Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Geri left her high-powered, executive job in London to come and work in The Gambia. She wanted to try and promote a new type of tourism, one that would help people to grow, rather than one which exploits people. I was intrigued to know why she had done this.
Tell me about your life in London?
I was born in 1953 and worked for over 20 years in government. I was working in local government in the Social Services Department. This meant things like helping older people to remain in their own homes, or working with hospitals to ensure good care of vulnerable people, that sort of thing. At the end of my career there, in 1996 , I was responsible for 1,600 people and a budget of £21million.
Wow, that is a big responsibility and a powerful position, why would you want to leave it and leave London?
GM I had got to a stage in my life when I needed a change, I had had enough of all that responsibility, I still felt I could contribute more in other ways. I had lived in London all my life and was keen to travel and visit other places. I was very lucky to be in a position to do that. Also my husband was very supportive and he also wanted to travel and make a change in his life, unfortunately, his situation did not allow him to do that, so I came to The Gambia to work on my own initially.
What did you want to do with your life now?
I knew I wanted to work with people having fun. We talked about when was the time we had most fun and realized it was when we were on holiday. But I had always had a problem with the usual types of mass tourism, how they end up creating places people don’t want to go. I wanted to do something different, where local people are in the role of teachers and mentors rather than the usual performers and servants. Something that puts the visitor in the role of participant rather than voyeur. To create a space, ‘learning centre’ where no one person is seen as the expert, everybody has something to learn and something to contribute. I am passionate about sustainability. I see it as a spectrum, looking at how to build, what power to use, how to dispose of waste. Then there is the softer side, looking at the person, how we can sustain ourselves in this crazy world we have created.
So why did you choose The Gambia?
It was in 1996 when I started my search for the right place to develop my ideas. There are a number of reasons. It was relatively close to Europe. It has wonderful weather, and it already had tourism development, but it was not overdeveloped. It was a chance to do something different. I wanted to start with a hotel that was a growing concern, to make sure I had made the right decision, before fully committing myself. I took on Safari Garden, in Fajara, which had a dubious reputation. So my work was cut out to change it. I managed the hotel on my own for two-and –a-half years before my husband came out to join me.
That must have been tough...?
Yes, it was very difficult. It was a totally new and different culture for me to try and understand and work with. I had never worked in hospitality before, so it was a big learning curve. I had to develop a new market for the business and at the same time be true to my ideals of sustainability and how to treat people. I introduced a number of policies to help staff, such as a commitment to keep everyone employed during the quiet season, to encourage young people by taking on students for work experience. Those first few years were very hard. Any problems I had to solve and make the right decisions, it would have a bad effect on the business and we would all suffer. I am proud to say that at the World Travel Market in the UK, in 2008, we were the runners- up for the award for the ‘Best Hotel in the World for Responsible Tourism.’
You successfully turned that business around, is that when you decided to develop your ideas much more?
GM After five years we concluded this was the right place and we were ready to begin our big investment here. We started a conversation with the community in Kartong and the GTB (Gambia Tourism Board) about building an eco-resort. We leased the land for 25 years and gained approval to build. After 25 years, we would give the land back to the village, along with all the facilities, so that the people of Kartong can run it for their own benefit. Meanwhile, we are committed to employing at least 70% of our staff from Kartong and a percentage of our income goes into a trust for village development.
Tell me more about your eco-resort, Sandele.
Well, it is constructed , using totally sustainable methods, the bricks are made with local clay, using a method learnt in India. We have compost toilets, which are totally natural and do not need any water. Most of our power comes from solar panels and some from windmills. The furniture was made by local craftspeople and we buy most of our food locally, using only seasonal food, where possible. We have now been open for a couple of years and I am so pleased with what we have managed to achieve, particularly when we received the Guardian and Observer (British newspapers) Ethical Tourism Award. We were said to be a shining example of the best way of doing eco-tourism.
So now that you have finally realised your dream I guess you will settle down quietly and relax a bit?
You are right. I should be doing that. However, I keep getting myself involved in other projects. A few years ago I was one of the founder members of ASSET (Association for Small, Sustainable Enterprises in Tourism) and am still very involved in that. Along with two Gambian colleagues, I also brought the Plymouth/ Banjul Challenge here, which has raised D30million so far and am still involved in that. I am working with craft people to help them develop their products and played a pivotal role in creating KART (Kartong Association of Responsible Tourism) and am very much involved in the development of the river side here.
It seems you are still trying to change things here for the better, when most people think they have done enough.
There have been lots of ups and downs. I feel very privileged to have been able to do the things I have done, and participated in, and my life in The Gambia has been very good.
Author: Janye Forbes