By Fayia Sellu - Dec 2019
The beaches are a fantastic chance to get it right. The good hing about Sierra Leone emerging to the game a little bit later than other parts of Africa can be that they can learn from what others did wrong. And we could end up being with a beautifully-managed and eco-sensitive tourist area. Just as good as this but earning a living...bringing income for the country for years to come.” --Derek Moore. He heads the world’s pre-eminent venture travel company, Explore Worldwide Ltd. It was occasioned by a DFID sponsored documentary by Visit Sierra Leone.
The Minister of Tourism and Culture, Memunatu Pratt, has said that the tourism sector is going to be at the fore of the rebranding of the country’s image on the world stage, adding: “We are not only open for business, we are in business.” Sierra Leone can definitely be destination numero uno of tourism joints in Africa. Nature has underwritten it. The citizenry and the nation’s leaders can be helpful, doing the needful to materialize the aspirations, actualize them in a manner that is thoroughly eco-sensitive: Sustainable tourism. To achieve this lofty end, we have to build a formidable architecture which streamlines all the relevant MDAs, roll out medium to long-term pragmatic projects that are grounded in a solid foundation based on our current hospitality sector capacity and map out specific areas for potential growth and development. By this, we don’t mean a broad outline by way of policy or a mani-festo-like document spelling out intent. What is needed is a formulation of something in the order of the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) indicating actual benchmarked programs with actional and implementary dimensions. We can’t afford to make it as we go along.
"Whether you are into scuba diving, sport tourism generally, kayaking...boating, or heritage tourism, Bonthe is your number.."
Eco-tourism in particular (which is vogue currently, and will be for the foreseeable future) requires of us fundamental shifts in attitudes and a pivoting away from hitherto known local industries that will be anathema to its flourishing. There are the sand miners, loggers for timber, firewood and charcoal, all at industrial scale. The challenge is to, as far as possible, maintain vegetation and ecolo-gies that least affected by these industries. Also, reorient where necessary to other industries, the participants in such depletive industries, offering alternative livelihoods, while earnestly cultivat-ing into the general population the efficacy of using less of the fuels that destroy the habitat. We should move toward more reusable and sustainable fuels to power domestic needs. Planting trees should be made an act of reflex. And of course, the government must outlaw any exploitation of our forest reserves and implement such diktats, stringently. There should be a zero-tolerance policy (balanced with equally robust and humane policy for compatriots that would be transitioned into other forms of livelihood) and a ton of urgency in these vegetation enhancement projects, not just for tourism, but for the public good. We have seen the consequences visited on mudslide victims fairly recently.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture has to work in concert with the line ministries of Agriculture, Forestry and the Environment, Trade and the Environmental Protection Agency among others to deliver a holistic, big picture, and all-embracing approach for the huge task of making Sierra Leone march, surpass, its marketing moniker: The Gem of Africa. President Bio was asked why he made his vacation a working one when he visited Kenya. His answer? He was trying to see what Kenya is doing right in the areas of conservation and tourism for importation of their technologies to our own endeavors, accordingly. Like Moore notes above, if we are to end up with a bad or mediocre outcome for our tourism sector, it will be doubly unfor-givable, because we have the benefit of studying from what others, in Africa particularly, have done, right and wrong. It would be entirely disingenuous to say Sierra Leone is a novice in the workings of the sector or have not had a bite of the tourism apple before. Before the war snatched it away, we had sunk our teeth in the apple as much as to have, at peak season, by 1990, some 28,000 tourists come annu-ally, netting 14.5 million dollars in revenue. After a scuttling down memory lane, some of it registers: One remembers the boost to both formal and informal sectors of the economy. While it cannot be said that it started it, but that little boom certainly made formidable the black market for foreign exchange.Local arts and craft, jewelry on to plain old “good time” had a good market for hustlers in the informal sector. There is still vivid memory about the boom in evidence of places like, Lakka, Africana Tokeh Village; there was Yazbeck Tours, others, and a surge (even start) in business for hotels, motels, beach and regular bars and restaurants, the whole hospitality industry!
