Published on Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sierra Leone blood diamond or rough diamond

A frame grab shows British supermodel Naomi Campbell testifying at the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam August 5, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Special Court for Sierra Leone

Model Naomi Campbell has brought the eyes of the world to Sierra Leone and Liberia but it is not all about violence.

This year, there has also been increased coverage of Sierra Leone. Not for civil war and famine, but for progress and hope for its tourism industry spelling opportunity and a change of fortune for their inhabitants. Sierra Leone is on the up, and is waiting for tourists to flock in.

Palm fringed white sandy beaches that squeak under your feet, friendly locals, amazing local food, live music every night, rich local heritage and reggae blasting out of every street corner shop; sounds like a Caribbean island? Well, think again... this is the newest upcoming tourism destination: Sierra Leone!

One of West Africa"s 16 countries, Sierra Leone has been known for blood diamonds, civil war and being on the bottom of the World Poverty Index, but now the phoenix is rising from the flames and is being acclaimed as "the next tourism hotspot" by the World"s media. But what has prompted this claim? What tourism projects are already in place? How do the tourism movers and shakers in this small West African country see the industry growing in the future?

The setting speaks for itself. Salone - the locals name for Sierra Leone - is situated on West Africa"s vast Atlantic Ocean facing coast, has a tropical climate and boasts a diverse environment ranging from savannah to rainforests. In terms of attractions, as you can imagine, the country offers a number of beaches and islands where all kinds of water-based activities can be carried out, but there is also rich natural, historical and cultural heritage to discover through responsible and sustainable tourism projects which are said to be the next step in the evolution of Sierra Leone"s ministry of tourisms vision for the countries tourism industry.

Umaru Woody, tourism product development manager for the countries ministry of tourism, gave us his view: "Being the Product Development Manager, I interact with key stakeholders to enhance tourism product related development in Sierra Leone. In this regard, I try to ensure that responsible tourism related issues are incorporated in our programs, projects and future initiatives."

The Banana Islands, for instance, are an example of the push towards a more nature and culture orientated tourist accommodation which aims to immerse the visitor in the local community whilst respecting the local environment. Sustainable energy and water management systems are on the menu, alongside exciting activities which not only provide the tourist with unforgettable and original activities but also involve the local communities in order to boost the local economy and subsequently create benefits for all those in the surrounding environment. All this in an idyllic setting in which you can relax on a hammock only disturbed by the waves lapping up on the shore and the chirping of curious birds.

Keeping on the sustainable tourism theme, you may have heard of Tribewanted"s new project in the John Obey community about 25km North from Freetown, Sierra Leone"s capital. The Tribewanted project, originally started in Fiji, is an online-offline community of like-minded travellers who are given the opportunity to live in a rural community in "off-the-beaten-track" settings and participate in activities which immerse the tribe members in the surrounding environment whilst helping the community to build a sustainable village from scratch using the latest sustainable building techniques. On the cards are sunbathing, building, swimming, cooking, canoeing upriver, trekking, fishing, beach football, skill sharing, teaching, drumming, bonfires, and eating great seafood. And if those activities do not suit your needs, you can always suggest your own ideas!

Filippo Bozotti, co-founder of Tribewanted Sierra Leone explains: "We want people from all walks of life with all kinds of skills and interests to join the tribe; from gap year students, career breakers and adventurous travellers to those with specific building, design and environmental skills to help develop the community. Tribewanted Sierra Leone is your chance to play a part in kick-starting the right kind of tourism in a country that needs it. It will be an amazing adventure, so don"t miss this opportunity to be one of the pioneering visitors"

The pioneering model means that the local community of John Obey is involved in the project from start to finish, stimulating empowerment and boosting the local economy whilst introducing sustainable development techniques through education and cross-cultural exchange activities. This model has been proven successful in Fiji which stimulated economic growth and provided entrepreneurship opportunities for the local residents over the past 3 and half years.

If this doesn"t show the progress in the countries goal to raise awareness to the possibilities of rebuilding their tourism industry to its former glory days, Visit Sierra Leone provides an insight into how motivated the Sierra Leoneans are committed to making it happen. Brainchild of Bimbola Carrol, VSL is a web portal aiming to provide information to travellers looking to include Sierra Leone on their itinerary. In addition to a comprehensive guide to the country, they offer a number of services such as visa application, car hire, accommodation ideas and tourism circuits.

Bimbola adds to this: "Since its launch, VSL has been challenging the negative perceptions held of Sierra Leone and continuously promoted the tourism industry and its institutions. As a tour operator we are ambitious and very customer driven. Since we are convinced that tourism has to be responsible and sustainable, we are always trying to implement this approach and promote Sierra Leone as a holiday destination in a manner that reflects this. "  

If you don"t want to stop at Sierra Leone, its neighbour Liberia is also making efforts to boost its tourism industry.  The only West African country to not have been involved in the "scramble for Africa", is a more "off-the-beaten-track" destination but offers similar travel ideas for those looking for a less organised experience or a possibility to discover more of West Africa whilst in Sierra Leone. There are only a handful of tour operators and accommodations" currently operating in Liberia, but with the current increase in coverage of its neighbour, Sierra Leone, there is bound to be a healthy increase in competition within the tour and accommodation sectors over the next few years.

All in all, the prospects seem very promising for Sierra Leone and Liberia in terms of their increased exposure and tourism industry progress. I, for one, am looking forward to the future of these two countries.

For more information on:
Environmental Foundation for Africa - click here
Tribewanted Sierra Leone - click here
Visit Sierra Leone - click here
West Africa Discovery - click here

By Thomas Armitt

Get free sustainable tourism reports from Vision on Sustainable Tourism HERE


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