By Sayoh Kamara
Sierra Leone’s Tourism Industry appears to be on a new development trajectory under the Government of President Julius Maada Bio. It is considered as one of the drivers of change in the country’s emerging economy. This is enunciated in the Government’s party ‘New Direction’ Manifesto. This is against the backdrop of Sierra Leone’s high potentials in tourism development, with her pristine and high quality beaches stretching over 350km, hills which are composed of diverse flora and fauna and an impressive wildlife, a rich history as a haven for freed slaves, navigable rivers and waterways suitable for sea travel, a friendly people and a pleasant weather, etc.
The sector is faced with some challenges. Most of these potentials remain insufficiently explored and untapped by both governments and the private sector. Essentially, Sierra Leone over the years has not taken advantage of the potential revenue source.
A number of issues are said to be responsible for our less than impressive performance in the tourism industry. A number of issues have been identified as challenges to the development and growth of the sector, notable amongst which are the inadequate government investment in terms of budgetary allocations to the sector, inadequate foreign direct investment to the sector and weak policy and regulatory framework. Despite these and other challenges, Sierra Leone managed to record some positive strides in terms of arrival records and related revenue generation. In 2013, arrivals to Sierra Leone were 81,000, an increase from 32,000 in 2007. However, tourist arrivals accounted for a mere 10% of this figure.
Tourism Minister Memunatu Pratt came into the Ministry with a wealth of knowledge as to how to approach the myriad challenges, stating in one of her maiden press statements, she has read, seen and explored touristic sites far away from home; and has come to realize the significance of tourism in a nation’s economy.
The Government has backed her vision with some resources. In Chapter 46 of the 2018 Budget Speech, Government committed to encourage activities that will promote domestic tourism including popularizing local tourism and assured support through existing arrangements aimed at enhancing the creative industry, support to tourism product development, tourism infrastructure, and tourism marketing, with the hope that these will enhance the sector’s contribution to employment and wealth creation.
Government allocated Le 5.5 billion to Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs and Le 6.3 billion to the National Tourist Board, including Le 728 million for tourism marketing strategy and Le 2.0 billion from the domestic capital budget for the Lumley Beach Development Project and the Peninsular Beaches Development project. Government also allocated Le 2.1 billion to the Monument and Relics Commission from the recurrent budget and Le1.8 billion from the domestic capital budget. This is considered as “a quantum leap” in revenue allocation to a sector that is largely considered as critical to the rebranding of the country’s image and a steady earning source of foreign exchange.
To make a difference, the line ministry has kicked off an “Adopt-a-Booth” project that is encourages small-scale entrepreneurs at Lumley Beach and other beaches along the coastline to adopt and develop entertainment booths. The project aims to provide business opportunities for small-scale investments as well as employment for middle-level trained Sierra Leonean youth.
Additionally, the sector needs to be moved from being an entertainment domain to a multi-faceted sector that is all encompassing. For Minister Pratt, “We need to make the world understand that Sierra Leone is moving on and that the eras of blood diamonds, Ebola and mudslide are behind us as a nation.”
These unfortunate catastrophes have only reinvigorated the government and people to make the country an ideal tourist destination. The Tourism Ministry in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Communications has set up a robust E-Tourism information system through the country’s existing telecommunications companies as a pathway to inform the world about Sierra Leone’s re-emergence as a suitable tourist destination. The information system will carry positive details about the country’s hotel facilities, touristic sites and entertainment.
Preserving the country’s environment and heritage sites is essential not only for the travel and tourism sector but also because it provides a sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing world for future generations. In preserving our heritage, we preserve our identity.
Uncontrolled and unconventional use of our environment would pose potential threats to the country’s natural ecosystem. The environment has an intrinsic value as a touristic asset. With tourism as one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic diversification and the commitment shown by government through its increased budgetary allocation, Sierra Leone is on the right path for economic rebirth.
An increase in number of tourist visiting the country may be a double-edged sword in terms of its impact on the socio-economic development of the country. Despite this, the tourism sector stands as a potential socio-economic engine which if well supported, planned and coordinated can help ameliorate the economic outlook of the country.