Sierra Leone is recovering from its bitter civil war and is beginning to be rediscovered by the more adventurous tourist. Beach tourism was the main emphasis prior to the industry’s collapse in the 1990s, with package holidaymakers from France and elsewhere attracted by the countries incredible Atlantic-facing beaches.
Today however there is a realisation that beach tourism is an international ‘commodity’ product and therefore a high risk development strategy with prices controlled by the market: It may fail to deliver pro-poor economic benefits and sustainable growth. Indeed West African tourism (mostly beach tourism) is losing market share and needs to change substantially and quickly if the region is not to become even further marginalised in international tourism. Access is expensive for destinations like Sierra Leone and getting tourism going sustainably will be a challenge.
At the present time international tourism to Sierra Leone consists almost exclusively in business traffic (including short term aid workers) and family visits. It is small scale (c 38,500 visitors arrived by air in 2009). Leisure tourism is currently almost totally dependent on domestic tourism at weekends and day trippers from large resident expatriate population, but with a superb natural environment and a welcoming people, this country offers beaches without bumsters and a great sense of freedom to explore.
Various development agencies including the UN, USAID and Europeaid have identified tourism as a potential future development path for Sierra Leone. The possibility of Sierra Leone positioning itself as an unexplored ecotourism destination offering safe and genuine experiences which contribute to the local environment and to local community development does exist, as tourism starts again from a tabula rasa. Tribe Wanted has been one of the first to identify Sierra Leone as a future exotic destination and has begun construction of an ‘alternative’ beach resort on the shores of the mountainous Western Peninsula.
This Peninsula is likely to be the hub of tourism in Sierra Leone. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary there is probably the only international-standard visitor attraction in the country. There is a new Whale Research Centre run by a UK charity, offshore islands with their Creole culture and miles of spectacular beaches and jungle-covered hills which could help make this area, close to Freetown, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the country’s likely tourism product: These products are essentially small scale ecotourism at present.
The Western Peninsula (and Freetown’s water supply) is however increasingly threatened by rapidly encroaching urbanization and deforestation due to house construction and fuel consumption: The city’s growing population mostly uses wood and charcoal for all its cooking needs. A present destruction rates the forest cover will probably be lost within a decade; and with it much of the country’s potential as an ecotourism flagship. Saving the Western Peninsula is therefore critical to Sierra Leone’s future tourism potential, and it is far from clear that this potential can be secured.
Sierra Leone is an interesting, beautiful and very friendly destination, but the challenge for delivering sustainable and responsible tourism is immense. There will be opportunities here for ICRT alumni to help make a difference.
Robert Travers travelled to Sierra Leone as a volunteer for the USAID PAGE programme, organized by ACDI/VOCA.