At long last, Sierra Leone has been officially declared as Ebola-free, with no new cases for 42 days. Indeed a cause for celebration, and the famous Cotton Tree in the centre of Freetown was the scene of all-night rejoicing at the beginning of November.
The hit to the economy has been severe. In 2014, real GDP growth was, according to the IMF, 7.1 per cent, way above the sub-Saharan average of 5 per cent, and in the top 5 in the region. In 2015, the IMF’s projection is for a decrease in GDP of almost 24 per cent, which is in the bottom five globally. Ouch. That’s not going to create jobs, far from it, as one cause of the decline is the cessation of iron ore mining in April.
I visited Sierra Leone at the beginning of October, my first visit in six years. Since then, the Radisson Blu hotel has opened, and the Hilton is under construction. The beaches have remained as fantastic as ever, and the people are as warm and welcoming as they have ever been.
So my message is, Sierra Leone is Ebola-free, it is history, so is the civil war, let’s please return to business as normal.
But the government is in no position to do much to spread that message, they have no funds to attend trade fairs, to advertise the country’s attractions – but there are a couple of websites, one from the private sector - www.visitsierraleone.org – and the other the national tourist board - www.welcometosierraleone.sl. On the former, you can apply for an entry visa on-line!
Why am I promoting Sierra Leone like this? Because we in the African travel industry need to give them all the help we can. Heaven knows, the government has its work cut out with the recovery programme, preventative measures, rebuilding the healthcare sector, the economy as a whole, at a time when its foreign exchange earnings are close to zero. The tourism board has always been underfunded, and I can’t seeing the sector getting too high a priority for a while.
And because, once upon a time, Sierra Leone had a thriving tourism industry, based on its beautiful natural attributes – the beaches I mentioned earlier, the mountains and rain forests, the birds and wildlife, the culture and heritage………There is no real reason why the country couldn’t get back to where it was in the 1980s. Then, an estimated 100,000 tourists visited annually, mostly Europeans (French and British), and mostly for those beaches. In 1987, the Bounty Bar’s Taste of Paradise TV advert was filmed on River Number 2 beach, just to the south of Freetown. I bet that, if you can remember it, you thought it was filmed in the Caribbean?!
Well, actually, there are a few reasons why tourism will struggle, not just the lack of funding for promotion. The government also has no funds for training schools, and the service in hotels and restaurants, at least those I visited, comes more often with a snarl than with a smile. Many of the hotels are run down due to a lack of funds for maintenance.
Getting to the country is expensive, because of the lack of airlift – a bit of a chicken and egg situation, as usual, with carriers needing more passengers to make flights profitable. The cheapest economy class ticket from London to Freetown in November is just over US$1,000, via Paris – there are currently no direct flights.
I travelled from Lagos on Air Cote d’Ivoire through Abidjan, but we stopped in Accra and Monrovia, so that was four flights! Nigeria, with its vast population, high propensity for travel, and no need for a visa, should be a good market to target (Nigerians also love to party, and Freetown is famous for its nightlife!), but not when it takes so long to get there.
Airlines currently operating, in addition to Air Cote d’Ivoire, are Kenya Airways, Air France, Brussels and Royal Air Maroc.
Getting around the country can also be difficult right now, with many roads in bad repair, particularly in the rainy season. But there is hope at hand there, with a new highway nearing completion between Freetown and the Peninsula, to the south, linking such wonderfully-named places as River Number 2, Big Water, Black Johnson and Waterloo to the capital in less than 30 minutes, places which are currently 1½ hours or more.
Another challenge is that the international airport at Lungi is 20 to 30 minutes’ boat ride across the mouth of the Sierra Leone River from Freetown. The airport isn’t bad, having been renovated not that long ago, but the road from the airport to the boat station is unmade, and boats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (certainly not mine!). Having said that, 100,000 tourists a year didn’t seem to mind that back in the 1980s…..And the government reports that a Chinese construction company has started work on the new Mamamah International Airport, 38 miles south of Freetown, which means I will no longer have to suffer that ruddy boat! The development of the new airport will open up the Peninsula for new tourism facilities, and the new highway will mean greater day visitation to the resorts and restaurants there from the inhabitants of Freetown.
There you have it, warts and all. I like Sierra Leone. All will agree that the country has been dealt a really bad hand in the last 25 years. But, ironically and somewhat sadly, the Ebola outbreak has turned the world’s attention back on the country, and the provision of donor funding for the recovery programme is already kick-starting development again.
Katrina Manson, author of the Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone, says: Few people know about Sierra Leone's sweeping many-coloured beaches, its swim-perfect seas and glorious rainforest-mountain backdrops. They don't know you can dine on fresh-grilled lobster and refresh yourself with a cool beer beside the ocean. They don't know about the country's threatened primates and rare exotic birdlife, or that it is home to the region's highest mountain. They are unaware that its capital is one of the safest cities in Africa and that people dance with a mesmerising lust for life until after dawn. Or that, despite the decade of war, the nation's tenacity, affection and spirit is what really defines it.
Well, you know it now!
W Hospitality Group, Lagos