During my stay in London I paid a visit to a Rainbow Tours, tour operator who have been our partners since 2009. They were probably the first operator to fully commit to marketing the Sierra Leone product, post conflict. Post-ebola, they have made enquiries but bookings are yet to come, so I thought it would be a good idea for a catch up.
It was weird. As I sat there talking to the guys at Rainbow, I had an epiphany of sorts. I updated them on the improvements on the road infrastructure, and the wide range of accommodation options now available. International chains like the Radisson Blu, Swiss Spirits and recently the Golden Tulip all now operating in the country. The improvement of quantity and quality of accommodation in the provinces – a serious issue eight years ago. Wusum (Makeni), Luawa (Kenema and Kailahun), Diamond Lodge (Kono), Ericson (Kenema and Freetown), Rogbonko Village Resort (Magburuka), Stando Hotel (Kabala), The Pier (Banana Island). All Sierra Leonean owned, none existing seven or eight years ago.
Many would disagree (including myself on a bad day) but I think customer service is slowly improving. I think the more competition becomes intense the better customer service will become.
We talked about the Sierra Leonean economy, and I was honest. Shit is bad. Government appears bankrupt, mining companies have folded, the currency is losing value at an alarming rate, and opportunity to generate foreign exchange have been seriously hit.
Then it hit me, my epiphany. Why is the Sierra Leonean government not putting more weight behind tourism development? I mean, we have talked about all the potential benefits of tourism, but at no point since I got into the business have I felt so strongly that now is the time. The current state of the economy surely calls for diversification in terms of our focus, and tourism can help with little investment and fast returns.
Tourism has been chugging along, but political will and the creation of the enabling environment will allow for much faster development of the industry. We will not be starting from scratch, there are already players in the industry whose experience can be tapped into. The raw materials are all there. The beaches, eco-tourism, the history, the arts, the people, the knowledge. It’s all there. It just needs a push to get going.
I am under no illusions, it is not a perfect product, but it doesn’t have to be. Nothing is perfect at the start, but only by doing can we get much better at it.
What do you think is holding Sierra Leone’s tourism development back?