Sierra Leone’s tourism troubles

4 May 2009 at 22:10 | 1301 views

By Patrick S. Bernard, Lancaster, PA, USA.

The Sierra Leone media and some in England were abuzz last week covering former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Sierra Leone to highlight Sierra Leone’s tourism potential. Blair’s optimism for a thriving tourist industry must be, however, tempered, as he did in some of his statements, by the very sobering realities that hinder the growth of tourism in the country.

Here are excerpts from an essay I wrote on the subject while I was on Sabbatical leave in Sierra Leone last year and was published in Peep! Newspaper edited by Olu Awoonor- Gordon. The full article titled “Tourism Wahala: Is There A Way Out?” appeared in the Wednesday January 9, 2008 edition of Peep!:

Many newspapers, including this one, and various experts have lately, since the constitution of the new APC government, been talking about the necessity of a resurgent tourism industry in this country. Even the current Minister of Tourism, Hindolo Trye, has expressed his enthusiasm, though couched in a sobering acceptance of a decrepit industry, in this direction. Perhaps the Ministry of Tourism has attracted the most media coverage than any other ministry in the new government. The reasons for this are not hard to figure: First, the world is in a tourism-besotted age, but Sierra Leone, in spite of its tremendous tourism potential, has not capitalized on that. Second, a functioning tourism industry may symbolize a Sierra Leone that has rejoined the global village after a dehumanizing ten-year Civil War. This media attention, therefore, unambiguously affirms that the ministry is one of the vital arms the government can use to diversify the economy, generate foreign exchange, employment, and development that will remake the image of the country as well as set it on the path of progress.

There is no gainsaying, then, that this country is a veritable tourist’s dream. But can Sierra Leone really be the tourist mecca that many are saying it is? Perhaps, but that may as well be a pipe dream for now for the following reasons. Tourism is aesthetic, structural, cultural, human and environmental. Sierra Leone falls short in many, if not all, of these fundamentals

Our aesthetic sensibilities are, to a very large extent, incompatible with tourism. Simply, tourists embark on their voyage to see beauty, particularly two forms: natural beauty and human-made beauty. The two are mostly lacking here-we have destroyed, and continue to destroy with impunity, the natural beauty of the country. There is hardly any man-made beauty to attract tourists here. Not that we do not have them, but we neglect them. So if we can’t guarantee these two forms of beauty, how on earth are we going to bring tourists here?
Generally, we display and promote an aberrant aesthetics that devalues our own traditions of beauty and taste. Instead we valorize foreign ones. Make no mistake, our tastes and attitudes are what will also draw tourists here. But the vulgarity of our manners and institutions is an instant put-off to would-be tourists.

Structurally, things are exhausted, discomfortably exhausting, here. Moreover, a fully functional tourism ministry cannot stand on its own; it has to work with all the other ministries and related government and local institutions. Some of the most important needs of the tourism industry are electricity, water, good roads, a hygienic environment, a reliable credit and debit card vending system, a vibrant indigenous culture, and functioning communication facilities. These are not provided by the tourism ministry, but by other ministries. Therefore, a thriving tourist industry suggests a functional government that is structurally cohesive.

Moreover, tourism depends on security and certainty, but we can’t talk about both here. Nothing is certain here. Nothing is secure here either. I am not talking about security in the sense that the country is not secure in terms of war or civil unrest. No. I am talking about the guarantee to provide services (water security, electricity security, ferry security, hovercraft security, health security, environmental security, for example) and the obligation to perform duties that maintain such. Additionally, tourism survives on promptness, but here we have endless delays and at times outright immobility and inertia.

Our culture should be the transformative force behind a resurgent tourist industry. Tourists are interested, among other quests, in the indigenous cultures in the countries they visit. But this country defies its own cultural richness because it is fast surrendering its vibrant cultural heritage to the cheap imitation of Western culture. This has resulted in the clumsy culture we see everywhere in the country. And no tourists are going to come here only to come see a pale and anemic imitation of their own culture. Even the National Dance Troupe, that iconic institution of our cultural diversity and richness, is exhausted, and seems to be out of imagination and creativity because of neglect and lack of support.

Moreover, our hygiene, or lack of it, is also incompatible with tourism. To put it bluntly, our hygiene is bad, particularly in the Freetown vicinity. Basically, Freetown smells because of poor, and even non-existent, public sanitary conditions. Our unawareness that a city of about two million people must have public toilets is absolutely stupefying. Imagine a tourist in the heart of Freetown wanting to use a toilet! Furthermore, how can we attract tourists when we cannot stop what this paper constantly refers to as the “Poo-Poo[ing] and Wee-Wee[ing] in the middle of the streets” of the city. (This is the common sight of seeing people publicly defecating and peeing on any given day in Freetown.)

In many ways, poo-pooing and wee-weeing helter-skelter in the capital city is symptomatic of how Sierra Leone defies the tenets of human development and progress. Not surprising, therefore, that we are ranked the last nation in the world vy the United Nations. Perhaps the greatest harm done to us, and any pretenses we may have of remaking the tourist industry, is this categorization. The UN Human Development Index does not put us in a favorable light, and it does not sell us to potential tourists. What does this classification mean for us as a nation? Since we are a religious (or pretend to be) people let me make this analogy: If human progress is towards heaven and human retrogress is towards hell, then we are in the latter. In other words, we are the first (and probably the only) nation in hell. This means that if other nations are making progress, we have decided to go the opposite way. The illusion that tourists are going to come to a figurative hell or where things are looking backward instead of forward is a hard sell.

Such a beautiful country made this ugly by a people so unimaginative! We have not been generous with our imagination; neither have we been with the natural things we have. Not that we are not a talented people, but our talents are pathetically misdirected. And Freetown is a microcosm of that reality. That we have transformed such a scenic city into an insolently ugly sight is a remarkable achievement. That we have done so, and on this scale, demonstrates our astounding stupidity. The city looks like a ramshackle slum. Its mangy dogs, dark, mazelike streets and driveways, and punitive traffic system make Freetown unenchanting and take away any pleasure tourists would be looking for. Freetown is crumbled, filthy, and noisy. The city discourages outdoor activities, the bread and butter of a tourist’s itinerary.

Tourism is like oxygen; tourists travel to breathe again. But Freetown is suffocating. Tourism is about seduction, but this place is dizzying (we have alluringly seductive and beautiful beaches which we continue to destroy in multiple ways); tourists need to be enthralled and pampered, but our culture is sedating. Tourism is exhibition; that is why tourism is remarkable for marketing, or exploring, the ways others see us. Tourism is about images, beautiful, glossy ones. Tourists are browsers, but what is there for them to browse here when we don’t maintain the beautiful structures we have? Tourists look for charisma and charm, but these are in short supply here. This is not to take away from the hospitality that we are known for. Simply tourists are pleasure and leisure seeking people. That is why tourists are dreamers. In fact tourism is inseparable from dreaming and fantasy. But in Sierra Leone we are dismissive of dreams, and the reason things here are extremely dull and desperately depressing. We have dreamy, beautiful, beaches that kiss the sunlight at sunset but we have sacrificed them to commerce.

Tourists don’t go to a place to have their psyches scarred or their dreams blighted. Tourists look for the spectacular, but Sierra Leone will offer them the dispiriting aspects of what they seek. . . .