TOURISM Development strategy involves decentralising cultural activities and building up infrastructure
Lush destination opens its doors to visitors once again
While the beaches and forests offer visitors an enchanting slice of simple tropical paradise, great strides have been made to increase the stock of quality accommodation

There was a time, not so long ago, when Sierra Leone attracted some 100,000 tourist arrivals a year, mainly Europeans. They came to enjoy the country’s unique natural beauty, to sit on secluded white sandy beaches, to climb through unspoilt rainforests and to wade through refreshing waterfalls.

Tourists came to experience first-hand the country’s warm, friendly and hospitable people, and discover why Sierra Leone was one of the most popular destinations in the whole of west Africa.

In some ways, nothing has changed. The people are still as receptive as ever to outsiders and the landscape remains a lush tropical paradise. Yet most of the visitors have now gone because of the former war, and much of the tourism infrastructure needs rebuilding after years of conflict.

One of the first steps in restoring Sierra Leone’s image is to open the country’s doors once again to tourists and business visitors. The government is starting from scratch, going back to basics to entice foreign travellers to return to this small and enchanting corner of Africa. A new tourism development act has been put in place, modelled after the one in the Gambia, a country that successfully attracts some 1.5 million visitors annually. Sierra Leone remains in contact with Banjul tourism officials to make sure plans are successfully implemented. The Ministry of Tourism and Culture is looking to create a solid and stable tourism climate, highlighting the country’s unique cultural diversity.

Chernor Jalloh
‘Without the private sector tourism is nil’ Chernor Jalloh

Minister of Tourism, Dr Chernor Jalloh, says that the industry is still in an embryonic state, but thinks that it can regain its position as one of the premier tourism venues in the region. “Sierra Leone was a paradise,” he says. “In the whole of Africa, in fact, we had the best national dance troupe in terms of heritage, and in the varieties of cultural dances. It was first class. We are trying to rehabilitate this cultural image.”

Sierra Leone is indeed a melting pot of tribal, religious and cultural influences. Today, 60 per cent of the population belong to the Temnes and Mendes tribes. The third major ethnic group is the Limbas, the first to settle in Sierra Leone. The Mendes live in the south of the country, while the Temnes, apart from the north coast of Freetown, occupy the centre. There are also sizeable Lebanese and Indian communities. In a country with so many different religious influences, Sierra Leone stands out as a place of great tolerance between the large Christian and Muslim populations, which co-exist peacefully. President Kabbah is in fact the country’s first Muslim leader.

The tourism development strategy includes decentralising cultural activities to the regional level in order to utilise all local talents. The aim is to identify the best talents throughout the land and then bring them together in Freetown to promote the rich and diverse culture of Sierra Leone in other countries.

The rehabilitation of the tourism infrastructure is well under way. The opening of the new Bintumani Hotel adds another quality hotel to the Freetown skyline. Alongside the Lunghi International Airport Hotel, the Cape Sierra Hotel and Cape Lighthouse – due for completion this year – the capital now offers a choice of superior accommodation as well as varied entertainment facilities.

There are countless attractions in the country. The restoration of the beautiful 12km Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary in February illustrates the government’s intentions. It boasts a high concentration of primates, many threatened with extinction throughout west Africa, and is a source of national pride. Until war broke out in 1991, it was a model of conservation for the region.

A game park has been established at Outamba Kilimi, about 200km from Freetown, where a wide range of animal species can be found, including elephants, monkeys, chimpanzees, rhinoceros and baboons.

The Bintumani Mountain and Lake Sonfon in Koinadugu District, about 1,945 metres above sea level, and the Tingi Hills in the Kono District, offer visitors mountain sports and other adventures. Islands such as Banana, the Konakridee-Yeliboya Wetland and the Turtle Islands are also well worth a visit. The National Monuments and Relics Commission has 18 declared sites of historical importance.

The new tourism development strategy places the private sector in the driving seat. “Tourism without the private sector is nil,” says Dr Jalloh. “Tourism is predominantly a private sector affair. The government only provides basic infrastructure like roads and communications.”

A new generation is set to discover one of the most popular destinations in the whole of west Africa

The UK has a key role to play. As well as being a target market for potential tourists, it is also a source of investment. The two countries are well-connected by air through Sierra National Airlines, which operates a twice-weekly service from London Gatwick. Dr Jalloh says he wants to see British companies invest in all sectors of the economy.

“More specifically, in the tourist industry, we would like to see British firms come in to invest in hotel construction, entertainment and eco-tourism.”

Sierra Leone is looking to regain its place as one of the leading destinations in west Africa. Tourism is expected to play a vital part of the reconstruction process, bringing in valuable hard currency and supporting new jobs.

According to the International Labour Organisation, about 8,000 jobs in Sierra Leone are dependent on the tourism industry, a figure that is expected to increase considerably in the next couple of years. The aim is simple, says the Minister: “To make Sierra Leone once more the paradise of west Africa.”

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