Greetings from the World’s biggest Tourism/Travel Trade Fair (ITB, Berlin). Oh Sierra Leone, how I wish you were here!
Some may ask which tourism revival? Well, six years after VSL was started in 2004 we have definitely seen change in attitudes to Sierra Leone. Long way to go - I know – but there have been a lot of goodwill in the foreign press (and reputable ones too) about Sierra Leone’s tourism potential.
The Bradt guide to Sierra Leone was also a major plus for the industry – but I can’t help but feel that there is very little or no support coming from government to build on some of the goodwill from such publications. Whether it is a conscious strategy or not, I don’t know but as someone involved in the industry, I do not see what is being done to kick-start this industry. Actually, what is even more frustrating is that in some ways we have taken steps backwards.
Take the National Tourist Board for example. They have been able to do some proactive marketing, from some funds that were donated from the IF (Integrated fund) – they did promotional video, brochures, new Sierra Leone map and also the first training seminar for Tour Guides. All good. However, they have not been able to attend Tourism fairs such as the ITB in Berlin or WTM in London because of chronic lack of funding from the government. Or forget about tourism fairs – they now struggle to pay the staff of the NTB. As such, the staff morale that was the pre-2007 is all but gone. They used to levy a bed tax of 7.5% from which they keep the office running and are able to engage in on going marketing activities, which is within their mandate.
This revenue has been taken away from them and handed to the NRA. The tax has also gone from 7.5% to 15% in a couple of years. Money now goes to the NRA and as I understand it they struggle to get the necessary funding from the govt to keep their office running effectively. The NTB used to collect a lot of information from the hotels as part of this process, information which is of value to potential investors such as amount of beds and pattern of usage, occupancy etc. Of course, NRA isn’t interested in all of that stuff and it’s becoming difficult to get information (on an industry level) in order to make solid investment conclusions.
There is the airport, which is in need of a serious clean up. At every point during this trip, I was asked for money. From the point when I was dropped off by the Allied Marine shuttle, to the point I went through the final security check. How much does it cost to clean up Lungi Airport and get some sanity? Is Ministry of Tourism and that of Transport and Aviation working towards making this first point of contact a more pleasurable experience? I doubt it somewhat. The airport really ticks me off because it doesn’t require a lot of financial investment to get order.
Perhaps the destruction of the beach bars is perhaps the most decisive thing the ministry have done. They were clearing them to make way for lights and palm trees neither of which are present. In fact, rather worryingly is the increase of structures being put back on the beach. The latest, an extension of Roy’s restaurant is quite nice, but pushes the boundaries in terms of what is or isn’t a permanent structure. How long before the beach side is littered with structures again. A few weeks ago a group made of mainly of expats volunteered to clean up Lumley beach. How embarrassing. They walked the full length of the beach on one Sunday morning. The beach wardens and life guards that were part of an employment scheme have all disappeared.
There is the deforestation around the Charlotte Falls which is another of our tourist attractions. No to mention the rapid deterioration of our monuments and relics and deplorable state of sites such as Bunce Island.
Is there a plan to protect the Western Area Peninsula and land grab that will occur after the final half of the peninsula road is complete? Is there a proper plan to develop that area in a manner that will retain it’s beauty? Or are we going to allow anyone to build high-rise hotels at River Number Two?
I am convinced that the tourism industry in Sierra Leone is not being treated with any seriousness regardless of what the political rhetoric is. I remember reading reports of His Excellency’s speech after he was elected President in 2007. Tourism and Agriculture were highlighted as key industries he would be looking to develop. It has gone from this to an admission by the tourism minister that tourism is not a priority of the government, and that is a real shame especially when I hear of the challenges to tackling unemployment.
Tourism is a private sector driven industry driven by government support, much like any other. We need more from the latter.
Take Rwanda – there is lot we can learn from this country that is smaller than Sierra Leone, had “bad perceptions” issues like us and is pursuing the same strategy Sierra Leone aspires to -high end tourism. Talking to their representatives at their stand, it becomes obvious that they still have their challenges but are tackling them head on. Tourism is on the national agenda and everyone is working towards making it work for Rwanda. There is clarity of vision and an approach that works for them now, rather than saying Tourism is waiting for the other things such as infrastructure to be put in place. There is a lot we can learn from Rwanda, and they will be open as we are not direct competitors.
