A visit to the Gambia is a seductive and heady experience. Curvy girls dance to hypnotic beats on the beach at dusk, their flamboyant, colourful dresses swaying beneath palm trees. Rhythmic African drum sounds carry on the breeze in perfect harmony with crashing waves on the shore. An endless variety of birds swoop through the sky, monkeys chatter in the trees and the lure of wildlife offers naturists a true paradise. Gambia has much to offer visitors but for the uninitiated, a common question is ‘is it safe to visit the Gambia’? In this post, we outline the key considerations for your safety. We also provide useful suggestions to help you to protect yourself against these risks.
According to the World Population Review, 48.6% of people in the Gambia live in poverty. The country is the 15th poorest country in the world. The Gross National Income (GNI) per person is just $750. GNI is the dollar value of a country’s final income in a year, divided by its population, so this equates to less than $70 a month or a few dollars a day.
Poverty often goes hand in hand with crime and harassment. So, how does this impact on whether it is safe to visit the Gambia?
According to Numbeo, Gambia scores 47.30 on the crime index and 52.70 on the safety index. By contrast, Venezuela, deemed the most crime ridden country on earth, has a crime index of 84.24 and a safety index of 15.76. Surprisingly, London has a crime index of 53.13 and a safety index of 46.17 and thus scores lower than the Gambia. Bradford scores even lower with a crime index of 70.08 and a safety index of 29.92 (Source: Numbeo). These figures suggest that it is indeed safe to visit the Gambia. In fact, you have more risk of becoming a victim of crime in the UK.
Precautions against crime
It is, of course, wise to take precautions. Gov.uk advises visitors not to take valuables or large sums of money out in public. Visitors should also exercise caution when approached by bumsters (see touts below) who frequently target visitors on the beach and at tourist attractions. Gov.uk suggest that you are polite but firm and refuse unwanted conversation or help.
Be extremely wary of locals who invite you to visit their family. Whilst it is appealing to experience local culture, this may be a potential ruse to steal your belongings or guilt you into donations for local orphanages/families etc.
Whilst we cannot say with certainty that we narrowly avoided such a plight, Jason and I became extremely suspicious when a local invited us to meet his new bride. Allegedly, she was just across the road. Our new friend claimed to work at our hotel and described joyful wedding scenes from the previous day. Curious, we agreed to pay her a quick visit. The visit soon turned into an extended trek into a deserted area of town. As we walked, an expanding entourage of locals joined us. Our growing discomfort with the Pied Piper pilgrimage ultimately resulted in our refusal to continue further and we backtracked to the main road.
The Gambia may be known as the smiling coast but it pays to be cautious. I know some readers will accuse me of cynicism or bias, however Jason and I were the subject of an orphanage scam in Cambodia which makes us more careful. If you wish to visit local families do so on an organised tour where you benefit from safety in numbers. I highly recommend the South Gambia safari with Gambia tours
To protect your belongings against petty theft, wear an hidden belt such as this one from Amazon which costs just £7.49. The stretchy material accommodates phones and money easily and it remains invisible when under a baggy top. We found this invaluable during our trip to the Gambia.
Bumsters (or touts) plague the beaches and streets. They cunningly draw you into friendly conversation before inviting you to their restaurant/bar/shop/tour. They are incredibly persistent and can rapidly wear your patience. Note, whilst some may be con men, most are harmless. They will simply hustle hard to persuade you to give them money or some other benefit. Some resort to underhand tactics to get you to drop your guard with claims that they have carried your luggage/helped you at breakfast etc. These minor lies are designed to instill trust but it is best to avoid engaging in conversation. Once you start what may seem to be an innocent conversation, they are like Velcro.
The constant iterations of ‘where are you from? How do you like Gambia? Where are you staying?’ soon become a nuisance. These greetings progress to endless pleas to support my business, buy Gambian products, support local orphanages and innumerable other sob stories. Please don’t think me callous – I emphasize hugely but if you really want to help poverty in the Gambia, I suggest you donate to a charity such as Plan International. You can sponsor a child from £19.50 a month and this money improves the lives of a whole community. Rather than benefitting just one family your donations, why not help to bring about long-lasting change? Surely this is a better legacy.
If you travel to Gambia in the summer months of June to October, the main determinant of whether it is safe to travel to the Gambia is the climate and wildlife. If you take sensible precautions, neither of these should be an issue. However, Brits desperate for some winter sun (often accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol) can often be careless. I lost count of the number of very red individuals we saw on our recent trip. If you follow the guidance below, you should stay safe and well in Gambia.
The Gambia is less than a 1,000 miles from the Equator in the northern hemisphere. This means that the temperature is hot and the sun is strong. You will need apply high sun factor liberally on a regular basis. Note, sunscreen is not in as ready supply as you might think in the country so bring copious amounts with you.
To cope with dehydration in the heat, please ensure you drink copious amounts of clean water. Beer does not prevent dehydration!
Gambia has a large selection of venomous snakes but other dangerous animals are hippopotamus, hyena, buffalos and crocodiles. Most of these can only be found in reserves or rural areas so you do not need to worry about being trampled by a hippo on the beach. The following are however genuine risks to your health.
To protect against mosquito bites, obtain malaria tablets (see below) before you travel and ensure you use a mosquito net. Furthermore, liberally apply mosquito repellent at night and you can also use coils and other plug in repellants in your room. These ones from Amazon are particularly good and they cost just £2.20. I followed these precautions and suffered just two bites in a week. Make no mistake however, mosquitoes are in abundance. We saw plenty of tourists covered in mosquito bites resembling a bad case of acne.
