Senegal’s entrepreneurs want their share of tourist money
Locals are reaching beyond the traditional French and Belgian markets
(Financial Time – APRIL 19, 2018) Ali Dieng has come a long way from hawking souvenirs at Dakar’s Marché Kermel, where he gave his sales pitch in English, French and Spanish. The entrepreneur, whose Andaando tour company is popular with American and British tourists, represents a new type of tour operator: local people making their mark in a sector dominated by foreigners.
“Senegalese are waking up, the younger generations, and saying we have to control our own businesses,” he says on the drive to Dakar after a day leading a tour to the Lompoul desert.
There are several obstacles to attracting visitors, he grumbles. These include overpriced hotels and plane tickets, dirty beaches and potholed roads that make travel beyond the capital and coast an uncomfortable experience.
“Everything is expensive here for tourists!” Mr Dieng exclaims. “We need to be more like Morocco.”
Tourism in Senegal is at a crossroads, with hopes that a new airport 50km outside Dakar and a planned airline will boost visitor numbers, while the government implements a policy to clean up the sector and improve regulation.
There is work to be done: tourism has suffered from institutional neglect while its proximity to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak and bouts of terrorism in neighbouring countries have dented Senegal’s appeal. Yet the country has beautiful colonial-era architecture in the northern coastal city of Saint Louis; zebra, rhino and giraffe in the Fathala nature reserve; a boisterous music scene and nightlife in Dakar; and beach resorts such as Saly and Popenguine near to the new airport.
Tourism minister Mame Mbaye Niang says a publicity push in its main European markets will promote Senegal as a stable, safe democracy blessed with year-round sunshine and a long coast.
Policy is also focused on encouraging local businessmen such as Mr Dieng, who often struggle to access credit and well-trained staff for their ventures.
“We need to raise the level of service,” Mr Niang says, and “make what we offer to tourists in Senegal attractive and allow all actors in the sector to shine”.
Tourism accounts for CFA Fr500bn ($940m), or 7 per cent of GDP, and is at the heart of President Macky Sall’s Plan for an Emerging Senegal (PSE). The development programme is intended to create jobs and improve infrastructure with the goal of reaching “middle income” country status by 2035.
Mr Niang is putting in place a code to regulate those working in tourism, provide licences and obtain data on how the sector works. Travel is already visa-free for those coming from the EU, North America and most of Africa.
“We are working to increase the length of time tourists stay here and how much they spend, to reach 3m visitors by 2023,” the minister says. This target is more than double the 1.36m visitors achieved in 2017.
This approach must reflect how tourism has changed since Senegal became a popular Club Med destination in the 1970s, says Mamadou Marème Diop, Senegal manager for Jumia Travel, a flight and hotel booking website.
“Senegal’s offer to tourists is stuck in the 1990s and has struggled to renew itself and adapt to demand,” Mr Diop says. This is reflected in the demographic most visible in Senegal’s resorts: retired Belgians and French who still book through a traditional travel agent.
Jumia wants to attract local and African tourism, with a model similar to Expedia or Booking.com. This has yet to take off in a nation where few outlets accept credit cards and most people buy flight tickets with cash. “Buying online is still uncommon, either due to a lack of internet access but also because of consumers’ habits,” Mr Diop says.
Jumia is addressing these problems with solutions specific to west Africa. These include the design of websites and apps that do not consume a lot of mobile data, extending the use of mobile money services for payment and building more of a physical presence in traditional travel agencies.
Mr Diop is hopeful that these efforts will work: “Mobile penetration is racing ahead and we are in a phase of educating our market and investing in the medium term.”
Jumia also wants to attract more tourists from other African nations, which currently account for a quarter of foreign visitors, and especially its neighbours.
“African incomes have risen considerably, and there are a lot of executives working in neighbouring countries. African tourism is finding its momentum,” says Mouhamed Deme, an adviser to the tourism minister.
We decided we have to open up for English-speaking tourists
Many flock to Senegal for its religious pilgrimage sites, as home to the heads of several Muslim groups affiliated with the moderate Sufism practised by most Senegalese. Yet negative perceptions are hard to shift. The Casamance region south of Gambia was once a money-spinner. Its fortunes revived after a ceasefire with separatists but jitters returned in January when 14 men were killed in a gunfight over illegal logging and two Spanish tourists were allegedly raped.
Mr Deme shifts in his chair. “Casamance is a part of Senegal where unfortunately westerners and some media focus on small details or sensationalise,” he says. “The government is in constant communication with embassies to calm nerves and explain that Casamance is not in danger and is hardly Syria or Yemen.” Nevertheless, France still “advises caution” to its citizens if they visit the area.
Tourists from France, the former colonial ruler, is not the only market that matters, says Mr Dieng, whose business model is centred on an English-speaking niche in a nation of francophones. “We decided we have to open up for English-speaking tourists,” he said, adding proudly: “I have an English website.”