After a friend of mine reminded me of how much Visit Sierra Leone had done over the last six years – whether I realised it or not - I was forced to go back into the archives and find a document called inspiration.doc. If you remember this document, it means you have been there since day one! The first couple of paragraphs read:
“When was the last time you heard Sierra Leone mentioned in a sentence without being followed by one or more
of the following words: donated, aids, war, war child, war-torn, prostitution, rebels, amputees, corruption, poverty, rebel, RUF, child soldiers? Whilst these may be perfectly valid in the context in which they are used, anyone who’s been to Sierra Leone will know there are many other sides to the country.
Not enough is said about the natural beauty of the country, its people, and what it may have to offer to the world at large. This has been the inspiration behind the development of www.visitsierraleone.org . This website aims to promote those aspects of Sierra Leone which makes it a tourist destination for the adventurous traveller. The intention is not only to target non-Sierra Leoneans but also Sierra Leoneans scattered across all continents.”
Or course, the site looked different then and I have been looking for a screenshot but unfortunately, I didn’t keep any. I did however find the original logo which I cooked up myself one evening.
This document was sent out in July 2004 and was effectively the ‘launch’ of VSL – there was never an official launch with balloons and champagne – and it explains why VSL has remained a passion. At the time, I was a pretend nerd working in the IT department for the charity SCOPE. Now I’ve moved back to Freetown and dedicated full-time to VSL and its sister business, VSL Property, and my only regret are the internet speeds, which were much better at SCOPE in 2004 than in Freetown in 2010!
As always, one is thankful to the assistance provided by friends and family over that time, and I guess birthdays are the time to look back and reflect as well as plan for the future.
At six, VSL has changed. A lot. So many things have happened in that time. We still deal with all manner of inquiries relating to Sierra Leone, one of my personal favourites being “Can you tell me more about the poro society and how do I become a member?”… or one that came through last week “i need a sierra leone passport will that be possible even if it will cost me 500us,thanks”. Er, no. We continue to provide free advice through the forum and continue to be driven by the central goal of “rebranding Sierra Leone”, which was our catalyst in 2004 and continues to drive us today.
But from an information-based website with a single person at the helm in 2004, we are now an Inbound Tour Operator/Travel Services company with staff of six (up from one in 2008).
As recently as 2008, you’d have been hard pressed to find an operator running scheduled tours to Sierra Leone (not those organising one-off trips for adventure seekers). In 2010, we are proud to represent three UK-based operators now including Sierra Leone in their brochures, with another few from Europe in the pipeline.
We’re proud to have received acclaim from industry leaders such as Bradt Guide and the Lonely Planet.
Bradt Travel Guide for Sierra Leone: Visit Sierra Leone has single handedly done more to promote
awareness of Sierra Leone as a tourist destination than anyone else."
Lonely Planet West Africa Guide said of our forum community “Tons of travel advice and an active discussion
forum where, no matter how obscure your inquiry, someone will probably have an answer”.
Of course, I cannot talk about VSL without mentioning our forum community, who have been quite supportive over the years. It’s a blessing that relationships, both business and personal, have been formed on that platform and will hopefully stand the test of time. Perhaps one of the best things is how many of our active participants have actually relocated back to Sierra Leone. Mah-D, Fisherman, Saloneboy, DCGunner, Nasratha, Sabawaka, Joyah Bobor, DarkChild and others…we’re still waiting on you Cool-runnins!
As a small but ambitious company, our emphasis is now on serving clients to the best of our ability and with a passion for sustainable tourism development, we also provide valuable services to corporate clients and groups, both before and during their stay. We want them to leave with positive experiences and fair recommendations that Sierra Leone is worth a visit.
Among the highlights of this work was the chance to provide travel and ground handling services to South Africa’s Bafana Bafana and the Equatorial Guinea national team (our office staff are footie fanatics) but it has also been fun to learn about the positive work that many of our clients do. One example is the group at Mape Project, who we have been providing some logistical support to. Their vision for tourism development is astounding and you can find out more about their work at www.themapeproject.com.
On the development side, learning of the work that Madieu Williams, the Sierra Leonean born American football safety player for the Minnesota Vikings does through the Madieu Williams Foundation with a joint partnership with the Healing Hands Foundation in the field of Health and Education was inspiring.
A few months ago while we were in Berlin for the Travel Fair and were able to get some tour operators interested in Sierra Leone as a possible destination and just a few weeks ago, we worked with the National Tourist Board (SL) and Exodus Travel (UK Operator) in bringing four journalists from The Metro, Times Online, The Independent and The Press Association to Sierra Leone for a press trip. The first of those articles is out and we are proud to say that Exodus will start advertising their trips here for January 2011. See Metro Article.
Six years later, in our own little way - we’re still trying. Just imagine where we might be, with your help, six years from now.