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The Gambia is famous for its golden sand beaches, its wildlife and ecotourism scene and its female sex tourism. Sex tourism in The Gambia has hit headlines on many occasions in recent years, with stories of middle-aged Western women in search of long-term love, holiday romances and one night stands. However, there is often more to it than relationships. Stories of Gambian love cheats, visa scams and polygamy are all too common. In this post I will tell you more about sex tourism tourism in The Gambia.
The scale of sex tourism in The Gambia
When I first visited The Gambia in 2012, I was completely naive to the fact that The Gambia was known for its sex tourism industry. In fact, I had never even heard of female sex tourism at this time! Wow, I had a lot to learn…
Shortly after my trip I published this blog post- The reality of Gambian men?, where I outlined my experiences with some of the infamous ‘Gambian bumsters’. Since this time I have been inundated with messages and comments from concerned relatives of said sex tourists, angry Gambia men and Brits who have been cheated by their Gambian lovers. I have also had several requests from the media for information.
I have learnt a lot. I’ve learnt of heartbreak. I’ve learnt about scams. I’ve learnt about how Lamin’s sister is actually his wife. I’ve heard the story about how Demba vanished the moment he was given his UK passport. I know all about Oumil’s anger after his girlfriend caught him snogging another women… You read these stories for yourself in my post- Naming and shaming Gambian love cheats.
Nowadays, Gambia is more known for its sex tourism industry than it was a decade ago. The Gambia is known for its three S ́s: Sun, Sand, and Sex. Despite the government’s attempts to change the country’s image to one centred around sustainable tourism and nature tourism, The Gambia continues to be most well known for its sex tourism industry.
One of the most popular areas is the ‘Senegambia strip’, the coastal area around Kololi. Local men who work on the streets, known as ‘Bumsters’, seek women who will embark on a sexual relationship with them.
Sometimes referred to as the sexual economy, thousands of European women travel to The Gambia each year for the purpose of the consumption of young, male, Gambian bodies. Both tourists and their Gambian mates fashion their sexual encounters as ‘relationships’, although many would not choose to describe it this way. These ‘relationships’ provide Gambian men with opportunities to make a living through the money made from sex tourism, while female tourists get the chance to satisfy their (neo-colonial) fantasies about young black bodies.
There is no data that I have been able to obtain regarding the scale of sex tourism in The Gambia. Even if there was, I’m not sure I would trust it. The government do not want The Gambia to be known for sex tourism and are actively trying to change the nation’s image.
Whilst we cannot put a precise figure on how many people visit The Gambia for sex tourism each year, we can be sure that it is a significant proportion of the overall tourist numbers. I have seen this with my own eyes, but it is also represented in the media. From my personal experience and research, I would go as far as to say that as many as 20% of tourists engage in the sexual economy during their travels to The Gambia.
Yes, the sex tourism industry has been booming in recent years. But the country’s tourism industry has taken a few hits in the past couple of years. A difficult political climate meant that many holidays were cancelled or that tourists selected to travel to alternative destinations. The collapse of Monarch, and then a couple of years later Thomas Cook, has all but eradicated the package holiday market in The Gambia. Only time will tell if other tour operators will capitalise on this new market gap or whether tourists will be happy to organise their travel itineraries independently when travelling to The Gambia. In the short term, at least, I suspect that the tourism industry, and indeed the sex tourism industry, in The Gambia will not be as successful as it has been in recent years.
Below is short clip explaining sex tourism in The Gambia in a bit more detail.
What is female sex tourism?
Female sex tourism is when women travel to a destination where they engage in sexual activities with members of the local community.
Female sex tourism typically differs from male sex tourism in that women often do not seek only sexual contact. Instead, female sex tourists will often look for romance and intimacy with men living in the host community.
The female sex tourism industry is considerably smaller than the male sex tourism industry. Female sex tourism is also less known amongst the general public. In fact, many people have never even heard of it!
