Sierra Leone: Ecotourism strategy may pay off

By Kimberly S. Johnson in Freetown

Posted on Monday, 16 September 2013 15:15

Once prized for its pristine beaches, Sierra Leone used to be an attractive destination for tourists from around West Africa and beyond. Today, competition from other countries, poaching, deforestation, sand mining and poor infrastructure hamper the fledgeling sector.

Although expatriates and well-off locals tend to frequent the beaches dotting the Western Peninsula, their numbers are not high enough to give the tourism sector the boost it needs, says Cecil James Williams, head of the National Tourist Board.

Sand mining is a problem because beaches are disappearing. Deforestation, in favour of large homes and charcoal for cooking, is having an adverse effect on the landscape.

A lack of sanitation infrastructure contributes to the polluting of the water along the most popular stretch of beachfront in Freetown, Lumley Beach.

“We’re wrestling with our colleagues [at other government agencies],” Williams says. “They forget about the consequences [of these activities].”

Abimbola Carrol, the founder of Visit Sierra Leone, a tourism website and corresponding tour operating company, VSL Travel, argues that deforestation and pollution “send a message that the country isn’t serious”.

Hotels, however, are improving. West Africa Holdings Limited (SL) plans to open a Radisson in the former Mammy Yoko Hotel, notorious as the location of a tense shootout during the war, in the final quarter of 2013.

International Development Enterprise Associates will rehabilitate the Cape Sierra Hotel and develop it under the Hilton brand. It is set to open at the end of 2014.

Costly destination

Williams admits that Sierra Leone does not have the infrastructure to attract mass tourism. It is a challenge to get people there because airline tickets from Europe often start at $1,500.

From Lungi International Airport, the mainland is a boat or helicopter ride away. A hotel room in Freetown can cost more than $150 per night.

According to a report on the investment climate compiled by the United States embassy, the transport ministry arranged a $8.9m grant from the World Bank last year to rehabilitate Lungi International Airport, a project that will include a new terminal building, upgrades to the existing runway and a new runway.

The government also signed an agreement with China Railway International in December 2012 for a new airport on the mainland near Freetown.

Actors in the sector have decided to focus on ecotourism to attract visitors who are not looking for five-star luxury but an off-the-beaten-path adventure. They will expect less and be willing to pay more, Williams says.

Wildlife island

But what is on offer is still quite basic. Guests pay $20 to visit Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, a 12km2 reserve off the Moa River in Southern Province.

They sleep in tents, says Tommy Garnett, director of the Environmental Foundation for Africa, the NGO managing the sanctuary in conjunction with Njala University.

Of the 400 to 500 visitors that come to Tiwai each year, most are expats living in Freetown, according to Garnett.

He is not expecting a big tourism boom, stating that ecotourism efforts across the country typically have to be subsidised.

On the beaches of Western Peninsula south of Freetown, redevelopment continues apace.

But at one of the most popular spots, River No.2 Beach, Francis Kappia, public relations officer at the River No.2 Development Association, says the community-led organisation which runs the beach has never had help from government.

It is now facing new competition from further down the beach.

The resort, which has eight rooms – without air conditioning or fans – mainly attracts backpackers and expatriates on the weekends, although some groups are now coming from Nigeria and Ghana. ●

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