Tour operators in Senegal's southern Casamance region say insecurity, high taxes, and the global economic crisis are hurting many small business owners.
Local dancers entertain European tourists at one of the big hotels along Senegal's southern coast. While the global economic crisis has slowed business there, it has been hardest on smaller, village-based guest houses farther inland where a simmering rebellion against the government in Dakar has helped give Casamance a bad name.
Bakary Denis Sane chairs the organization of small hotel operators in Casamance.
In the more than 20 years since the start of the security crisis brought on by the rebellion, Sane says many of the small hotels in Casamance have declined. Many of them have been burned. Many of them have been abandoned.
Despite a peace deal in 2004, many of the roads in this southern section of Senegal remain unsafe, largely due to banditry not directly associated with the ethnic Dioula rebellion.
Sane says many of the young men and women who worked in village-based tourist compounds have left for the capital in search of jobs.
Angele Diagne heads the Casamance hotel workers association.
When hotels close, she says many mothers and fathers lose their jobs. That expands the population of poor people as women who used to sell traditional crafts to tourists lose their customers. Diagne wants the government to expand the tourist season and encourage Senegalese to visit the area when European tourists are not there.
Augustin Diatta owns a travel agency in the city of Ziguinchor. He says the government is not spending enough money to promote smaller hotels.
What is real development, Diatta asks. Real development is in the areas chosen by the villages where the cabins are built by villagers and the benefits are shared between the villagers.
In the eight years he has been trying to promote tourism in village compounds, he says some foreign embassies in Senegal were forbidding their citizens from going to Casamance. Now he says that is changing slowly.
Diatta says tourism in Casamace is not easy because you have to find out which roads are safe. And you have to find tourists who really love Casamance and do not care what the newspapers and embassies are saying. There is also the issue of price because many of the tours are expensive due to high Senegalese taxes.
Christian Jackot owns a hotel in Casamance. He says the per-tourist tax of 372 Euros, a little more than $500, makes Senegal a less attractive destination.
Jako says if you compare that with other destinations like Morocco, where the tax is 75 euros or Ivory Coast where the tax is 120 euros, Senegal is much more expensive. Like other businesses, hoteliers in Senegal pay an 18 percent value added tax, while their competitors in Morocco and Tunisia pay a 5.5 percent tax.
Tourists today are on a budget. They compare different destinations. If you can spend 15 days in the Seychelles or Tunisia for the same price that you can spend one week in Senegal, Jackot says tourists will go to the Seychelles, Tunisia, the Antilles, or even neighboring Gambia.
Luca D'Ottavio is looking for a different kind of tourist. His Health Travel agency promotes socially responsible tourism where people stay in eco-friendly lodges and help out with local development projects in Casamance.
D'Ottavio says local and international media make that harder by focusing only on periodic acts of banditry.
"The problem in Casamance is that there is no mass media coverage of all of the beautiful events that take place. We are talking about carnivals. We are talking about dance festivals. We are talking about ancient ceremonies like the Sacred Forest that attracts thousands of people every year," D'Ottavio said.
D'Ottavio says tour operators keep their clients away from insecure areas.
"Same thing as somebody who lives in New York would not take a friend of his in the Bronx at 5:00 am because there might be some problems. Our main force is to have all of these people go back to their countries and speak on travel blogs, speak to their friends about the security of this region," he said.
D'Ottavio is also working on student exchange programs where young people from Europe and the United States come to Casamance on community service projects.