The young waitress waved at the empty tables as a clutch of idle cooks hovered in a corner of one of the Gambian capital’s trendy restaurants, all eyes fixed on the front door.
“Last year if you came here at eight, the place would be full,” she said gloomily.
The small West African country is among many exotic travel destinations bracing for a bad hit by the financial crisis as worried consumers delay far-flung holidays.
Only a six-hour plane ride with no jet leg from many parts of Europe, Gambia boasts sun, sea and a break from relentless grey on its Atlantic seaboard teasingly nicknamed the “Smiling Coast.”
Yet already in last month’s run-up to the high season, restaurants in the coastal capital, Banjul, registered a drop in guests. The three-to-one waitress-to-diner ratio in more than one establishment was less a “luxury” than a “worry” indicator.
Marketing director Lamin Saho at the Gambian Tourism Authority said room occupancy was around 42 percent, down from about 60 percent in the same period last year.
“There is a decline compared to previous years due to the global financial problems,” he said.
Gambia draws some 100,000 visitors a year, a healthy record for a place that had only 300 in 1965, government figures showed, shortly after the first “tourists” ventured to this English-speaking enclave nestled inside Senegal.
Most visitors are European, with nearly half British (46 percent), followed by the Dutch (11 percent) and the Swedish (5 percent).
“For British holidaymakers things are now more expensive,” Saho said, with the financial crisis compounded by exchange rates that have seen the pound drop against the Gambian dalasis.
This spells bad news for Gambia because Britons traditionally spend more money than the thrifty Dutch, who prefer to stay in all-inclusive hotels.
Zimbabwe-born Londoner Beverley Brown, who works for a pharmaceutical company, came despite the looming recession back home.
“My holiday was sort of a last-minute decision. I didn’t want to spend too much,” she said, adding: “In my office I am the only person to go away this Christmas.”
Tiny Gambia — a slim, fertile stretch on either side of the Gambia River — depends heavily on tourism, and the drop could deal a hefty blow in a country struggling with high unemployment.
Though no official jobless numbers are available, the latest figures from the World Bank say 61 percent of the 1.5 million population live below the nationally established poverty line.
Some 16,000 people work directly in the tourism sector, though the livelihoods of many more depend on business tourism generates indirectly.
Tourism recently surpassed the export of groundnuts as the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner, and now accounts for some 16 percent of GDP, government figures showed.
Gambian Secretary of State for Finance and Economic Affairs Bala Musa Gaye, however, said that serious challenges had emerged last year and could continue this year.
“Gambia will be affected directly or indirectly by the global financial crisis in terms of remittances from abroad, aid flows, foreign direct investment and tourism receipts,” he said.
While final figures for last year have not yet been released, the latest numbers from the Gambian Tourism Authority show that last year’s summer season already took a hit.
In May, June and July tourism arrivals dropped 26.4 percent, 15.7 percent and 14.1 percent respectively, and the usually busy winter season is not expected to be any better.