Arts and Culture

Beaches may wash away Sierra Leone's war image

Katrina Manson

Boboh village used to do a roaring trade in the Pa Gbana cocktail, a mix of fermented local grasses, coconut and lime favoured by tourists to wash down freshly-cooked lobster. Nowadays there is little demand for the drink, named after the village's oldest resident: the only foreigners on Boboh's pristine beaches, south of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, are development workers taking time out.

Boboh village used to do a roaring trade in the Pa Gbana cocktail, a mix of fermented local grasses, coconut and lime favoured by tourists to wash down freshly-cooked lobster.

Nowadays there is little demand for the drink, named after the village’s oldest resident: the only foreigners on Boboh’s pristine beaches, south of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, are development workers taking time out.

The former British colony’s 1991 to 2002 civil war, which killed 50 000 people and horrified the world with images of Kalashnikov-toting child soldiers high on drugs, destroyed what was once a lucrative tourism industry.

In the heyday of the 1980s, more than 30 000 people visited every year, many of them arriving by helicopter and checking into exclusive beachside hotels.

Since the war, the numbers have dwindled to almost zero. Resorts were vandalised by rebels, foreign investors fled and unemployment spiralled.

But hopes are rising that tourists could return again after this year’s largely peaceful presidential election, the first since United Nations peacekeepers left after the war and won by an opposition candidate promising to fight corruption.

“The biggest challenge that Sierra Leone faces is tackling the negative perceptions that have been caused by years of war,” said Bimbola Carrol, a Sierra Leonean keen to leave London and move back home to run his own travel business.

“I love telling everyone how beautiful and misunderstood Sierra Leone is,” said Carrol, who created a tourism website, Visit Sierra Leone.

The site had more than two million visits in August, a promising sign for a country where 70% of people live below the poverty line.

“If managed properly, the benefits of tourism can feed directly into local communities and help alleviate poverty,” Carrol said.

Post-election optimism

Five years have passed since the end of the war but the West African country still receives fewer than 4 000 tourists a year.

The Western Peninsula’s 40km of unspoiled beaches south of Freetown stand empty.

Crumbling mud huts line Boboh’s shore of white sand and rippling turquoise waters. Men who once earned a living guiding tourists haul green nets on to wooden fishing boats.

“There’s nothing for us here now,” said harbour master Jonathan Kongchaman, whose boat is called I hope to God.

“We used to have jobs before. I want the tourists to come back.”

President Ernest Bai Koroma has vowed to shift the small economy’s emphasis from mining to agriculture and tourism.

His party manifesto promised a focus on nature and heritage tourism, partly to encourage African-Americans to retrace their roots and visit 18th century slave-trading sites in the country.

“Their manifesto has a plan of action and I’m very satisfied they have a vision,” said Cecil Williams, general manager of the Tourist Board. “Infrastructure such as a good airport, roads, electricity and water have to be put in place first.”

One group of investors based in London, which includes five Sierra Leoneans, is so confident of the country’s potential it is taking construction matters into its own hands.

Their company, Idea, plans to develop a 510-acre, $500-million site for golf and luxury tourism to open near the main airport in 2012, and will build its own roads, sewage works, water and electricity supply.

Exotic destination

Home to rare birds and threatened species such as the pygmy hippopotamus, Diana monkey and chimpanzees, Sierra Leone hopes its rainforests and tiny exotic islands will attract ecotourists and sports fishermen.

“Our unique beaches will be a prime attraction—we have white, sandy beaches and the sea is safe, calm, clear and warm to swim in,” said Williams.

Sierra Leone is also closer to Europe than other more developed beach destinations such as the Caribbean, the Maldives and Mauritius, and in the same time zone.

Industry body the World Travel and Tourism Council, which ranks the former British colony 165th of 176 countries in terms of the size of the travel and tourism sector, predicts growth of 5% a year until 2017.

It says the sector will generate $174,5-million in economic activity this year, accounting for 6,6% of GDP and 65 000 jobs.

Other West African holiday destinations such as Ghana and Gambia have a more developed tourist industry but Williams hopes Sierra Leone will one day be able to match them.

There are precedents: from a handful of visitors 10 years ago, Ghana now receives 400 000 holidaymakers a year and aims for one million in 2010.

“The beaches of Ghana and the Gambia are not as pristine as ours. They just have aggressive marketing,” said Williams.

“People shy away from our destination because of the devastation and the brutality of the war. It will take a lot of work to change people’s mentality, but we have the attractions.”—Reuters

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