Senegalese tourism hot spot struggles without visitors

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Lionel Lopez grimaces as he looks at the stagnant green water in the bottom of the pool at his hotel in Senegal’s Saloum Delta. He drained it after the global pandemic closed borders, bringing West Africa’s tourism industry to a standstill in mid-March.

The Sine-Saloum region has escaped the worst of the epidemic that has so far infected more than 3,100 across the country. But stringent travel restrictions have hurt those who live off what they earn through hospitality, selling handicrafts, or ferrying visitors through the delta’s bird-rich mangrove forests.

“It makes you want to cry a little bit,” Lopez said, surveying the deserted complex of the hotel he runs, Les Cordons Bleus.

He is able to keep paying his 15 employees a reduced wage thanks to an emergency loan from the government to prop up an industry that accounted for around 4% of GDP in 2017. But others are not so lucky.

Across the silent lagoon, on Mar Lodj island, women who once earned up to $17 per day selling woven baskets and carved souvenirs are struggling to support their families.

“This is all we had,” said Amy Diouf, 50, dusting the unsold wares in the courtyard of her reed-thatched home.

Even if international visitors are allowed to return soon, the two-month hiatus means tourist numbers this year will be far below the 1.7 million who holidayed in Senegal in 2019.

Some locals, like 32-year-old guide Pierre Diouf, hope they can make up the shortfall by attracting more domestic visitors whenever a ban on travel between regions is lifted.

He used to organise camping and bird-watching trips through the UNESCO-listed waterways, but now earns a quarter of what he did, catching fish from his painted boat “The Saloum Adventurers”.

“Even though it’s tough, we keep smiling,” he said in his village of Dangane, where every restaurant on the sun-baked waterfront stood empty.

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