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Sierra Leone Trying to Bounce Back as Tourist Destination - 2004-05-27


Sierra Leone, which is just recovering from a brutal 10-year civil war, is trying to give itself a makeover as a tourist destination. Selling points include stunning beaches and diverse wildlife parks, but negative points are also numerous, such as inadequate infrastructure and the lingering remnants of war.

Small waves lap onto white palm-lined beaches, just a short drive from Sierra Leone's capital, in an environment reminiscent of the Caribbean. Bars along the beach serenade patrons with reggae music.

It is hard to imagine a brutal civil war ended here just two years ago.

Freetown, despite several shelled buildings, conjures up images of other oceanfront capitals, clean beaches on the fringes of a sprawling city with colorful hilltops behind.

The National Tourist Board's operational motto is "Sierra Leone: Tropical Delight." The Board's general manager, Cecil Williams, has just returned from a trip to the Seychelles and Mauritius, models he wants to emulate.

?They have not destroyed the environment,? he said. ?Our goal is eco-tourism and for you to do that you must systematically work out the type of market that you want. These are unspoiled destinations. You know the focus now all around the world is for people to go to places that are unspoiled and that are virgin and therefore we are trying to sell Sierra Leone as an eco-friendly destination which is unspoiled.?

But Sierra Leone's prospects of becoming a tourist haven were spoiled, at least in part, by the brutal civil war in the 1990s, which killed and maimed thousands of people and ruined the country's infrastructure.

There are few hotels or passable roads, and during the rainy season, power is more off than it is on.

But Mr. Williams says the war also brought attention to Sierra Leone.

?Prior to the escalation of the war, not many people knew where Sierra Leone was and the irony of the whole thing is that in spite of all these atrocities, in spite of all these negative things, the whole world's attention was focused on Sierra Leone, people started to know where Sierra Leone is,? Mr. Williams said. ?But out of those negative issues, people also came to learn that there were wonderful opportunities, not only in tourism, but in many areas.?

Investors are actually starting to come in. This month, a Chinese group announced plans for a $270 million beachfront conference facility with 250 guestrooms, on a site currently leased by the United Nations. In addition, a Norwegian company has expressed interest in developing a time-share resort near Freetown.

This type of news has captured the imagination of shantytown residents in the capital, who see themselves as future tennis coaches, massage therapists or hotel staff members.

Thirty minutes outside Freetown, by way of winding dirt roads into virgin forestland, it is feeding time for chimpanzees at a sanctuary established several years ago.

U.S. ambassador Peter Chaveas is here to donate an electric fence to protect about 70 wild chimpanzees.

?Tourists would come to Sierra Leone because this country has some unique beauties, some unique assets, that they can not find in other places,? Mr. Chaveas said. ?And what is inside this preserve here, this sanctuary, is part of what makes Sierra Leone unique and therefore what potentially makes it attractive to tourists. So if tourism is going to make its contribution to the future welfare of the country, assets like this have to be preserved and developed.?

But at a recent conference for tour operators and travel writers, some of the European visitors expressed concerns about sending tourists to Sierra Leone. The country has poor international communications, few doctors, no hospitals up to international standards and widespread poverty. In addition, the tour operators worry about corruption at high levels of the country's government.

Sierra Leonean good governance campaigner Zainab Bangura agrees that corruption needs to end. She says if that and other problems are addressed, tourism could be important in the effort to raise the country's people out of poverty.

?Sierra Leone could actually be a very, very beautiful destination,? Ms. Bangura said. ?But it is not something you can just pick up from the air and think people can start coming. It makes good money, but you need good planning.?

One thing that might begin to ease tourists' concerns would be a new road to Freetown's airport, or a better ferry service. The airport is across a bay from the city, and currently the only way to get to the city is on a bad road, a slow expensive ferry or in an old military helicopter. On the helicopter, passengers sit along the sides and baggage is piled in the middle - something that could easily scare off even relatively adventurous travelers.

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