Blessed with one of the world’s largest natural harbours at its capital, Sierra Leone a go-to destination for its alluring mix of nature and culture.
In 1462 Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra became the first European to sight and map Freetown harbour. In awe of the terrain surrounding what he had discovered, Sintra coined the name Serra Lyoa, Portuguese for lion mountains and a name which has stuck to this day. The country is recovering from a decade-long civil war which ended just after the turn of the millennium, the years since seeing a growth in the nation’s tourism sector either side of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.
And it is easy to see why. Sierra Leone is dubbed West Africa’s secret beach destination, while the Loma Mountains and slew of national parks and nature reserves in the east make this a destination for outdoor lovers – indeed, it is one of few homes to endangered species such as the pygmy hippo. The country’s 7.7 million population is made up of an extraordinary diversity of ethnic groups and cultures, another draw for visitors looking to embrace themselves in the varied traditions and customs. Sierra Leoneans are also known for their love of music, which is part of the fabric of everyday life.
THE BUSINESS END
Sierra Leone’s recent economic story is one of extreme ups and downs. Between 2003 and 2014 GDP grew by an average of 7.8 percent but plunged 21 percent in 2015 following the devastating outbreak of Ebola. Growth rebounded to 6.4 percent in 2016 and has been in positive figures since, registering respective rates of 3.8 percent and 3.7 percent in 2017 and 2018.
Much of Sierra Leone’s workforce is engaged in agricultural activity, which along with mining form the backbone of the country’s economy. The nation is rich in minerals, including diamonds, gold, bauxite, rutile and iron ore. The same pattern of growth and decline can be applied to Sierra Leone’s tourist industry, especially when looking at arrival numbers. The few years leading up to 2014 saw visitor levels more than double from 39,000 in 2010 to 81,000 in 2013.
While this height has not been reached since, arrivals are showing signs of recovery, with 2017’s figure of 51,000 markedly above the 24,000 seen just two years previously. It is very much hoped that the growth trend seen pre-2014 will return, making tourism an important economic contributor to Sierra Leone’s future development.
TOURISM INSIGHTS: THE NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD
The National Tourist Board (NTB) of Sierra Leone was setup as a semi-autonomous body through the enactment of the Tourism Development Act 1990. Today, the organisation operates with the mandate to promote and develop all aspects of tourism in Sierra Leone, its activities including the implementation of government tourism policies; developing and promoting sustainable tourism; facilitating private investment in the tourism industry; and classification, registration and licencing of all tourist establishments in Sierra Leone. Lucy Kay, Marketing Manager for NTB, took time out to answer our questions.
Q&A WITH LUCY KAY, MARKETING MANAGER, NTB
Outlook Travel: Since inception, how has the National Tourist Board developed and progressed in terms of its key objectives and the messages it tries to get across?
Lucy Kay (LK): Over the years, the National Tourist Board had thrived through it all. The Lumley Beach Development Project has been partly implemented and there is still room for more improvements and development. The marketing and promotion of the destination is still ongoing, and we are even exploring new markets every year. As stated on the Manifesto of the New Direction, the tourism industry has been given a chance to be one of the leading sectors after agriculture and fisheries. The messages are very positive as interest in the sector is on the rise.
How would you say Sierra Leone has developed in recent years as a business travel hub and what are the key reasons behind its growing appeal?
(LK): Business travel is on the rise, evidenced by the fact that the statistics of arrivals into the country for business – travel by air, land and sea is increasing. The border point by road is open and visas can be attained on arrival. For air travel, the purpose of travel for business since 2016 to date has increased drastically.
Why, in your opinion, should someone visit Sierra Leone?
(LK): Sierra Leone is definitely an ideal place to visit because it is a winter sun destination. It is approximately six hours away from Europe, we experience blue skies with no rain at all for almost six months of the year, and the people are warm and friendly and are always ready and willing to help strangers. In terms of the nature and beauty of the landscape, the country has abundant wildlife, flora and fauna, lush vegetation, and a 400-kilometre stretch of beautiful coastlines, as well as rich cultural heritage. I can say Sierra Leone has it all, and it’s definitely the ideal place to visit.
Are there any specific attractions, landmarks or places to eat and drink that you would recommend?
(LK): There are a series of attractive places to visit in Sierra Leone, it all depends on what you want to see and do. If you love to see a bit of wildlife whilst in the city, you can visit the Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary, and the River No. 2 Forest Reserve also offers you a bit of bird watching. Tiwai Island further south is also a place to visit. If you are a lover of the sea, you can immerse yourself in some scuba diving, snorkelling and fishing with a visit to Banana Island. If you are a lover of surfing, Sierra Leone’s biggest secret is Bureh Town Beach – the waves are gorgeous. For cultural and historic trips, the ruins of Bunce Islands, the Cotton Tree in Freetown city centre and the National Museum are places you should go and research for all information about the Atlantic Slave Trade. Local dishes and the Star beer (Salone brewed) can be found in almost all the local bars and restaurants. For fine dining, most of the top hotels offer those services.