Didn’t we just give Haiti $100,000? A fifth of that would have gone some way to get Sierra Leone at the ITB, something that is an investment for the future.
We can still do it, the potential is there and there are those in the private sector trying hard to make things happen. We can accomplish a lot if government and the private sector engage with each other and are driven by a common goal. Country above individual egos, ambitions and politics. We need to take control of our destiny as far as tourism goes. Political will is badly needed and the sooner we get it the better.
14 March 2010
1 March 2010
There are many people who look at the presidency and think of the glamour and grandeur of what it means to be the elected leader of a sovereign state. As Sierra Leoneans what we understand the role of a president to be is limited and overshadowed by the concept of absolute power which includes access to the national coffer. Either because of the past abuses of previous presidencies or a misunderstanding of the role of the president, the average person stands convinced that the president is all powerful. Last week I had the unique opportunity of accompanying President Earnest Bai Koroma to the Annual African Heads of States Meeting in
. As we left Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on a chattered flight to Addis I had little idea of what to expect although my goal was to understand why so many had placed their aspirations and hopes in this man. Like many I am cynical of politicians, the things they say, do and want us to believe. And in a country where you must pay for media coverage, the truth is usually miles away from the press, one has to constantly scrutinize the news whether positive or negative. Freetown
I spent much of the time on the flight asleep while in the background Ernest Bai Koroma and his ministers traded stories of turbulent flights. It took a little over 9 hours before we reached
. The conference had been in session for several days but the Heads of States were to meet the next day in the conference facilities of the UN Economic Commission for Ethiopia Africa. The theme for this year’s conference was ICTs and their role in fostering development in Africa. There were over 500 delegates in attendance from every corner of the continent, ranging from media and ICT Professionals to parliamentarians and business people. When we entered the hall several Heads of States were already seated while many more trickled in surrounded by security personnel. President Koroma dressed in a dark blue suit and a red tie was flanked by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Deputy Minister for Information. The Minister of Education was also present as the President was to put forward a special proposal to encourage other leaders to endorse OneGoal: Education for All. OneGoal is an international campaign that seeks to use the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to promote and encourage support for the Millennium Development Education for All Goal before the UN General Assembly in this September. New York
The morning sessions opened with recognition of the undeniable connection of
and the African continent, a moment of silent tribute to the Haitians lost in the tragedy brought the entire hall on its feet. In the week leading up to the conference President Koroma himself had done his part to support Haiti as he donated $100,000 to the reconstruction efforts. When all were seated I walked down to the desk designated for Haiti , stood in front of President Koroma and took his photograph as he smiled. Over the course of the 10 hour day when exhaustion had taken the better part of my attitude, Ernest Bai Koroma was still smiling even as he chaired a sticky situation with the UN Committee of Ten Heads of States that included the always boisterous Sierra Leone ’s Kibaki, President Wade and six other Presidents. Ghadafi wanted to know what countries would represent Muamar Ghadafi, Kenya Africa if indeed the UN were to grant the continent permanent seats on the Security Council. As the other Heads of States became increasingly weary of Ghadafi’s rhetoric Earnest Bai skillfully navigated between allowing “the brother leader” to express his views while making sure to keep the discussion on target and moving things along. When the meeting came to a close he seemed quite pleased with himself and was all smiles as he left the hall.
