The erstwhile Gambian leader was contributing to a discourse involving students of the Institute for Travel and Tourism of The Gambia at the Senegambia beach hotel where local tourism gurus were also present.
Sir Dawda pointed out that the country's past situation as a new nation seriously starved of resources to survive and forge ahead prompted his government to introduce tourism as a means of breathing life into her economy and providing jobs to a burgeoning number of school graduates who would otherwise have been unemployed. He said tourism under his leadership was part of a wider poverty alleviation strategy meant to complement agriculture.
The 87-year old former leader said there was widespread international skepticism about The Gambia's capacity to maintain its independence, a cynicism which explained the reluctance of prospective international partners to work with the new nation, forcing his government to devise effective way of keeping the soul of the nation intact and confound those skeptics. Among those skeptics Jawara said was Bertil Rice who authored a book about The Gambia in which he questioned the country's capacity to cling onto statehood against the strong tides of its certain demise. Sir Dawda claimed that Rice's book, 'Enter Gambia the birth of an improbably nation' was reflective of the general lack of trust and confidence in our nation's ability to be resilient in the face of adversities part of which was caused by its size and peculiar geography.
According to him the PPP administration was resolute in its pursuit of a series of policies which would end up putting the country's economy in good stead to head off challenges inherent in any developing country of that period of the 1960s and 70s when international cooperation among nations was informed by ideological leanings and economic or resource power which The Gambia had practically nothing of. He asserted that agriculture aside The Gambia required another sector which would practically complement the national economy and improve the country's viability as a small nation. “We were under no illusion about the challenges weighing us down as a nation. We also knew that we had to improve agriculture and diversify the country's earnings to give our commercial and industrial sectors some injection of foreign exchange earnings”, the former leader remarked, reiterating that tourism was introduced out of a strong desire to succeed in creating jobs, attracting foreign exchange and building trust and confidence in the international circle, which the country's desperately needed to remain viable.
Former president Jawara explained that after visiting with a British public official called Sahid Put, who impressed upon him that developing the tourism sector with only one hotel would be a big risk and instead advised for two or more hotels to built to ensure sustainability, he as leader challenged The Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry to look into ways and means of building hotels as a precursor to attracting holidaymakers from Europe. According to him this led to the flowering of the hotel industry with hotels such as Adonis, Palm Grove and Wadner and the Atlantic Hotels signifying an important but temporary shifting of emphasis from agriculture.
Sir Dawda highlighted that his administration did not only stop at building hotels within the urban areas but undertook the building of tourism facilities around the Kombo which included Sunwing Hotel, Novotel, Senegambia Beach Hotels, and Kairaba Beach Hotel among other hotels to attract tourists from the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and the United States.
“One important area that we could not ignore in our stride was marketing despite the fact that we had very limited resources at our disposal. We established offices in Washington, Frankfurt and London and it paid off because it led a huge turnout of tourists into the country and this was beyond our wildest dreams,” he explained.
Sir Dawda was also quick to point out that his administration was constrained after inheriting a dilapidated airport from the retreating British colonialists.
“Our efforts to develop tourism left us with no option but to invest heavily in repairing what was left of the runways so that jumbo jets and Boeing aircraft carrying visitors could land” he claimed.
Former president Jawara said since tourism has come a long way from those lean years, the current administration should engage itself in consolidating the progress registered over the years by going on a charm offensive in America and the Caribbean, which had eluded the former administration under his stewardship. He called on the current dispensation to intensify current attempt to woo people in the African diaspora to The Gambia by connecting the country with Alex Haley's Roots and its historical character Kunta Kinteh for effect. He predicted that with this approach employed consistently over a period of time, the country's tourism sector will witness a remarkable turnaround in its fortune.
Mr. Junaidi Jallow, Gambia's first director of tourism also traced the country's tourism to its modest beginning in the 1960s and said the foresight of those who crafted the tourism policies of that era would be pleased to witness the existence of the ITTOG. He commended the principal and staff of the school for entertaining the presence of former leaders to share their knowledge and experience with the future of Gambian tourism firmly in mind.
According to Mr. Jallow, tourism came to The Gambia by accident, noting that this story was inextricably linked to Bertil Harding, a Swedish tour operator who was on his way to southern Senegal and made an impromptu visit to the country, taking delight in what he saw. Jallow said Harding was so impressed by the country's sights and sounds that he brought twenty of his best clients to savour what he had witnessed during his chance encounter with people and places. He said the Swede was fixated with the country's potential as a haven for tourists and did not do much prodding to tourists to convince them about the country. Mr. Jallow said, those who made the maiden tourist visits were equally as convinced by what they witnessed.
Speaking of the challenges faced by the then PPP administration Jallow claimed: “It was a tedious journey along the way because at the onset there was no ready infrastructure, no formal hotels, institutions or organizations were in place to hit the ground running. The Jawara administration must be credited with developments in the tourism sector”.
He said the breakthrough came when The Gambia established tourism offices in Washington, Frankfurt and London and stepped up its involvement with tour operators such as the Cosmos and Langaman among others. He also indicated that the provision of training by the German GTH and Otally college of Kenya was decisive in reversing the fortunes of this resilient Gambian industry.
Mr. Sheikh Tijan Nyang, the principal of the ITTOG commended the speakers for sharing their knowledge with his students, noting that was imparted to them could not be found in any book published in the country. He described the occasion as an opportunity for his students to understand the trials and tribulations of the industry, and put them into proper perspective as they look forward to joining the industry and make their involvement count.
Other tourism gurus who took part in the discourse include Mr. Batch Faye, Mr. Lie Mboge and Mr. Aziz Khan.