Sierra Leonean tourism & development: The chicken or the egg?

I recently returned from a trip to Sierra Leone with a class for my graduate program at Arcadia University. The class was titled "The Politics of Peace: Youth Development & Democracy in Sierra Leone." The trip was an enlightening and life-changing one. Not dissimilar to my experience on Birthright two years ago, it felt in many ways like a homecoming.

Some of my ancestors were stolen from western Africa, including what is today Sierra Leone, as part of the brutal Atlantic Slave Trade. The trip included meeting with students at Fourah Bay College in a conflict resolution program, eating delicious food, going to gorgeous beaches, and meeting with several NGOs and government ministers. One such visit included a meeting with members of the African Development Bank. Focused on eradicating poverty in Africa, the ADB does a lot of good work in terms of development, industrialization, and economic growth on the Mother Continent.

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Yet during the discussion, I couldn‘t help but notice the lack of comments on tourism in Sierra Leone, which has enormous after the 1991-2002 civil war. A massive tourism industry in the country could create jobs for unemployment, and the beautiful beaches, rainforests, mountains, and countryside would provide the perfect venues for resorts, hotels, and housing that could draw expats and potentially thousands of visitors each year. In other words, Sierra Leone would gain a lot of revenue for development and services while solving its unemployment problem.

When I questioned the members of the ADB present, they stated their current goal was to develop the country before focusing on tourism, thinking that more cleanliness, buildings, and money would draw foreigners into the area. Moreover, this would give them time to train people in hospitality before a tourism industry was more efficiently created. 

I can certainly see their point, but the response left me wondering: what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wouldn‘t it be more difficult to procure money for development and training programs without a vibrant tourism industry in the first place? Moreover, while developed tourist spots (Cancun and Dubai, for example) certainly grab a lot of attention, there‘s also an allure of more "wild" and obviously non-Western places (such as Costa Rica or Belize) that are also becoming more popular and are seen as more exotic and less "commercialized."

Costa Rica‘s beautiful coastline and mountainous rainforests, along with a volcanic landscape, are just as–if not more so–appealing than the developed beaches of Miami. Sierra Leone could draw similar, adventure-seeking tourists (particularly Millennials) to its country due to its similar landscape and the fact that few Americans (or Westerners in general) go to such a place for vacation.

There‘s something about being able to say you‘re among the first to go somewhere (as I can attest to with Cyprus among my family and friend group) that is attractive to young travelers. After hearing what the members of the ADB said, I can‘t help but think that their viewpoint of tourism (what makes for successful tourism, and who tourists are, in particular) is too shaped by a Western outlook.

Either they expect that Western tourists–perhaps seen as the most valuable tourists–will not come to a developing country, or that Sierra Leone‘s tourist areas must resemble developed Western vacation areas (such as southern California) to draw travelers and their money. There is indeed some merit to this argument, although I‘d say there is a middle ground to be reached. 

Sierra Leone has enormous potential for tourism. It‘s beaches, such as the famous River #2 Beach, are spectacular. The weather is tropical, with nice Atlantic breezes that help offset the worst heat and can allow for year-round visits to beaches. The country has beautiful mountains teeming with wildlife in the jungle, and with drier countryside in the interior.

There‘s also the controversial element of humanitarian/conflict tourism, in which some tourists may want to learn about the conflict in the country or engage in volunteering during their trip. While this can be uncomfortable for many, it is also, in a sense of realpolitik, bring money to a country that desperately needs it. Other than the flight, Sierra Leone is also a pretty affordable country (with good food to boot)–which will draw young tourists fresh out of college, graduate school, or simply needing an adventure and break from their tedious lives and work.

The African Development Bank should do more to increase some level of comfort in West African countries–such as Sierra Leone–to bring just enough tourists that can help revitalize the economy and create a strong tourism economy. By improving water cleanliness, power, and, yes, air conditioning, the hardiest (and often youngest) of travelers will make the trip, and spread the word via social media. This will draw even more tourists, and create enough jobs to help alleviate some issues with poverty and unemployment.

Eventually, likely after a decade or two, there should be enough revenue to pour into more development projects in Sierra Leone and the region more generally. This could allow for the tourism sector to grow and improve, but also allow enough money to proliferate that can improve education and infrastructure as well as help create/improve upon non-tourist sectors or potential for the economy.

With Freetown getting more money, this will also enable Sierra Leoneans to have the ability to rely on themselves more, and less on neo-imperialist countries like China, which often take advantage of developing countries and fail to deliver what they promise. One can only hope this hybrid approach is taken more seriously and promoted more by the Sierra Leonean government (and other regional governments) as well as different NGOs.

While having a tourism-dependent economy is never a good thing–especially with volunteerism or conflict tourism–it can help jumpstart national economies and alleviate some of the symptoms of poverty and unemployment that see developing countries continue to lag behind the "global north."
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