Sierra Leone has lately been touted as one of Africa’s newest hot tourism destinations by esteemed travel publications like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. The extensive positive press, however, belies a number of challenges that the country is dealing with as an emerging destination.
On August 14th in Freetown, Canadian tourism planner and cultural heritage expert Fergus Maclaren presented a lecture on ‘Sustainable Destination Development and Management in Sierra Leone” to over seventy-five attendees representing the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, National Tourism Board, private sector operators, academics, NGOs and students.
The event was opened by the Hon. Minister for Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Dr. Memunatu Pratt, who had recently visited a number of countries and travel events to champion the cause of Sierra Leone’s unique destinations and culture to international markets. One of the trips had included a study tour of Central Canada to meet with government officials, post secondary institutions with prominent tourism and hospitality schools, tour operators and signature destinations that highlighted Canadian culture and nature.
This trip was co-led by Mr. Maclaren, acting in his role as Director of Knowledge Management and International Relations for the Global Economic Institute. It was in this capacity that he was invited to Sierra Leone while he was in West Africa to participate in a tourism and cultural heritage panel session at the HACSA Summit commemorating the Year of Return in Ghana.
The presentation in Freetown focused on the global evolution towards sustainable tourism, the current state of tourism development in Africa, challenges and opportunities for tourism development in Sierra Leone and what he refers to as the 5E Destination Development and Management Model (Expectations, Experiences, Equity, Extraction and Evaluation).
Focusing on challenges that Sierra Leone is facing with its tourism development, these include: uneven tourism and hospitality service capacity, infrastructure needing substantial improvement and a change from the 30 minute ferry ride from Lungi International Airport and Freetown, and the perception of visitor safety after the long, tragic civil war and Ebola outbreak. Comment was also made on simplifying visa requirements to make travel to the country easier, possibly through a visa on arrival system.
Conversely, the country has a number of high profile champions such as humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall and actor Idris Elba, tourism has been identified as a key economic building block in the country’s New Direction Manifesto government policy document, and there are a number of nature- and culture based product offerings such as the Tacugama Chimpanzee Preserve, Beach Number 2 and Bunce Island, a former enslavement era internment and disbursement point.
Many of the questions posited by the audience to Mr. Maclaren afterwards concurred with the points on image and infrastructure and the need for a collective national coming together to work towards improving Sierra Leone across political and geographical boundaries. The Hon. Minister then provided her perspectives on the questions asked, outlining the steps that the government had been taking to improve tourism services and investment. This included the direct economic and broad employment benefits of the visitor economy, as well as the peace and security implications of ensuring that these benefits reached a broad array of Sierra Leonean citizens.
The country has faced a number of challenges over the past twenty-five years, but emerging with resilience with a unique natural and cultural heritage supported by strong leadership, Sierra Leone is poised to fulfill many of the expectations for it to become a prominent destination on the continent.