Friday, November 02, 2007

From Blood Diamonds to Beaches, Country Aims to Develop Tourist Sector

Editor's Note: Liberia and Sierra Leone have lots in common and have gone through similar tragedies of civil wars with identical consequences. As such, a Sierra Leonean story can easily be related to Liberia. The following article, "From Blood Diamonds To Beaches, Sierra Leone Aims To Develop Tourist Sector" produces one of such similarities as intern reporter Rob Quinn discovers while en route to Liberia from Ireland.

Article: "I am trying to sell a dream", gushes Cecil Williams, head of Sierra Leone's tourist board. Touring this tiny state perched on the West African coast would certainly suggest as much. The country is blessed with lush mountains, historical slave trading sites and most marketable of all, a coastline drenched in breath-taking beaches.

With a new government in power and civil war long gone, Sierra Leoneans are hopeful that the right combination of policies targeted on key growth sectors can finally begin to lift their country out of the crushing poverty in which so many live. Whilst natural resources are high on the agenda, tourism has begun to feature as a hugely under utilised source of income and job creation. "We are currently at no more than 5% of our potential with the government acting as a facilitator in concert with the private sector, I am optimistic that tourism can grow" says Hindulu Troie, incoming Tourism Minister, emphasizing his and Williams' objective of moving tourism into the economy's top foreign exchange earners.

This is a view shared by furniture importer Rashid Conteh and Italian hotelier Gianfranco Comotti. A recent visit to scout potential sites for a hotel brought them to Toukeh, a deserted palm fringed beach just west of Freetown. "Just imagine luxury huts lining the beach you can't miss with this place, its spectacular!" exclaims Conteh as Comotti smiles on, eager to sample Toukeh's crystal waters. Even more encouraging for foreign investors are government plans to offer five-year tax breaks to those investing in the tourism sector, a measure intended to kick-start the industry and emulate success stories such as The Gambia and Senegal.

Sierra Leone was brutalised by civil war between 1990 and 2001. Strolling through Freetown's dusty centre provides a grim reminder the horror so many experienced, as amputees cluster together, begging, hawking, trying to get by in an unforgiving environment. By the same token, the same stroll shows how far Sierra Leone has come in just six years. The country has gone from a total no go zone to one of the safest in destinations in West Africa; about the most threatening experience your correspondent had was being surrounded by laughing children screaming, " White man! How de body?"

Huge challenges remain if Sierra Leone's tourism sector is to emerge. "You need to be connected, nothing in this country gets done without knowing the right people" admits Conteh, "financial insecurity does little to attract investors in countries with poor reputations". Sierra Leone also suffers from an acute infrastructure deficit; the airport is only accessible by boat or helicopter whilst roads outside Freetown are atrocious. Most difficult of all is convincing holidaymakers that Sierra Leone is safe, as films such as Blood Diamond keep the war's harrowing history alive in the western minds.

As reconstruction continues, tourism in Sierra Leone remains in its infancy. Potential investors are only just beginning to consider their options, just as a new government finds its feet and grapples with more pressing problems. But the eternally optimistic people of this war-ravaged state are hopeful, Williams' parting words epitomise the local mood, "one day, people will think of big smiles and beautiful beaches when Sierra Leone is mentioned, the days blood diamonds and child soldiers are behind us."

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: From Blood Diamonds to Beaches, Country Aims to Develop Tourist Sector (Page 1 of 1)