I liked the Gambia, though I can't quite put my finger on why. There's not a great deal to see, and there's nothing world class in terms of attractions, but the people are delightful, the atmosphere is laid-back, and the fact that they speak English is a positive bonus for someone whose French is shaky at best.
I'm pretty hopeful for the place, too. It's a poor country and its international debt sucks up most of its income – no surprises there, then – but it feels optimistic, and I hope this optimism reflects a bright future for the place. As far as travelling goes, Gambia is great once you ignore the awful main highway and the complete lack of a boat service along the placid River Gambia, which conspire to make it a deeply unpleasant challenge to escape from the touristy west coast without taking a sanitised tour. Back in Basse, I asked Hamadi why there wasn't a regular passenger boat service along the river, and he told me it was because most Gambians won't travel by boat, as a lot of them can't swim and are afraid of water. I couldn't believe it, given the way the river defines the very shape of the country, but perhaps the river's crocodiles, snakes and hippos have something to do with it.
However it appears that things might change, as there are plans to resurface the worst stretch of the highway, and a regular boat service might be starting up in the tourist season. The latter is a particularly good idea; given the Gambia's shape and the way the river wanders right through the heart of everything, decent river transport would transform the country. With places like Jangjang Bureh rediscovering their colonial past at the same time, tourism in the Gambia could really benefit.
I hope it does, because tourism that's run by local companies can only help the economy, and that's got to be good news for the locals. Tourism on the Atlantic coast mainly makes money for foreign companies – only 10 to 15 per cent of the Gambia's gross national product is from tourism, which is a lot lower than the turnover should produce. The lack of pleasant public transport helps to feed this stranglehold, but given a boat service and a decent highway, independent travellers could start spending their money here in sizeable amounts, and money spent locally goes directly into the economy.
If anywhere deserves this kind of break, it's delightful little countries like the Gambia. If it only had a Taj Mahal or a Timbuktu, it would be paradise.