Now it gets to the fun part: Talking about the goodies Salone has to offer the global ecosystem of tourism destinations. The Director of Tourism, Mohamed Jalloh notes that we “have a lot of cultural and natural resources, but our prime touristic resource bank is the coast-al area, we have 400 kilometers beach stretch.” A lot, countrywide. Jalloh urged that travel to the country be made “seamless.” To which end the government has now implemented visa on arrival for many countries. And for your pains, you will encounter some of the most pristine, white-sand beaches, anywhere, complete with palms, flora and fauna. From the Lumley Beach, and while you take a dip, play soccer, frolic in the sand or just catching a bite or drink at one of its many beach bars, there is the breath-taking view of the mountain range, highlands, close-by, watching over the sea.
Further, westward, there is Bureh Beach, which is a surfer’s dream, only buried in garnishing nature and No. 2 River, perfect for swim-ming, where the river is locked in a warm and caressing embrace with the sea. The result is a pristine lagoon that’s a bite of paradise. There is John Obey beach and a slew of others on the peninsula stretch, each unique in its offerings. Maybe you are curious about the history of the slave trade in Africa, but have only heard about Goree Island or Elmina Castle. Just an hour away from Freetown, is Bunce Island, where you get to see the remains of one of the oldest slave forts in Africa. Or, say, you are interested in getting a feel of the the pre-and-post colonial, side-by-side, in the present, you will adore Sherbro Island just a couple of hours away, with its main township, Bonthe, which bears the scars and ornaments of many an era, with arms wide open to embrace the future. Whether you are into scuba diving, sport tourism generally, kayaking...boating, or heritage tourism, Bonthe is your number. To its west, there are Turtle Islands, which are seven (some say eight) islands forming what is an archi-pelago with delightfully warm waters and palms strewn about. You got that one right: there are turtles who come along for a swim too. From the ecological flank, there is the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanc-tuary, which has the likes of Jane Goodall among its ardent patrons just 30 minutes from the capital. There is Tiwai Wildlife Sanctuary in the South and the Gola Rainforest that stretches deep into the Eastern Province.
Lake Sonfon located in Koinadugu district, nestled smack in the hills of Sula Mountains, and in the same district, you have the Wara Wara mountains that already has pilgrims, Sierra Leoneans, who flock their every New Year’s Day to behold the exquisite craft of nature and make their wishes for the new year. Speaking of which, Sierra Leone is the best place to be in the Winter Sun season from November to February, when Europe cold is biting! First off, nature itself gives a nod before, during and after the yuletide season. The rains would have stopped and you don’t have the scorching, humid weather either. The cool harmattan breeze blowing south from the Sahara primes the sunshine beyond bearable, to comfortable, confecting a feel like early summer in California or Florida, gorgeous weather! And it is too good and also true that the local love foreigners/strangers, even locally, but especially if they are internationals. As a kid, one would always pray for strangers to come live with us, the only way the best of our husband-ry ever gets to the pot. While locals await to baptize you with joviality and especial Salone hospitality, be warned that this is the most festive of seasons; a time to just soak in the perpetual
atmosphere. It is so serious, many vacation from the eve of Christmas up until a couple days into the new year.
Finally, from the culture and heritage end of things, what’s to report begs a clarion call, not just plain flouting of the goodies. Ours is a very rich and diverse culture, in its artefacts, products and performativity. What has been lacking over the years, is adequate nurturing, harness-ing, proper packaging and marketing of our own cultural products and artefacts. Sad to report that in most cases, there has been neglect in the many industries that produce culture, and despair rages the producers in the backwaters of our society. It is bad enough that lack of institutional support eats away at the abundant potential in the culture and heritage sector, but it goes beyond that. Current issue carries a story of Usifu Jalloh (Cow Foot Prince) lamenting the dying of just one (but a very crucial one, given that ours is an oral tradition) area, an art--storytelling. Yours truly grew up on the staple of Brer Spider, Brer Rabbit, Kasillah...while we watched Bollywood, Hollywood movies, Tabule, Kailondo, Bai Bureh Theatre plays...all of it enriched my childhood. In the Age of Digital Capitalism and social media, our culture and heritage are not been passed down to the next generation the one surefire way: orally. Cow Foot Prince says people will not be leaving other countries to come to Sierra Leone to come and listen to the sonorous voice-effect-laden Nigerian songs blasting from speakers at every turn. Our Award-winning Filmmaker, Sorious Samura, has said that in the 80s we were doing wonders with theatre plays, but did not transition to films. The Nigerians did. Look how much of their culture we consume daily! Sierra Leone has to do a lot for our culture and heritage to be marketable to foreigners, pronto!