Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tourism: The Great Economic Hope

Senegal is widely accepted as being the arts and music capital of West Africa.  The country was recently host to the "annual" Festival Mondial Des Arts Negres.  I say "annual" because that is exactly how the festival is billed, even though this is only the 3rd Festival since 1966.  A nice, working link is included below:

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  This blog entry is about one man's dream to build an economy in his native country - a country that does not appear to have any major manufacturing facility to employ its citizens; a country that still imports most goods from France 50+ years after Independence and has its currency linked to the Euro; a country with an official unemployment rate of 49%.  That man, of course, is the Honorable President Wade (pronounced "wod", as in "spit wad").

So, President Wade, like every great leader before him in every great country, determined the best way to provide for his people - and also ensure his legacy - was to do something for his country.  I'm not talking about leaving the country to his son like most 80 year old world leaders who are currently being overthrown (although that would make for another excellent blog entry).  And - to his credit - Wade did not build a giant statue of himself.  No, Wade went one better. 

He commissioned the largest bronze statue in Africa.  At about 49 meters high, it slightly outranks the Statue of Liberty (46.5 meters, or about 150 feet) and absolutely dwarfs Christ the Redeemer (a mere 38 meters tall).  Just in case you were wondering, the statue was also built on a hill about 100 meters and is located adjacent to the airport. Welcome to Senegal!  Build it and they will come...

The statue was commissioned at a cost of $27 million.  And, with all the great artisans in Africa - including world reknowned sculptors - the chance to earn $27 million for building this statue would have provided quite a spark to the local economy as well as defining Wade's commitment to investing in Senegal's arts and tourism sectors.  So, the builder lucky enough to earn this windfall was (drumroll please....) North Korea. 

I can't make this stuff up, but all of the above has been widely documented by others much more qualified than me.  Criticisms have been leveled, expectations have been scaled back - such as Wade's expectation that he should personally earn 35% of the revenues from the statue because the "intellectual property," or "idea for the statue," was his - and the statue was built anyway.  Now, bring on the tourists!

Oh wait, tourists usually need some reason to visit a particular location.   Mount Rushmore aside, most people won't actually burn their hard earned vacation dollars to stare a giant monument.  So, enter the annual Black World Arts Festival: 21 days of music, films, lectures, arts and crafts and a giant celebration of Senegal's place as the new tourist capital of West Africa.  The event was attended by dozens of heads of state and many famous artists, musicians and actors.  By most accounts, it was a success in terms of drawing visitors to the region.  That's why I decided to offer up a couple of sidebars to the event.

The first item is that Senegal's electricity is not especially well known for its reliability.  This can generally be traced to two factors.  The first is that Senegal's electric system is highly dependent on oil and diesel, so the recent increase in fuel prices cannot be immediately passed along to customers and puts additional strain on the power provider's finances.  This is also related to the second reason: Senegal's electric utility is absolutely corrupt.

With profits being skimmed and a rise in the price of oil, suppliers were not paid and they reacted swiftly by cutting off access to the fuel required for the power plants.  Rolling blackouts are the norm here.  What would President Wade do about that?  Certainly, he would not allow his country to be embarrassed on the world scene with rolling blackouts during a signature event.  The results were amazing!  21 days of power aplenty!  After the festival, the country returned to heavy rolling blackouts for about a month...   

The other sidebar is about whether or not tourism generates economic benefits for the locals.  With all those tourists expected, many college students were hired to work booths, hand out literature, give directions and act as general public ambassadors.  The students sometimes worked eight to twelve hour days and were asked to be "on call", meaning it was difficult for them to plan anything for the entire 21 days of the festival.  Rumors of Spike Lee and several other top celebrities filled their hopes and I know of one student who met actor and international humanitarian Danny Glover at the event.

What were their wages?  Just how much did they earn?  It is now February 6 - thirty-seven days after the festival ended and fifty-eight days after they began work - and none of the students have been paid a dime for their efforts.  Repeated visits to top officials result in responses of, "You'll need to see Mr. So and So", who in turn refers them to Mr. Such and Such, who refers them to Mr. Upper Muckity Muck who - of course - is "away on business."

1 comment:

  1. Oh, man, this is the sort of stuff you can't make up (or, if you did, they'd say it was too bizarre to be believed.)