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Senegal's fading tourism dreams

13 March 09 00:01 GMT

By Julian Bedford
BBC World Service, Dakar, Senegal

Governments and businesses around Africa have been working hard to promote tourism to the continent these past few years.

They have realised that they have a unique offer, and that in the good times, people are willing to pay for the privilege of visiting the continent.

They also appreciate that there are problems with the infrastructure in many countries in Africa, and that the return rate of tourists will never be as high as in other parts of the world.

But for the most part, their efforts have paid off and the number of visitors to Africa has risen dramatically.

Senegal has been no exception to that rule.

Good times

Casting an envious eye at Gambia - the country which is sandwiched between the two halves of Senegal, it has been working hard to increase its tourism base beyond visitors from France, its old colonial master.

It wants to extend its appeal to northern European and American clients.

So far, it has enjoyed a certain success.

Though the number of tourists who return to the country has remained stubbornly low at 33%, the importance of the sector to the country's economy has increased, it now stands at around a quarter of GDP.

The government is building a new airport and new roads around the capital, Dakar, to make those important first impressions more positive.

And the private sector has been busy building luxury resorts and hotels to maintain their customers in the style to which they feel entitled.

Almost a million people came to Senegal last year and the President, Abdoulaye Wade, predicted that that figure would rise to 1.5m by 2010.

Visitors are drawn by tropical beaches and Unesco World Heritage sites such as the Ile de Goree - from where more than 15m slaves were shipped across the Atlantic - the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary and the splendour of the former colonial capital, Saint-Louis.

That was in the good times, but now those days are gone.

Riding out the storm

Bad press in French newspapers over a reported increase in child prostitution at the country's most popular beach resort, the Petit Cote, has not helped but the real hammer blow has been the global recession.

Luxury holidays are one of the first things cut when money is tight and, though the decline this year has been gentle, the figures for next year look dire.

Salif Badiane is the executive director of Africa Connection Tours Senegal and he has just returned from a series of meetings with his partners in Europe.

What he has learnt over there worries him.

"At this time of the year we should have had orders for 30 to 35% of our turnover. Now we are under 5% of our turnover and that's why we are so concerned," he tells me.

Similar figures have come from a number of tour operators across Africa and the forecast is clear.

Africa's tourism industry will need all the help it can get to ride out the storm.

Salif Badiane is calling for public-private partnerships to help his industry through these difficult times.

He would like to see the government reduce its tax on flights.

Over 50% of the airfare goes to the state and that hikes up the cost of package tours.

Senegal's association of tour operators has also called for government action.

But the government is facing many demands from many quarters, and it is uncertain how much room for manoeuvre it has in these challenging times.

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