Eye on West Africa

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Sierra Leone has been officially declared Ebola free, with no new cases reported for 42 days at the time of printing. Indeed a cause for celebration, and the famous Cotton Tree in the centre of Freetown was the scene of all-night rejoicing at the beginning of November.

The hit to the economy has been severe. In 2014, real GDP growth was, according to the IMF, 7.1%, and in the top five in the region. In 2015, the IMF’s projection is for a decrease in GDP of almost 24%, due in part to  the cessation of iron ore mining in April.

I visited Sierra Leone at the beginning of October, my first visit in six years. Since then, the Radisson Blu hotel has opened, and the Hilton is under construction. The beaches have remained as fantastic,  and the people  as warm and welcoming, as ever.

I’d like to see business return to normal, but the government is in no position to spread that message; it has no funds to attend trade fairs, or to advertise the country’s attractions. Currently, the internet is the country’s best promoter, with a couple of websites – www.visitsierraleone.org and www.welcometosierraleone.sl – offering information to potential tourists.

Why am I promoting Sierra Leone like this? Because we in the African travel industry need to give them all the help we can. The tourism board has always been underfunded, and I can’t seeing the sector getting too high a priority for a while. And because, once upon a time, Sierra Leone had a thriving tourism industry, based on its beautiful natural attributes – beaches, mountains and rain forests, birds and wildlife, culture and heritage. There is no reason that the country can’t get back to its 1980s heyday. Back then, an estimated 100,000 tourists, mostly Europeans, visited annually, and mostly for those beaches.

There are a few reasons why tourism will struggle, and it’s not only due to the lack of funding for promotion. Employees are in desperate need of training, but are no funds for training schools either. Also, many of the hotels are run down due to a lack of maintenance funds.

Getting to the country is expensive, because of the lack of air links, and time consuming. The cheapest economy class ticket from London to Freetown in November is just over $1,000, via Paris – there are currently no direct flights. I travelled from Lagos on Air Cote d’Ivoire through Abidjan, but we stopped in Accra and Monrovia,. Nigeria, with its vast population, high propensity for travel, and no need for a visa, should be a good market to target, but not when it takes so long to get there. Airlines currently operating, in addition to Air Cote d’Ivoire, are Kenya Airways, Air France, Brussels and Royal Air Maroc.

Getting around the country can also be difficult, with many roads in bad repair, particularly during the rainy season. But there is hope at hand there, with a new highway nearing completion between Freetown and the Peninsula, to the south, in a third of the current travel time. 

Another challenge is that the international airport at Lungi is a 20- to 30-minute boat ride across the mouth of the Sierra Leone River from Freetown. The airport isn’t bad, having been renovated not that long ago, but the road from the airport to the boat station is unmade, and boats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Although, 100,000 tourists a year didn’t seem to mind that back in the 1980s.

The government reports that a Chinese construction company has started work on the new Mamamah International Airport, 60 kilometres south of Freetown The development of the new airport will open up the Peninsula for new tourism facilities, and the new highway will mean greater day visitation to the resorts and restaurants by the people of Freetown.

There you have it, warts and all. I like Sierra Leone. All will agree that the country has been dealt a really bad hand in the last 25 years. But, ironically and somewhat sadly, the Ebola outbreak has turned the world’s attention back to the country, and the provision of donor funding for the recovery programme is already kick-starting development again.

Katrina Manson, author of the Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone, says: Few people know about Sierra Leone’s sweeping many-coloured beaches, its swim-perfect seas and glorious rainforest-mountain backdrops. They don’t know you can dine on fresh-grilled lobster and refresh yourself with a cool beer beside the ocean. They don’t know about the country’s threatened primates and rare exotic birdlife, or that it is home to the region’s highest mountain. They are unaware that its capital is one of the safest cities in Africa and that people dance with a mesmerising lust for life until after dawn. Or that, despite the decade of war, the nation’s tenacity, affection and spirit is what really defines it.

Well, you know it now!