Gambia shifting its focus to ecotourism

Chimpanzees on Baboon Island in River Gambia National Park.
Chimpanzees on Baboon Island in River Gambia National Park. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Gambia is the smallest country on the African continent and has so far remained relatively undiscovered by U.S. travelers. However, this could soon change, as the country is investing heavily in its tourism offering.

The country embarked on a massive renovation of its international airport. Its Civil Aviation Authority said the project, which involves an exhaustive overhaul of the Terminal Building, including the expansion of the structure and provision of more services, will cost in excess of $14 million. The expansion and improvements, which are expected to be completed in mid-2020, will enable Banjul Airport to handle more flights, especially during the winter tourist season.

Gambian tourism and culture minister Hamat Bah said the country is starting to diversify its tourism attractions. Although it is mainly known for its golden beaches with swaying palm trees, the minister pointed out that ecotourism has become a new focus as have culinary tourism and cultural tourism.

A prime example of Gambia's ecotourism offering is the River Gambia National Park, which is teeming with wildlife and features nearly 600 bird species as well as manatees, hippos, crocodiles and troops of wily colobus monkeys.

The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project is at the heart of River Gambia National Park and is home to over 100 free-living chimpanzees on different islands. Comprising what is known as Baboon Island as well as several smaller islands, this is one of the most important wildlife sites in Gambia.

Although nobody is allowed to set foot on Baboon Island, it is possible to see the chimps on boat tours. There's also other wildlife and birds in the area.

There is an ecocamp at the Chimp Rehab Project with four twin-bedded safari tents. Each tent at the camp is separated by 165 to 250 feet and are on raised platforms, sufficiently high enough to keep dangerous animals at bay and give you great views of Baboon Island and other sites in the national park.

Gambia is also home to 259 acres of rainforest known as the Abuko Nature Reserve. The reserve is within easy reach by taxi from most of the coastal resort hotels, and it is an ideal first stop for birdwatchers and animal enthusiasts. There are designated guides on site to help visitors locate animals and birds while on the forest trail.

Abuko is reported to have 50 types of tropical trees. The park's main geographic features include a thick tropical canopy and Guinea savanna. There are an estimated 290 bird species living within the forest gallery, including pied kingfishers, African paradise flycatchers and willow warblers. There are also four primate species in the reserve: vervet monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red patas and bush babies.

At Abuko, travelers can also visit the Animal Orphanage, which was set up in 1997 as a rehabilitation center by the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management. It cares for parrots and hyenas as well as various kinds of monkeys, including chimpanzees. Also located on the reserve is the Darwin Field Station, which is a research center focused on maintaining Gambia's biodiversity.

Although the country's wildlife is spectacular, Gambia's people and culture is what really sets it apart. Increasingly, homestays and cultural tours are being offered there.

Ndemban Homestay, for example, offers a glimpse of rural Gambian life, with dancing and singing, cooking lessons on an open campfire and lessons in traditional batik tie-dying craft. During their stay in Ndemban, visitors run common village errands such as roasting cashews, working with women at the garden, preparing lunch, picking fruits, helping their homestay family with daily chores or even playing football with the local youths after a busy day.

For a culinary experience, Ida's cooking school in Tanji is the perfect option. Ida's tour begins with a visit to the local market, where travelers will haggle for ingredients and learn about the country's favorite flavours. In Ida's home kitchen, this friendly Gambian chef, who has over 20 years in the hospitality industry, will show you how to rustle up a traditional dinner, while she tells you stories of her homeland.


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