward but more enriching, immersive experiences that benefit both the visitors and the locals are being championed.
The classics that are withstanding the test of time
Katchikally crocodile pool might have been around for centuries but it stills captures the imagination of visitors wanting to get up close and personal to these splendid reptilian creatures. There are around 100 crocodiles on this 9-acre site with around 250kg of fish fed daily at 08:30 to ensure they are not hungry by the time visitors start arriving. They’ve also opened up a community-run ethnographic museum nearby which details the history of the Bakau area and also the ethnic groups in this diverse country. This sacred area is also important to locals as people come to pray for blessings and the pool is known for its healing powers.
Tanji fishing village is what I would describe as “the Wall Street” of the fishing industry. This is quite possibly the craziest, most hectic and muddy fish market you will ever come across. Multi-coloured fishing boats line the shores of Tanji as they bring back their rich hordes of aquatic produce. Gambians can be seen swimming frantically by the side of these boats hoping to catch a fallen fish whilst on the shore, you will hear endless echoes of haggling, trading and negotiating.
The Wassu stone circles might not be as impressive as Stonehenge, but as recognised by UNESCO, the Senegambian stone circles are “the largest concentration of stone circles seen anywhere in the world.” The tallest stone has a height of 2.59 metres and they must have shown a tremendous technical ability to be able to extract and transport them without cracking or splitting the stones. They also represent what must have been a prosperous and well-coordinated society in the area.
The new offerings making waves in The Gambia
Kayaking seems to be the de jour activity these days for the adventurous types, but the offering at Tanji Bird Reserve is unique to what you might find elsewhere. The Gambia is an ornithological heaven with 500+ species of birds available; at the mangroves of Tanji, you can study some of them up close and personal, such as the Caspian tern, whilst paddling along the stream at your own leisure.
Community-based tourism is likely to be on the rise in the coming years and you can experience this at the Ndemban homestay. They have created purposely built tourist accommodation in the local village there so you can help sustain indigenous communities whilst experiencing the culture and eco-friendly principles of the Jola community. You might be roasting peanuts, working in the garden with local women or even playing football with the local children.
The chimp rehabilitation project in The Gambia isn’t a new initiative, having informally started in 1969. However, it is a project that has been about returning chimpanzees to their natural habitat from those that have been held in captivity. Currently, there are 130 chimps living on Baboon island and it is only in recent years they’ve been accepting small groups of interested tourists on boat trips to observe these simians. Tourists, as well as staff, are not allowed to set foot on the island for conservation reasons.
Hotel options in The Gambia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
There are a plethora of options to choose from when visiting The Gambia. If there is any good news from the demise of Thomas Cook, it would be the move away from the cheap and cheerful, all-inclusive packages popular with their previous customers to more boutique varieties to cater to a wider spectrum of customers.
Ocean Bay Hotel and Kombo Beach Hotel are 2 options that are popular with British tourists but I would say sadly due a refurbishment (the latter was built in 1984). For a country offering a cornucopia of fruits, it was remarkable to still see cordial and tinned fruits being served in some cases.
For those seeking the more cutting-edge hotels built in recent years, you should be on the lookout for Tamala Beach Resort and African Princess Beach Hotel. Both have previously worked with the more upscale, discerning Thomas Cook customers; but the former seems to be doing better, having diversified to cater for more European groups such as German and Dutch tour operators whilst the latter seems to be going through a more muted phase with the demise of Thomas Cook.
Tamala Beach Resort could easily rival the very best designed European hotels in the Mediterranean and that wouldn’t be a surprise given they’ve collaborated with Swedish designers to offer a clean, minimalist design with an African twist and you are likely to win plenty of plaudits when you can dive straight from your balcony into their main pool area.
For up-country lodges, there is the Sindola Safari Lodge which is next to the former residence of their dictatorial president, Yahya Jammeh and undoubtedly this was where he would entertain foreign dignitaries. The grounds are immaculately manicured but the rooms themselves do still need plenty of work, especially when guests struggle to even get hot water.
Morgan Kunda Lodge is arguably the most basic of all the accommodation offerings mentioned, but you can’t help fall in love with the charms of the staff members who work there and the local villagers. It is primarily a bird-watching sanctuary where you can see the rare Egyptian plover, white-crested tiger bittern and martial eagle. However, the real charm is speaking with the locals and their inspirational stories to boost education and work opportunities for local villagers. 30% of the children are orphans who have lost one or more parents who tried leaving for Europe via the treacherous “back way” through Libya. The unexpected highlight was watching local ladies perform a thrilling, traditional dance that they normally undertake to encourage fertility.
The Gambia might offer some of the most alluring sandy beaches for winter sun around, but when you delve a little further into the local community, you will discover something altogether more rewarding and life-changing. Thomas Cook might not be around anymore, but there are a host of new options ready to step into the breach including TAP Air Portugal and Tui; so make sure The Gambia is still on your radar when you consider a destination for your next holiday.