AirFrance is indefinitely suspending its flights to and from the country in October this year. This suspension is a blow to the nation’s aspirations of becoming a regional aviation hub. The decision, attributed to low traffic volume and high fees, poses significant challenges to both the nation’s economy and its prospects for tourism.
Just a few months prior, in March 2023, Sierra Leone celebrated a remarkable achievement – the inauguration of a state-of-the-art terminal at Freetown International Airport. Covering an impressive 14,000 m² area with a striking wavelike roof design, the terminal symbolized the country’s determination to position itself as a pivotal player in West African aviation. With a capacity to handle up to 90,000 passengers per month and accommodate eight widebody jets simultaneously, the new terminal promised a seamless travel experience for passengers and an attractive opportunity for airlines looking to expand in the region. This development led us to anticipate more flights, not fewer.
We were wrong. With the suspension of AirFrance, Sierra Leone is now left with only five major airlines serving the country, namely Turkish Airlines, SN Brussels, Kenya Airways, ASKY, and Air Maroc. This reduction in air carriers is detrimental to businesses and the nation as a whole, and it is projected to result in a substantial loss of revenue.
Before AirFrance’s suspension, many passengers were already exploring alternative travel options, such as road or boat travel to Guinea and then flying from Conakry, where airfares might be more competitive. The loss of AirFrance flights will exacerbate this issue and risks further dwindling passenger numbers.
As highlighted by Umaru Fofana, Sierra Leone must urgently rethink its tax policies to address the challenges faced by the aviation industry. Presently, passengers pay higher fares to travel to Sierra Leone compared to other destinations in West African. This dissuades potential travelers, especially members of the Sierra Leonean Diaspora, who make substantial investments in the country, from coming back home. Umaru’s suggestion to review the tax structure and additional charges at the airport is well-founded and requires immediate attention from the authorities.
The exorbitant cost of air travel also hampers Sierra Leone’s potential as a tourism destination. Revisiting the country’s economic and tourist policies is crucial to avoid short-sighted decisions that may result in significant long-term consequences. The present high costs deter international tourists from exploring Sierra Leone’s natural beauty and rich cultural heritage.
The suspension of AirFrance flights should serve as a wake-up call for Sierra Leone. While the opening of the state-of-the-art terminal marked a significant milestone, sustaining and expanding the aviation sector requires a comprehensive and strategic approach. Collaborating with airlines, revising tax policies, and enhancing promotional efforts to attract tourists are essential steps for Sierra Leone to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a thriving aviation hub and tourist destination in West Africa.
Through proactive measures, we can rise above the current challenges and showcase our country as a shining gem in the realm of African aviation and tourism. Let’s seize this opportunity and reform.