Rediscovering Sierra Leone: ecotourism blooms in West Africa.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Sierra Leone is better known for blood diamonds than beach resorts, but this is changing. Ten years on from its brutal civil war, the small West African country has started rebuilding its tourism industry.
In the 1970s and '80s tourists flocked to high-class beach resorts along Sierra Leone's Western Peninsula. Now the tourism industry is being rebuilt from the bottom up with ecotourism.
"We are not trying to oversell Sierra Leone because most attractions are not that well developed," says Umaru Woody, an ecotourism expert from Sierra Leone's National Tourist Board. "We have huge potential but we need to take our time."
Sierra Leone boasts some of the best beaches in West Africa, many within easy reach of the capital Freetown. One new tourist development has taken advantage of John Obey beach, named after a shipwrecked slave trader, to start Sierra Leone's first eco village.
Called Tribe Wanted (tribewanted.com), the development is a spin-off of a similar resort in Fiji. The experience they offer is a cross between a relaxing beach holiday and volunteering. Tourists are encouraged--but not required--to get involved with community life, including cooking, market shopping and building. Part of guests' pay funds community development in the neighboring fishing village. The resort runs entirely oft solar power, most of the food is locally sourced or grown, there are compost toilets and bucket showers. And Tribe Wanted's domed lodges are built using sand bags.
Cofounder Filiopo Bozotti hopes a stay at Tribe Wanted changes guests' behavior in the long term. He says: "The goal is for people to take this back with them. We use 5% of the water an average person in the U.S. uses. And 5% of the electricity. Yet we live comfortably."
Chimps in the Wild
Above Tribe Wanted in the forested hills of the Western Peninsula is Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (tacugama.com) founded in 1995 to protect orphaned or abandoned chimps. Staying in one of the roundhouses or the incredibly romantic treehouse you can listen to the river, the songs of birds and the howls of chimps all from the safety of your mosquito net. Electricity is provided by solar power and guests are encouraged to save water. Included in the price of the stay is a tour of the sanctuary.
Anita McKenna, Tacugama's fundraising manager, says: "We wanted to keep the tranquility. This is not a zoo, we are not trying to get millions of people through--we are trying to educate people."
The money generated by the lodges covers 30% of the sanctuary's running costs. Tacugama does not just care for orphaned chimps--their main focus is preventing people from killing the animals for bush meat. This is done through education, law enforcement and by providing alternative livelihood options.
Chimpanzees and other primates can be seen in the wild at Tiwai Island in Sierra Leone's Moa River. The island is also home to the exceptionally rare pygmy hippo, although the nocturnal animal is very hard to spot. The Environmental Foundation for Africa (efasl.org.uk) conserves the island for research and ecotourism. Visitors can stay in the campsite and knowledgeable guides lead walks along forest trails.
Protecting Africa with Ecotourism
Sierra Leone desperately needs to make money from its natural resources whether these are iron ore, diamonds, timber or spectacular scenery and wildlife.
"Responsible tourism is a long-term solution," says Thomas Armitt, founder of West Africa Discovery (westafricadiscovery.co.uk). "I am talking about a 50- to 100-year plan."
Abimbola Carrol of Visit Sierra Leone (visitsierraleone.org) agrees that the industry must develop sustainably. "We don't want mass market tourism;' he says. "It does not translate into high income and could damage the tourism assets. Ecotourism is low numbers and you can charge a premium. The challenge is just getting people to think that way."
LYNN MORRIS is a reporter and video journalist living in London and one of the founders of Atlantic Rising (atlantic rising.org).