Established in 2001: Footsteps Eco-lodge

One of Gambia’s most prestigious eco-lodges, its proud to be at the forefront of Responsible Tourism. We talk today with its founder David, about its humble beginnings and development in the past 20 years.

David White

Founder of Footsteps Eco-lodge, The Gambia
David was born in the North East of England in the small mining community of Murton. County Durham. In 1999 he booked a family holiday with his (then) wife and her parents staying at The Tafbel Hotel in Senegambia. Something quite extraordinary happened during that holiday which changed their lives completely. Up until then his background had been in finance and could not be further removed from the life he was about to embark upon in The Gambia.

Footsteps started as an idea to help the indigenous people of The Gambia. After holidaying here for the first time in 1999 David saw hardship and struggle the likes he had never seen before in his own life and wanted to help if he could.

“It sounds mad but even before the holiday was over, I was already planning how to do it on returning to the UK, the research continued. I spoke with The Gambian Consulate in London and The British Consulate in The Gambia. Learned of the land laws and employment laws and before long had what was starting to look like a business plan. My family at this point must have thought I had lost the plot but I assured them that once the project was finished that life would return to normal”, David explained.

In late 2000 he returned to The Gambia with a business plan for a small lodge, all he needed to do was find a plot of land to build it on.

With nowhere in mind at that stage, except that it should be an hour from the airport and mass touristy area such as Senegambia. Having no background in building works or hospitality he very much had to rely on advice from others. For example, one piece of advice he received, in the beginning, was to make the business good, honest and true. This one advice more than any other formed the basis of what Footsteps would become.

First of all, the name Footsteps was born from leaving behind as small a footprint as possible.

So, in January 2001 with local builders from Gunjur, they started building. They applied good, honest and true to all their building decisions and this led to their energy coming from the sun and the wind. And their toilets being composting instead of a septic tank. It meant their pool couldn’t have chlorine and by the time they were nearing the completion of their build it meant that they had a seriously committed eco-lodge.

He confesses at this time:

a) He didn’t have the staff with which to run a hotel and

b) He had run seriously over budget on the build.

David explains that it was crunch time and it meant either giving up on Footsteps or selling up in the UK and instead of this being a project could it maybe be a new beginning?

“I know a lot of people may have struggled with a decision like this but I knew it was the right thing to do and by now my family had stopped threatening a straight jacket and had become supportive so we sold up and moved to The Gambia late 2001.”

He remembers having a meeting with his building crew one afternoon in their newly built Bantaba. He had solved all but one problem before they could open and that was staffing the lodge. He asked them if they had family members that were perhaps travelling each day to find work in hotels at tourist hotspots. Instead of them telling him about family and friends they said: “What about us? We can be waiters, security and gardeners!” He didn’t need to think twice, he knew these guys and had been impressed with them throughout the build. It turned out that most had some experience working in hotels previously.

So, it was now January 2002 and they were about to open.

Responsible tourism takes many forms. He believes we only get the tourism we ask for. Over the years they have met some of the kindest people. They have visited because they saw they were trying to get it right and what they found was so much more. They found friendship and family.

Hospitality is a difficult industry to be in. You need to be happy and vibrant while looking after the people coming to stay. A hard task indeed if you don’t feel so vibrant yourself. So, a happy team means happy guests, an oversimplification but true. His team have overcome more than they should have had to since their humble beginning.

They fell victim to a bush fire in February 2007 which completely wiped them out. They lost everything and to top it off his father in law Len (also his business partner by now) passed away just one month later. David explains: “Truth be told I was ready to give in. Add to that Ebola, a troublesome Presidential election and now Covid-19 and I can say we are ready for some good times once more.”

Supporting each other is key. It was sad for him to read stories back in March of businesses laying off their entire staff with no warning and blaming the lockdown: “Clearly, those businesses only have their eye on the short term and not long. We have 21 full-time team members and nearly half are from the original building crew. So, while I’m always around as a host, I believe it’s best to let them do the jobs they are so very good at doing. I take care of bookings and marketing these days and also the arduous job of taking our guest’s beach fishing.”

There are some excellent eco-lodges in The Gambia but not so many, in this regard they don’t have so much competition. He was asked last year if the arrival of all-inclusive had affected their business but fortunately, it hasn’t. The guests that would choose an eco-lodge would never dream of staying in an all-inclusive. Some would say its horses for courses and holidaymakers should have the right to choose how they spend their money. He disagrees, he thinks the Gambia’s decision-makers made a choice to open its doors to all-inclusive and while there are undoubtedly financial benefits for the country, they don’t usually reach the local people and in some cases are detrimental to them also.

Over their now 19 years in business, he thinks they are best known for birding. They are situated in the bush and by the beach, with a wetland just a few minutes walk away and Koonyung Protected Forest right next door. This means they are central to 3 distinct and separate birding habitats. Add to that their unique freshwater eco-pool and dedicated on-site bird guides and it’s no wonder that birders visit each year. 

 

They have also gained quite a reputation for their food. David is a massive foodie and loves good quality innovative food: “We invest heavily in our chefs and their kitchen. Our garden grows a lot of our product and not just cucumber and tomato. We have Asparagus, Kale, Rocket and lots of herbs. The kitchen is the engine of our lodge and being open view means that our guests can see their food being prepared and cooked. We get a lot of vegetarians and vegans stay with us and they love to show our chefs new recipes using our garden produce. Maybe that’s connected to our eco-friendly ethos but it’s definitely a massive plus for our menus.”

David believes all this has contributed to their longevity and success: “By success, I don’t mean financial reward but more lifestyle and life choices. For me, success is living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I’m surrounded by nature and get to spend each day with warm kind and gentle people.”

 

For a young entrepreneur about to start a business venture, his advice is to be good honest and true in all that you do and you won’t go far wrong. It won’t always be easy, but whoever said life was supposed to be easy.

 

Covid-19 has left a dark stain on Gambia’s 2020/21 season and he thinks it’s time to accept that while we may salvage a small part of it, it’s time to draw a line under it and look to the future.

In the end of our interview David invited all of you to come and celebrate with them, meet the team and make some new friends: “The 2021/22 season will mark 20 years in business for us. For many of my team, that’s 20 years together and it deserves to be celebrated. We are already seeing a lot of interest for next season and fingers crossed Covid-19 is in our past, 2021/22 should be the best.”

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