Most snake bites occur in bushy, overgrown areas. To protect against bites you should tread heavily. They will likely slither away leaving you ignorant to their presence (we saw a snake skin but no live snakes!). Only about half of the snakes in the Gambia are venomous so if you do receive a bite it is unlikely that it is poisonous.
Snake bite victims should attempt to stay calm, keep the affected limb below the heart, restrict movement of the limb and seek urgent medical attention (Source: Gambia Information site). Most anti-venoms are effective against multiple types of snake bites but to help assist medical professionals, do not wash the bite.
Food and drink
The Fit For Travel website provides details of various illnesses which can be contracted through eating and drinking contaminated food and drink. The site advises tourists to take basic precautions with food and water and maintain a good standard of hygiene. After almost 2 years of living through a pandemic, these may be familiar to you as they include:
- Regularly washing your hands with soap and clean water
- Use of an alcohol based sanitiser
- Avoidance of ice cubes and raw or under-cooked food
- Avoiding non bottled water
You should allow sufficient time before you travel to ensure that you have recommended vaccinations.
The Fit For Travel website provides details of all recommended vaccinations and health suggestions for any visit to the Gambia. This is a vital source of information if you wish to stay healthy during your trip.
The site emphasizes the need to take malaria tablets. You should not under-estimate the risk that this disease poses. World Health Rankings ranks countries by the number of deaths for malaria per 100,000. The Gambia ranks in 21st place with 39.89 per 100,000. It is essential therefore that you take appropriate anti-malarials and other precautions to limit your exposure to mosquito bites.
Anti-malarials can be bought over the counter in the UK, however the NHS website advises you to seek medical advice before buying. The consultation will consider other medical conditions and known side effects to determine which drug is best for you. Side effects from anti-malarials can be severe so a consultation will help you to find the best ones for you.
Anti-malarials are not cheap however is is not worth the risk to go without. In 2020, there were an estimated 241 million cases of malaria (Source: WHO). 95% of cases originated in the African region and the area accounts for 96% of all deaths. By comparison, cases of Covid in almost 2 years have just topped 300 million cases (Source: Worldometers)
Protection against malaria
The NHS provides the following advice to protect against malaria:
- Stay somewhere with insect screens on doors and windows ideally with air conditioning
- Sleep under an intact mosquito net sprayed with insecticide.
- Use insect repellent on your skin and reapply it frequently. The most effective repellents contain diethyltoluamide (DEET) and you can select from sprays, roll-ons, sticks and creams. See options in the carousel below.
- Wear light, loose-fitting trousers rather than shorts, and wear shirts with long sleeves. This is particularly important at dusk and night when mosquitoes prefer to feed.
There’s no evidence to suggest homeopathic remedies, electronic buzzers, vitamins B1 or B12, garlic, yeast extract spread (such as Marmite), tea tree oils or bath oils offer any protection against mosquito bites.
Is it safe to visit the Gambia during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Although official data shows low infection rates for the Gambia, do not allow this to lull you into a false sense of security. Data shows just 622 new Covid-19 for the 7 days to the 7th January however this is more likely due to the lack of testing than a reliable lower infection rate. Data from Our World in Data clearly shows that testing is limited with only 287 tests undertaken in the 7 day period to the 21st December 2021.
Furthermore, the vaccination rate is around 10% which suggests the virus will be much more prevalent than the figures suggest. Local Gambians make little to no effort to socially distance and indeed encourage fist bumps and handshakes. Shared taxis, known as Gelli gellis, ply the highways rammed full of locals. It is inevitable therefore that many unreported cases exist.
Indeed, even though Jason and I took every possible precaution, I still tested positive on my day 2 travel test. I can only have contracted the virus in the Gambia. Most tourists we saw had little regard for mask wearing, social distancing or use of sanitiser. Ignore the Covid-19 guidance at your peril and you may come home with more than a suntan. Worse still, you may test positive before your return. The thoughts of a 10 day quarantine in the Gambia with patchy wifi fill me with horror.
Although the Gambia has much lower rates of HIV deaths than the countries of Southern Africa, the prevalence of infections and deaths is still considerably higher than that of the UK. Data from 2017 indicates that the death rate for the Gambia is 52.87 people per 100,000 compared to just 0.35 per 100,000 in the UK (Source: Our World In Data). Given the rise in sex tourism to the Gambia, visitors should take every precaution to ensure that they do not become infected. I am sure you do not need a lesson in sex education! If you are visiting the Gambia with a little jiggy jiggy in mind, come prepared.
Other medical emergencies
The World Population Review ranks the Gambia 116th out of 167 for health care globally.
For more serious medical emergencies, you may wish to carry sterile medical supplies. A small travel first aid kit such as this one costs just £25.22 and is packed full of needles, syringes and other items which could prove useful should the worst come to pass.
Although you may well ask what relevance money has to your safety in the Gambia, you clearly do not want to run out. Note therefore, that many ATMs will only accept visa (not Mastercard) and they severely restrict the maximum amount you can withdraw. It is not uncommon to find a maximum withdrawal of 2,000 Dalasi (£35 at most). It is advisable to bring plenty of cash which you can exchange in a multitude of bureaus.
The Dalasi exchange rate is around 70 to a £ at the time of writing (January 2022)
As we have seen repeatedly in the last two years, things change rapidly. It is therefore advisable that you always check the Foreign Office website to see the latest advice. I also recommend that you purchase a good guide book such as this Gambia travel guide. You will need to plan ahead as guide books for the Gambia seem to be unavailable in the Kindle store.
If you have travelled to the Gambia and have any other experiences or tips you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. Simply have your say in the comments below. You can also check out another post on the blog ‘Five reasons to visit the Gambia‘