Thousands of tourists are being evacuated from the west African country of the Gambia amid concerns over political unrest.

Tour operator Thomas Cook is implementing “contingency plans to bring all our UK customers home as soon as possible.”

The company currently has 985 customers on holiday in the country and is aware of an additional 2,500 people who traveled on one of its flights.

“We are dispatching a special assistance team with our first flight from the UK to provide additional support at Banjul airport for our customers. Our colleagues on the ground in [the] Gambia will proactively contact all customers on holiday with us as soon as possible to prepare for return to the UK,” the company said in a statement.

A spokesperson for TUI Group said that it was a destination offered mainly to its Dutch and Belgian customers and that their “repatriation is currently being organised.”

A Disputed election

The situation stems from the result of elections held in December. The existing President Yahya Jammeh has refused to hand over power to victor Adama Barrow and has declared a 90-day state of emergency.

The ongoing unrest and the potential for military intervention has led the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to change its travel advice for the country. It now warns against “all but essential travel.” This change effectively means the country is out of bounds to tourists because most insurers will not offer coverage.

The U.S. State Department issued its own travel warning on January 7 because of “potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future.”

Tourism impact

The Gambia is a popular winter sun destination for the UK and other parts of Northern Europe. It has a flight time of six hours from London.

Thomas Murphy, the lead Sub-Saharan Africa analyst for Risk Advisory’s Intelligence and Analysis practice, told Skift that the political crisis would “probably have a significant impact on the tourism industry” but that the long-term effect depended on how long it took to resolve.

Regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has attempted to mediate in the dispute and reports suggest it could look to remove Jammeh by force unless he steps down voluntarily.

“Most foreign governments have only updated their travel advice for the Gambia in the past day or so, although the current situation has been brewing for several weeks,” he said.

“Some of the people we have spoken with have told us that the reason many countries did not change their advice until the last moment was because of the impact it would have on the Gambia’s tourism sector.

“The decision of countries like Canada, France, the Netherlands, the UK and the U.S. to advise their citizens to avoid the Gambia will impact tourism in the short term, but may cause many travellers reconsider travel to the Gambia in the longer term as well.”

Key markets

The most recent full-year tourism statistics, covering 2015, show that 33,288 people from the UK visited the country, a figure 42.6 percent down on the five-year high of 58,029 recorded in 2012.

The next largest market in 2015 was The Netherlands with 14,340, followed by the Swedish, Spanish and Czech markets, which all sit around 5,000 visitors per year.

The country’s tourism industry was also damaged by the outbreak of the ebola virus in West Africa between 2013 and 2016, despite never recording a case.

Adboulie Hydara, director general, the Gambia Tourism Board, said in a statement: “We are monitoring the political situation and are working closely with our UK tour operator partners to support them in returning customers to the UK.

“All holidaymakers with independent flight bookings are advised to contact their flight provider to discuss travel options.

“For those with future bookings to the Gambia we advise that they speak to their holiday provider to change their date of travel. We will continue to monitor the situation carefully and share updated advice accordingly.”

The Gambia is just the latest destination popular with European tourists to suffer problems. The likes of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia are all struggling to various degrees through either terrorism or political instability.

Photo Credit: A cyclist in Gunjur the Gambia. The country is in the midst of a political crisis. Mishimoto / Flickr