What are the best ways of getting around the country?
(LK): There are several ways to get around the country, but a popular way is by taxis – either you charter for yourself or you join others to get to your destination. The ‘Keke’ is another popular way of going around the cities. Motorbikes, commonly called ‘Okada’, is another quicker way to get to non-motorable destinations around the country.
What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Sierra Leone at present? How are you responding to these trends?
(LK): Social media is one trend that the tourism industry in Sierra Leone is using to promote the beauty of the country. Sierra Leone is also using more of WhatsApp to pass on information easily. Photos are mostly used to communicate to the locals and in recent years, more people are trooping to popular places along the Lumley Beach end of Freetown, for instance, to have fun or just to relax. All of our programmes and events are sent out on WhatsApp groups, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for quicker responses and feedback.
How do you see Sierra Leone developing as a business travel hub over the next year to two years?
(LK): Sierra Leone is developing very fast and in the coming years more and more infrastructure will be available across the country. New hotels are coming up, and activities that are more social are popping up as well – very soon the Cultural and Entertainment Commission under the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs will kick start operations. A new cultural village will be opened and, of course, more activities will be available.
Are there any plans or projects in the pipeline that you wish to highlight?
(LK): Under the New Direction and the leadership of the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, there are plans to have visa on arrival at every border crossing point. Plans are also in place to reduce taxes at Sierra Leone airports so that the cost of air tickets to Sierra Leone are reduced.
Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Sierra Leone?
(LK): Yes, I am very optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Sierra Leone. I can feel it in the atmosphere that this is the time for tourism. Let us give tourism a chance in our country.
FREETOWN IN FOCUS
Boasting one of the largest natural harbours in the world, Freetown is Sierra Leone’s capital and largest city. Its deep-water docking facilities at the Queen Elizabeth II Quay form an important export hub for products such as palm oil and kernels, cocoa, coffee, ginger, and kola nuts, while the city is also the country’s major transport centre. Freetown’s former name derives itself from somewhat distressing roots. The local name before European settlers arrived was Romarong, or place of the wailers, because of the sound of screaming people who were after caught up in storm surges and cross current accidents at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River.
Today the city is awash with colourful markets and enticing streets packed with charm and delicious food and drink options. Freetown is also home to an increasing number of well-rated hotels and accommodation choices offering various levels of service and facilities. The wider peninsula surrounding Freetown is the poster child for Sierra Leone’s tourist industry. From white beaches surrounding a picturesque lagoon to the forest-clad mountains behind, there is much to see in a relatively small area. Further afield, the Banana Islands offer a perfect escape and ample opportunities to snorkel, fish, and relax.
Featuring 171 rooms, Radisson Blu Sierra Leone in Freetown is the place to stay for coastal views. It is adjacent to Lumley Beach, one of Sierra Leone’s best-known beaches and a great place to swim, relax, and fish.
Based in Freetown, Hotel Cabenda lies around three miles for the Sierra Leone National Museum. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, garden, bar and shared longue, with all rooms fitted with air conditioning and a private bathroom.
Billed as Sierra Leone’s premier beach resort, The Place Resort at Tokeh Beach is the ideal retreat offering luxurious suites and a beach-side restaurant. The site also houses a conference centre to meet the needs of business users.
Shine On Sierra Leone funds and develops vital social projects across the country, focussing in particular on education and healthcare initiatives. The organisation began in 2006 and is the inspiration of founder Tiffany Persons.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
All international flights land at Freetown’s Lungi International Airport, which is served by a few European airlines such as Brussels Airlines and KLM. Visitors from London generally have to travel via Casablanca, while Air France flies from Paris via Abidjan. The other way of getting into Sierra Leone is by road through land borders with Guinea and Liberia, which can be crossed by public bus or private vehicles.
Once in the country, road and waterways are the only way to get around, for there is no domestic air coverage and rail transport ceased in the 1970s. Boats known as pam-pahs operate between several towns, while minibus services link most major cities. The compact size of Sierra Leone makes cycling a viable option, although it is advised that major tarmacked roads are avoided due to risk of accidents. Car hire is another avenue, although this can be expensive especially when travelling north as driver expenses can tally up – however, there are several reputed companies operating such services which are recommended by tourist boards. In Freetown, taxis can be hired at reasonable rates which can usually be negotiated prior to travel.