Western perceptions of African countries are shaped by the media focus on the events that take place within its borders. Let’s take the example of Sierra Leone which was ravaged by civil war for 11 years from 1991 to 2002. The stories of atrocity and bloodshed were given high coverage by the western media.
In 2006 Hollywood highlighted the plight of the people in Sierra Leone by making the film Blood Diamond. This told the story of diamonds mined in African war zones, sold to finance the civil war and in turn profiting the warlords and global diamond companies. With such high media coverage the image and reputation of Sierra Leone as a war-torn, dangerous country has stuck. Now seven years after the civil war has ended Sierra Leone wants to change that image for good, in order to show the world that the country is a totally different place today. It is safe, the people are friendly, and it is a perfect place to visit on holiday.
What better way to change peoples’ ideas about a destination by letting them see for themselves how the country is now, and they will go back home, tell their friends and share their experiences. After all, word of mouth has been proven as one of the most efficient marketing tools.
Sierra Leone is developing a number of Tourism projects, from traditional to Responsible, from beach to leisure, and adventure to discovery. As an emerging country it is also attracting investment from overseas, especially the USA and Europe. It is a dramatic change from the Sierra Leone of yesteryear.
Cecil Williams became head of the national tourist board in 1991, the year the war started, and watched as the number of visitors plummeted from close to 100,000 a year to almost zero. Now the number of arrivals has edged up to 4,000 a year, but most are visiting friends or family, or are more likely consultants than carefree holidaymakers.
“Tourism is still virgin here,” Mr Williams explains. “But there’s great enthusiasm and people are starting to come. We could have 10,000 tourism jobs in the next five to seven years but it depends on government support – at the moment we are grossly under-funded.” Another acolyte of tourism’s uphill struggle is Bimbola Carrol, 32, who left Sierra Leone in 1997 when Freetown was under fire. Just over a year ago he gave up a nine-to-five job in London to go back to his homeland to start up a tourism business.
“I always saw myself returning,” says Mr Carrol, who is one of an estimated 50,000 in the diaspora who have returned since the war ended. “It’s down to Sierra Leoneans to rebuild Sierra Leone. We have a responsibility to give back to our society.” Today he employs four people and runs the popular, information-packed Visit Sierra Leone website, which he started in 2004, as well as organising trip itineraries. “It was only two years after the end of the war and at that time no one was talking about tourism,” he says. “But I had a much longer-term view about it: Sierra Leone hasn’t received as much credit as it deserves.”
In the face of uncertainty there are people who have kept faith, and have carried on the beacon of hope by getting together and creating solutions to the problems that have come about. Those people are pushed forward by the love for their country, the history of their people, and the dream of a better future for all.
In this case, the creation of Tourism projects to boost the economies of the country and to let the world know that Sierra Leone, or ‘Salone’ as Sierra Leonean people affectionately call it, is no longer a place of unrest. According to the New Salone website it is: “a peaceful and tranquil place where you can find many-coloured beaches, swim-perfect seas and glorious rainforest-mountain backdrops. You can dine on fresh-grilled lobster and refresh yourself with a cool beer beside the ocean. You can discover the country’s threatened primates and rare exotic birdlife, or the region’s highest mountain.
Many are unaware that its capital is one of the safest cities in Africa and that people dance with a mesmerising lust for life until after dawn. Or that, despite the decade of war, the nation’s tenacity, affection and spirit is what really defines it.”
Slowly, tourists are trickling in to Sierra Leone to discover or re-discover a land which offers so much. It may take time to change the image of the country, but through the means of Tourism and positive marketing of the destination, the goal is in sight. The path may be long, but as a West African saying says; ‘the path is made by walking.’
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