Eleven years of civil war between 1991 and 2002 has left Sierra Leone in ruins. According to the United Nations it’s the second poorest country in the world. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more injured and displaced during the war. In May 2002, stability was restored when the former ruling party were returned to power in democratic elections. Now, after three years of peace, the rebuilding has begun, and Sierra Leone is looking for outside investment to kick start its economy. Sierra Leone has miles of beautiful beaches – in a country that was once a war-zone, could tourism be one of the new industries that moves the country into the future?
Sierra Leone has miles of beautiful beaches – in a country that was once a war-zone, could tourism be one of the new industries that moves the country into the future? Bimbola Carrol is Sierra Leonean. He lives in England. He left his home during the war. He is determined to change the perceptions of his homeland. He set up a website focusing on travel, tourism and investment opportunities to do just that. Last year alone it got 40 million hits. He explains: ‘The website was set up to show people another side of Sierra Leone – a more positive side which is not often seen in the media. It also highlights the tourist potential in Sierra Leone. But the initial mission is to change people’s perceptions to stimulate investment to Sierra Leone as a whole – it’s not just about diamonds.’
Bimbola is travelling back to Sierra Leone with Derek Moore, founder of the international travel company Explore, to investigate Sierra Leone’s potential for tourism and the barriers stopping the industry getting back on its feet. Until now, most of Sierra Leone’s foreign earnings have come from exporting diamonds. But it’s rich in other natural resources. Apart from diamonds, there is titanium ore, gold and fisheries. Agriculture could also be developed. The land is fertile but only a fifth of it is farmed – and it needs long term investment. Tourism, on the other hand, offers the promise of revenue – on a far quicker turnaround. As Kadi Sessay, Minister for Trade and Industry, admits: ‘There is no doubt there are huge barriers on the ground that impede investment – and our attention, as a government, is now focusing on those barriers.’
Sam King is one of Sierra Leone’s few successful home-grown entrepreneurs. He made his money in the stationery business, buying equipment from the UK. In 2004 he decided to move into tourism, and built the Kimbima Hotel – named after the small village where he grew up. Sam knows that before the war tourism brought in a lot of money. Now he wants to expand his hotel, but local planning regulations are causing him problems.
Head of the National Tourist Board, Cecil Williams, says that new tourist legislation is needed. ‘Our last policy was done some fifteen years ago and quite a lot of things have happened – there have been a lot of changes.’
Derek and Bimbola set off to review the country’s tourist attractions. The people they pass in the villages have very little transport of their own and often walk for a day to the nearest town. After travelling for nine bumpy hours Derek and Bimbola get close to their destination, Tiwai Island.
Tiwai is a designated nature reserve – managed by the Environmental Foundation of Africa for its local community – famous for its rare birds and monkeys and jungle walks. Derek and Bimbola also visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary outside the capital Freetown – it’s currently the most popular tourist destination in the country. Bala Amarasekaran set up this chimp sanctuary 10 years ago – it’s currently home to about a hundred chimps. Bala is trying hard to tackle poaching. ‘Education is the key – it’s very easy to give up. So I think we have to stay focused. We spend a lot of time educating not just tourists but Sierra Leoneans themselves – we get over 50 to 60 kids visiting here every month.’
This sanctuary demonstrates that well managed sites can educate and can generate interest and income. The Government claims that back in 1998 – during the war – Sierra Leone earned $13.5 million dollars from tourism. Now the government estimates a booming tourist industry could earn up to $150 million dollars per year.
As things stand very little government money is spent on developing tourism. Kadi Sessay, the Minister of Trade and Industry, knows this has to change. ‘I think that priority needs to change – we need to focus more on the productive sectors and tourism is one of the productive sectors.’
Nobody knows that better than the newly appointed Minister of Tourism, Okere Adams. ‘As the government, all we have to do is to provide the necessary environment. We provide tax incentives, we do everything to encourage the investor. But for the task of putting cash – big cash – into this, we are not a very rich country.’
Derek Moore is really enthusiastic with what he has seen. ‘To visit this place is to see a place that’s about to boom, it’s about to burst forth, it’s about to do what it wants to do. The one thing I have no doubt about is that tourism will come back in a big way.’
The mission of Steve Garnett’s organisation, the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) is to restore and protect the environment. It operates primarily through environmental education and awareness raising, building up communities’ and institutions’ appreciation and understanding of environmental management and the impacts of environmental damage on lives and livelihoods.
For more information on tourist sites featured in the film, visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and read about ecotourism on Tiwai Island. Basic information on the Outamba-Kilimi National Park can be found on the UNEP/WCMC website.
Derek Moore’s international travel company Explore can be found here.
An earlier Life programme, Returning Dreams, looked at the problems of Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.