Female sex tourism generally takes one of three forms:
- The traditional sex tourist who seeks sexual contact with men
- The situational sex tourist who incidentally finds themselves having sexual encounters with local men but who did not travel with the intentions of having sexual intercourse
- The romance tourist who travels in search of romantic experiences that they cannot experience in their home country
Sex tourism in The Gambia is primarily made up of the third type of female sex tourists, whereby women travel from their home country in search of romantic relationships that they cannot find at home.
What has caused the growth in sex tourism in The Gambia?
The Gambia is a poor country with over a third of its population of 1.7 million surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day.
Sex tourism in The Gambia is mainly grounded on the cheap labour of young Gambian men who have few economic opportunities. For many men, their bodies are the main capital they possess. Therefore men will use their bodies (tactical sex) for consumption by usually older female tourists from the Global North.
When trying to make sense of the sexual exchanges that take place in tourism in The Gambia, it is important to understand that the sex tourism is more than the simple exchange of money for sexual services.
Kempadoo’s concept of ‘transactional sex’ and Cabezas’ concept of ‘tactical sex’ help us to understand sex tourism in The Gambia further.
Whilst there are some men (and women) who would describe themselves as prostitutes in The Gambia, whereby there is a clear and evident transactional relationship between the tourist and the host, most Gambian men can be described as using ‘tactical sex’ as a means of income generation.
Gambian men use ‘tactical sex’ to obtain economic exchanges with Western female tourists in order to obtain gifts, money, remittances, and perhaps marriage and a visa to migrate to Europe.
In contrast to the female sex tourist, who likely views the relationship as romantic in some way, the Gambian man views their engagement in sexual economies as a form of labour that provides them with an income. Very often they are proud to say that they are self-employed individuals working to make a living for themselves and their family.
Above and beyond their immediate objective to get access to financial resources, the young Gambian men’s long term goal is often to get visa sponsorship so that they can migrate to Europe in search of a better life.
Gambian bumsters and their role in sex tourism
Very often the Gambian men who engage in tourism’s affective sexual economies are seen combing the beach looking for engagement with a potential tourist or other. Some also serve as taxi drivers and often wait by the beach side looking for potential touristclients in need of transportation. Both Gambian men and women frequent many restaurants, bars, and night clubs located in the Kololi beach area, a site designed for tourism activities, looking to engage in a potential relationship with tourists.
The Gambian State sees these men, often referred to as ‘bumsters’, as a nuisance because they allegedly are doing nothing more than harassing tourists. This brings a set of negative guest/host interactions. This leads the State to act very aggressively towards Gambians involved in the sexual economy by arbitrarily arresting them and taking them into labor camps, where those wearing dread locks are shaved off by the military.
Rather than being a tourist-harassing nuisance, however, these men are in fact actors and agents of The Gambia’s tourism industry. The men provide services to tourists who visit the country with a specific demand in mind. They contribute a great deal to the tourism industry and have a positive economic impact of tourism.
Who travels to The Gambia for sex tourism?
It is typically Western women from Europe who engage in sex tourism in The Gambia. These women are most commonly from the United Kingdom and are aged 40 and above. Many women who engage in sex tourism in The Gambia have had failed marriages in their home country and are looking for a bit of ‘late life romance’.
There are many stories of said women on various media outlets. This article in The Sun describes one sex tourist as ‘A HORNY granny grinds against her Gambian toyboy at the bar, her Zimmer frame screeching back and forth with every thrust’. Another article in The Times has the headline ‘Gambia is a Tinder dream for geriatric sex tourists’. It seems that women travelling to The Gambia has gotten a bit of a name for themselves…
From reading through the many comments and messages that I have received since publishing that first blog post on The reality of Gambian men, it is clear that many of these women are indeed naive to the fact that Gambian men view the relationship in a totally different light than they do. For the women, it is lust or even love. For the men, it is business.
Sex tourism in The Gambia: A change of image?
The Gambian government claims to be working hard to change the image of sex tourism in The Gambia. However, I’m not sure exactly what they are doing to shed this reputation.
To me, The Gambia is on a similar level as sex tourism in Thailand or Jamaica, but the authorities do not want this to be the case. Alongside the other difficulties that the tourism industry in The Gambia is currently facing, it seems that the Government has its work cut out.