MINUTES OF THE MEETING OF THE HIGH LEVEL ECONOMIC COMMITTEE (HILEC)
VICE PRESIDENT’S OFFICE, STATE HOUSE, BANJUL
AUGUST 25, 2014
A HILEC meeting was held in the Office of the Vice President in the afternoon of August 25, 2014 to discuss the likely impact of the Ebola outbreak on the real sector, in particular, the tourism sector. The meeting was also to continue discussions on the way forward with the energy sector and the financial situation of NAWEC, and recent developments on the macroeconomic front.
Present at the meeting were:
- Isatou Njie-Saidy – Vice President (Chairperson)
- Kebba S Touray – Minister of Finance
- Fatou Mass-Jobe – Minister of Tourism
- Abdou Jobe – Minister of Trade
- Edward Sanneh – Minister of Energy
- Basirou Njai – First Deputy Governor, Central Bank
- Abdoulie Jallow – PS, Ministry of Finance
- Ebrima Sanyang – MD, NAWEC
- Nani Juwara – Deputy MD, NAWEC
- Louis Moses – PAU, Office of The President
- Ismaila Jarju – Director of Research, CBG (Secretary)
The Chairperson opened the meeting with silent prayers and informed members that the agenda for the day included the likely impact of the Ebola outbreak in the region on the real sector and the measures needed to mitigate the impact of the scourge on economic activity in The Gambia, particularly tourism.
Reporting on the impact of the Ebola epidemic on the real sector of The Gambian economy, the Hon. Minister of Tourism Fatou Mass-Jobe informed the Committee that the tourism sub-sector had become a casualty of the Ebola epidemic that has gripped West African region recently. She went on to state that the Ebola scare is seriously affecting bookings as would-be tourist are running away from Africa and are cancelling trips including to other African destinations thousands of miles away from West Africa.
On the home front, according to the Minister, the fear of the Ebola was rattling would-be tourists given the risks associated with travelling to Africa. She said tourists were running away in droves and cancelling trips to The Gambia. According to her, one of the country’s largest Tour operators, Thomas Cook, reported a drop of 51.0 percent and 52.0 percent for seat sales and package sales respectively, year-on-year. As a result, the Operator was left with no choice but to cancel their six flights scheduled for The Gambia and also plans to merge their flights and offer alternative destinations to their clients. The Minister went on to inform the meeting that Gambia Experience, another major Tour Operator, recorded over 200 cancellations to date and that sales were down by 20.0 percent and 15.0 percent for Tui Holland and Corendon respectively.
The Committee was also informed that Rainbow Tours of Poland started operations in The Gambia last winter with record sales. They had planned to start this year’s season with two flights (which represent a 100 percent increase). However, owing to the massive publicity on the Ebola scare and the fact that Polish travelers were not familiar with the geographical differences in West Africa, sales to date are extremely low. Notwithstanding, Rainbow Tours will start with one flight in November instead of October and put on hold the second flight. Likewise, Gambia Bird Airlines lost 50.0 percent of their scheduled flights and envisage a reduction in their London flights from twice weekly to once a week.
To address the slowdown in tourism, the Ministry of Tourism invited key stakeholders and partners in Government to an emergency meeting on August 19, 2014 to jointly review the outlook for Winter 2014/2015 and come up with proposals and an effective communication strategy to communicate the efforts of The Gambia Government. In addition, the Ministry of Health was provided with materials such as bed sheets, pillows, water tanks, hand held thermometers, chlorine tablets and hand sanitizers to be deployed at the country’s borders, including the airport.
Other incentives to mitigate the impact of the Ebola on the tourism sector include;
- Joint marketing support
- Reduction in hotel room rates by 15.0 percent and
- Free landing and parking for aircrafts in November and December 2014
The Ministries of Tourism and Health together with the Gambia Tourism Board also plan to have a face to face assurance to key partners, mainly tour operators. On the Joint Communication Strategy, the stakeholders intend to go on social media, newspapers, websites, TV and Radio, talk shows and also establish a toll free line in collaboration with PURA to sensitize people on the measures in place to avoid the Ebola getting to the Gambia. The Minister stated that they were also seeking Government support in the form of tax discounts of 4-5 percent to hotels and ground tour operators for the months of November and December in order to boost sales.
Concluding the discussions on the effects of the Ebola, the Chairperson intimated that 2015 would likely be challenging given the uncertainty surrounding agricultural production due to the late rains and the Ebola impact on tourism. The Deputy Governor of the CBG in his intervention stated that the impact of the virus on the tourism sector may lead to a contraction of 50.0 percent in travel income thereby exacerbating the pressures on the balance of payments. Members of the HILEC finally urged the Tourism Ministry to continue its collaboration with the health ministry and leverage the communications department of her ministry to allay fears and restore confidence.
The second part of the meeting focused on the energy sector and the financial viability of NAWEC. The Minister of Finance in his submission stated that in the short-term, NAWEC’s current cashflow should be used for the payment of salaries and repayment of debt to creditors and the commercial banks and initiate negotiation with the banks for a possible restructuring of the debt into long-term Government securities such as 5-10 year bonds. In this regard, the minister proposed an MOU to be signed between the Ministry of Finance and NAWEC to agree on a monthly cashflow disbursement which would have to be respected. Given that NAWEC has different collection agencies, the minister proposed that all collections should be lodged at the central bank for proper management and monitoring. The Permanent Secretary, ministry of Finance was tasked to work with NAWEC on drafting the MOU and the Central Bank to engage the commercial banks to discuss the restructuring of NAWEC’s debt into long term government securities.
The minister informed the meeting that the World Bank Consultant who was developing the energy strategy was due in the Gambia in the first week of September and that a stakeholders’ workshop was scheduled to be held at the NAWEC headquarters. The MD of NAWEC in his submission dilated on the various initiatives geared to wards increasing the supply of electricity including the Turkish and Nigerian Initiatives, the conversion of public standpipes to community-based pipes to be paid for and the issue of renewable energy. The MD also informed the meeting that NAWEC had received interest from potential investors from Egypt which would be cheaper for the Gambia than the Turkish Initiative but that the investors had requested for a Multilateral Investment Guarantee (MIGA) from the World Bank. the MD also raised the issue of regional inter-connectivity especially between The Gambia and Senegal and other OMVG initiatives such as the Samba Ngalo Dam but that The Government of The Gambia would have to pay its dues to OMVG to enjoy the regional initiatives. The meeting agreed that NAWEC should engage the Office of the President to seek clearance to re-engage OMVG since it is the national interest to do so.
The MD also urged the meeting to support the cash metering of street lights to be zoned by municipality in order to reduce the burden on NAWEC.
The Minister of Finance in his contribution assured the meeting that he would engage the World Bank during the 2014 Annual meetings in Washington DC in October for the MIGA guarantee and expressed the hope that given that Gambia had never enjoyed such a guarantee, the chances of success were very high.
The Chairperson in her summary tasked NAWEC to follow-up on the Nigerian Initiative, regional inter-connectivity and also endeavour to revise its cashflow projections to incorporate all items while the Ministry of Finance was to follow up on the MIGA guarantee with the World Bank and work with the Central Bank on the restructuring of NAWEC’s debt to the commercial banks.
Thereafter, the meeting was adjourned.
Editors note: We have accessed a pile of classified state documents. We will share the documents with our readers in due course. Stay tuned.