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February 08, 2010

Sierra Leone Working to Revive Tourism

by Scott Stearns

Sierra Leone is trying to rebuild its tourism industry hurt by years of civil strife.

Tourists, in small numbers, are returning to Sierra Leone's white sand beaches and clear blue waters, eight years after fighting ended in the western African country.

At Number 2 River Beach, south of the capital Freetown, a community youth group runs the resort and keeps the beach clean.

Daniel Macauley, the group's chief, says it helps ease local unemployment.

"Our community is basically a tourist destination," he said.  "So we decided to at least start having people, accommodating them here." The resort employs about 40 villagers.

American Jim Dean is a regular at the beach. "We try to get out here as often as we can, you know, maybe once or twice a month," he said.  "There are several other beaches along this stretch, but this is a very special beach simply because of the sand and the view."

Although Sierra Leone has a lot to offer, the challenge is convincing tourists to come, says tour operator Bimbola Carrol.

"And in order to do that we need to be able to convince them that Sierra Leone is ready to welcome them," said Carrol.  "And a lot, for a lot of operators outside Sierra Leone, it's still sort of a - it's not in their books, if you know what I mean."

For a decade, until 2002, Sierra Leone was consumed by a brutal conflict, with rebels fighting for control of the country, using the country's diamonds to fund the war. News footage of civilians who had their arms and legs cut off by rebels became the new image of Sierra Leone.  The war killed more than 50,000 people and the country's image is still stained.

"One of the challenges of tourism is the bad publicity that the country continues to get in terms of the image - there is still a negative image in the marketplace about Sierra Leone," said Cecil Williams, who directs the country's tourism board.  "People still believe it's not a safe destination, stability is still lacking, which is really not true."

The government is working to attract tour groups by advertising at international tourism fairs and by showing the world a different side of the country.

More than 5,000 tourists came to Sierra Leone last year, the tourism board says, up from about 1,000 nine years ago. Canadian tourist Carul Canzius was pleasantly surprised.

"I was one of those people that was a little afraid, but now that I've been here I've seen that it's quite stable and very safe as well," said Canzius.

Two European travel agencies now offer trips to Sierra Leone. The country's first travel guide was published last year.