Casamance heavily dependent on slowly rising tourism income

Tourists are once again heading to Casamance as visitor areas are perceived to be safe from the troubles, but some industry experts worry that the numbers could plummet again with the recent upsurge in violence, seriously jeopardising the region’s economy.

“For now we are seeing the situation improve as the area becomes more stable and the violence is more to the north,” said Tekheye Faye, regional director of tourism for Kolda and Ziguinchor. “But we have to watch the situation carefully - because it may not last,” he said.

Tourism is the region’s biggest economic driver, and the country’s second biggest revenue source after fishing. Once the country’s bread-basket, agricultural production has plummeted in Casamance as a result of two decades of sporadic violence and landmine contamination of much of its fertile land.

“Our economy is extremely fragile, it heavily relies on tourism, and if that fails everyone will suffer,” said Joseph Sambou, commercial director at Cap Skirring’s L’Hibiscus hotel.

As violence between Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) rebels and the Senegalese army rose in the early 1990s, visitor numbers slumped with just 1,406 people visiting Casamance in 1993 down from 45,000 in 1991.

While visitor numbers are yet to attain these high levels, they have been steadily creeping up in the past few years, with 25,819 people visiting Casamance in 2006.
In 2007 over 14,600 tourists visited the pristine beaches of Cap Skirring, Casamance’s most-visited location, 80km east of the capital Ziguinchor.

“Tourism has had a huge social impact on this area in the past few years.” said Sambou. “The only economic options here are tourism or agriculture, and the local hoteliers have built schools and health centres to help the locals, as well as giving them jobs as gardeners, builders, porters and cooks.”

For Ferdinand Manga, the manager of a hotel owned and run by villagers in Oosaye, midway between Ziguinchor and Cap Skirring, increased numbers mean development projects that had been on hold can now go ahead.

A village management committee decides how the profits will be spent each year. In 2007 they set up a pre-school to enable mothers to work in the fields, supported the local health facility, and built a chicken coop for local farmers.

“This hotel helps keep the whole village going,” Manga said.

Concern over recent violence

However, after a period of relative calm in 2007, 2008 has seen three landmine incidents and an upsurge in violence in the region. In the latest incident on 7 May, armed men claiming to represent the MFDC attacked twenty villagers 15km east of Ziguinchor, hacking off most of their left ears with machetes.

Though the troubles are mainly around the northern border with Gambia and do not directly affect Cap Skirring, it still impacts tourist numbers, said regional tourism director Faye.

“This is partly due to a mediatisation of the conflict,” he worries. “The media has ruined the reputation of Casamance. If there is any violence anywhere in Senegal the media automatically reports that it takes place here, and this scares away tourists and tour companies.”

Village-run hotels are particularly vulnerable when violence mounts, said Faye, because tourists avoid villages in favour of large internationally-run resorts, perceiving them to be safer. Casamance had 15 village encampments in the early 1990s but six of these have closed.

Government investment

Since 2000, with the help of the European Union and World Bank, the government has focused on developing the region’s infrastructure, building a new road from Ziguinchor to Cap Skirring and extending the Ziguinchor and Cap Skirring airport runways to 2,000 metres to enable international charter flights to land.

According to Aminata Lo Dia, the national tourism minister, who toured the region in early May, the government will give loans to hotel-owners who were forced to close their establishments when violence caused tourists to flee, and have not been able to reopen them.

“Many hotels have been closed for a long time… they are beginning to reopen their doors and set up timidly, so now they need our financial support,” she told journalists at a press conference.

Heeding complaints from hoteliers such as Sambou, Dia also announced the government would create facilities to refuel planes in Casamance, rather than forcing them to refuel in Dakar, which increases tourists' ticket prices.

But Sambou said the government needs to do more to attract visitors - promoting Casamance nationally as a peaceful area, and by lowering arrival taxes for chartered tickets.

“We’re very relieved that the numbers are consistently going up,” said Faye, “but for the sake of our economy, we cannot afford to lose any momentum.”