Once considered as a beach resort paradise with approximately 3500km of coast line dotted with palm trees and covered with white sand, West Africa has seen a steady decline in traditional tourists over the past few years. Now there seems to be a renewal of interest and tourists are beginning to trickle back to the hustle and bustle of the colourful markets, the relaxing sound of the Atlantic waves crashing on a pristine beach or to the exhilarating beat of the Jembe and talking drum.
There are several recent articles that have appeared within the UK press which have demonstrated that tourists are choosing West Africa as a ‘good value for money’ region where there is a wealth of activities, sites, ‘untouched’ beaches and landscapes to explore (ie. The Times and The Telegraph) . However, these tourists are not the traditional type, those who come to the resorts and lie on the beaches in order to escape the cold British winter. They are the more adventurous type, those seeking thrills and the sense of discovery and exploration, but also who like to relax on a beach after a long day. They choose West African countries as a destination because of the ‘off-the-beaten-track’ feeling when walking through the streets of Dakar, or staying at a hostel in Guinea-Bissau. They go to West Africa to learn more about culture and appreciate the regions biodiversity, to experience ‘something new’, to do ‘what other people don’t do.’ Furthermore, they are the tourists which have less of an impact on the environment, who will happily eat a meal made from local ingredients, visit a local craft shop to buy souvenirs, use public transport when possible and stay in a hotel owned by community members. They are the responsible tourist.
The potential is there, the local populations are enthusiastic to show their country to new arrivals, tourism projects are under way and a lot of the ground based Tour Operators practice Responsible Tourism policies because of the cultural attachment to the sense of community, respect for nature and pride for their cultures.
Organisations such as O.N.I.T.S (Senegal), Eco-Bénin (Bénin), ASSET (The Gambia), Tourisme Cameroon (French) and Visit Sierra-Leone are all working towards the implementation of Responsible Tourism policies within the countries Tourism Industry. They have appreciated that only sustainable tourism (which advocates the conservancy of Natural, Cultural, Social and Historical heritages whilst promoting their countries wealth of activities, beaches, learning opportunities and new experiences) is the key to a successful long-term answer to the declining number of tourists.
The next step is the marketing of the West African region through the most cost-effective and carbon efficient means possible:
With the ever increasing UK market trend towards ethical consumerism the term Responsible Tourism, as long as the policies are respected and that there is something to do in the destination, is a unique selling point that should not be shunned.
Social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Youtube (to name but a few) are some of the free ‘marketing tools’ available to start a marketing campaign, and they are gaining popularity day-by-day.
Guide book listings (Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, etc.) are also a great way to get noticed, and travel writers are always looking for the next exciting tourism venture to review.
Getting in contact with UK based Responsible Tourism marketing agencies such as West Africa Discovery can also be a means of getting a wider coverage of the UK market.
My experience of West Africa
Having visited West Africa myself, and lived in Senegal, I can appreciate how beautiful the region is. I can still taste the heavily spiced fish and rice dishes, smell the Atlantic Ocean breeze, feel the sun shining brightly on my skin and hear the drums calling to one another from neighbouring villages. I have images of towering waterfalls, cathedral-like termite mounds, colourfully dressed women, awe-inspiring sunsets and lush tropical forest. I have memories of bike riding from one village to another, meeting the elder of a remote tribe in Iwol, swimming in the Gambia river near Kédougou, sitting on the beach near a bonfire sipping tea in Casamance and eating Mafé-Yapp (A peanut based spicy sauce and meat dish usually served with rice) in the sahel regions of the Lac de Guier (Northern Sénégal).
I would like other people to experience special moments like the ones I had and to go back home with a head full of stories and a camera full of beautiful photos, but in a respectful and sustainable way. You will not regret it, as long as you’re open-minded.
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