If you’ve heard of the Dakar Rally, then you’ve heard of Senegal. Located on the northwestern coast of Africa, Senegal borders Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia, as well as the North Atlantic Ocean.
Until recently, ‘sustainable tourism’ in Senegal was a label used by local tour operators only as a means to attract responsible travellers to the country. After the 2007 presidential election, however, a green political party was formed with Haїdar El Ali, a well-known figure in environmental protection and activism, as its leader. Haїdar, who has worked closely with nature for years, understands that tourism and the environment are linked. He tirelessly conveys this message to governmental authorities, which has led to changes in the way the Ministry of Tourism and the tourism boards develop tourism projects, as well as the way Senegal is promoted abroad.
Haїdar El Ali is the founder and director of Océanium, a scuba-diving club in Dakar. Started in 1984, the Océanium’s main activities have revolved around protection of the marine environment of Dakar and the surrounding areas. Then the club noticed that the problems were as bad on land as they were under the sea and expanded its activities to include protecting both land and marine environments in West Africa. The three-pronged approach to all projects involves the education of local communities in rural Senegal, discussions of the importance of protecting the environment and lobbying government, scientists, environmental activists and the media about the danger pressures on natural resources.
Of the many Océanium undertakings, one that stands out is the Bamboung project, which, with the support and hard work of the local community, can claim two big achievements. First is the creation of the Bamboung Marine Protected Area, located in the Sine Saloum Delta near the “Bolong” of Bamboung. It was established in 2003 in response to the threat of overfishing. After just two years, scientists reported 23 new species of fish and an increase in the number of predators feeding in the protected area.
The second achievement is the Keur Bamboung ecolodge, situated on a riverbank in the centre of the Saloum Delta. The eight huts make it possible to share the beauty of the area with tourists, but also to help the long-term self-sustainability of the Marine Protected Area. At the lodge, respect for the environment is paramount; the locals who help run the lodge therefore only use renewable energy sources and local produce.
Independent of the Bamboung project, but eager to emulate its success, is the village of Thioffior, more than 200km east of Dakar in the Ndiaffate rural community of the Kaolack region of central Senegal. Although the project is still in its infancy, anyone wishing to live like locals should go to Thioffior village, where lodging is at present in the locals’ houses. The villagers have created their unique haven and welcome visitors to it, as they have seen how the resulting income can help their community. On the immediate agenda is construction of much-needed village facilities, such as schools and medical facilities, with long-term plans to build an ecolodge.
While this is all well and good in theory, how can travelers practically get involved? First and foremost, when booking accommodation in Senegal, allow time for a stay at either the Keur Bamboung ecolodge or Thioffior village. At Keur Bamboung, one third of income goes towards the caretaking costs of the marine protected area, another third goes to the rural community of Toubacouta for the construction of schools and medical facilities and the last third covers the lodge’s operating and maintenance costs. Similarly, at Thioffior village, income is turned to community development needs, as well as saving for the ecolodge.
Other ways of contributing to both Thioffior village and Océanium projects include long-stay (plan for a week at least) volunteer work (there are even more options described here), during which visitors help the locals build village facilities. If the time commitment is a challenge, financial donations are always welcome. Spreading the word is also useful. Join the Océanium community on Facebook or Dailymotion.