We closed the day and retired to our respective hotels while the President continued working well in to the late hours of the morning discussing with his ministers and Ambassadors presenting at the next day’s closed sessions. The following morning we arrived at the Hilton hotel waiting to join the presidential convoy to the AU meetings. We went upstairs to the executive suite to greet the President. He was up, dressed and seemed to have recovered from the effects of
’s high altitudes that sometimes make it difficult for one to breath. When we arrived President Koroma was busy making edits to the day’s speeches. He was stern on the changes he wanted to have made and spent much of the morning on his feet talking to aides and making decisions. I found him in really good spirits having a laugh ever so often about events of the previous day or teasing staff about something he had heard. The room slowly cleared out and I found myself sitting in the same room with the President and the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to the AU. Ethiopia
Aljeezera flashed in the background and I read out loud a news headline criticizing Barrack Obama. We talked about the difficulties of Obama’s presidency and the heavy task of trying to manage politics and change in a period of economic downturn. We spoke about everything from
Haiti, to Obama, my childhood in and finally rested on Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora. We joked about the stereotypical JC (short for Johnny Just Come, JJC) handkerchief, and water bottle behavior and he gave a hearty laugh when I told him about those who would max out their credit cards to come to Ethiopia over Christmas with new clothes. I shared with him the struggles of many in the Diaspora who after decades in the States lived precarious lives without legal residency. Shaking his head in amazement, with compassion in his voice he said “if they do not have a stay they should all come home”. As I excused myself to head downstairs in preparation for our departure President Koroma jokingly said “Bangali you know say dis pekin climb palm tree” in reference to the last episode of a TV show where I climbed a palm tree. He continued to relay the story as I left the room and like everyone else I smiled realizing that I too had been a victim of Ernest Bai’s wit. Sierra Leone
On the eve of our departure a small dinner was organized at the Ambassador’s residence that brought together all the Sierra Leoneans in
. I was deeply touched by the significance Ernest Bai Koroma attributed to a meeting with individuals who were so small in number and far from home. It seemed to me that after such a long day with sessions at the AU ending just before midnight that the president should have retreated to his suites for some rest and relaxation. Instead he spoke to the group of about twenty individuals present with the candor and passion reserved for the most important of his constituency. He shared his desires to change the country and the different activities that his government would embark on in 2010 to jump start economic and infrastructural development. He highlighted plans for free healthcare for women and children starting April this year, plans to subsidize local farmers, the commissioning of several crucial road construction projects, mineral and oil exploration, energy and power, and good governance. By the end of the night the entire room was filled with reverie and everyone was eager to wish the president well. I seized up an opportunity to speak with him as everyone proceeded to the dinner table and I asked “Mr. President aren’t you tired?” “Ah I’m okay but I cant believe that you have not taken us around and shown us the sights…you noh try at all”. I smiled as I tried to make a dozen excuses explaining that there was no time in his airtight schedule. He teased me a bit more about Addis Ababa being my country and how I had disappeared the night before. I didn’t realize that the president had noticed or even been aware of my absence at the end of the previous day’s session and now here we were and I had been caught. I left his side as his food and glass of red wine were presented to him. After dinner he made sure that all those present had an opportunity to shake his hand and group photographs were taken. By the time he bade the group farewell, it was almost 2:00 a.m in the morning. The rest of us totally knackered made our way into the awaiting Embassy cars desperate to reach our hotel rooms. Ethiopia
We spent the better part of the following day in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel awaiting confirmation for us to head to the airport. At about 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon the speakers in the entrance echoed “
”. I got my bags and walked towards the cars lined up waiting for President Ernest Bai Koroma to descend. The national colors stood on the hood of a vintage dark brown stretch Rolls Royce. When the President finally walked the red carpet to the car, he wore a dark grey suit, and an air of certitude. He looked around as if to make sure everyone was ready to leave, flashed a smile at the porter who held his door and disappeared into the car. A second later the convoy was on the move and we headed for Sierra Leone . Bole International Airport
Our 13 Seater Private jet landed well after midnight but even then and after a 12hour flight President Ernest Bai still made time to meet with his supporters in Lungi before boarding the helicopter for
. I couldn’t understand where or how he got the temperament or energy to keep going. When I arrived at my house it was well into the early parts of morning, and I was grateful that my journey with President Ernest Bai Koroma was at an end. In just 4 hours while I would be catching up on sleep the President and his staff would be headed east to Kailahun to commission the construction of one of the countries most unforgiving rugged roads. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe being President does make you all powerful, allowing for Clark Kent to Superman transformations, that while the rest of us only have to deal with our own problems, the president has to look over all of us with very little time to focus on himself and his own needs. President Ernest Bai Koroma spent more than a decade in waiting before he was elected in 2007. He fully understands the dire circumstances under which he assumed power and he knows that unlike past presidencies he does not have the luxury of blaming our under development on the war. Perhaps what motivates him is the colossal task of creating opportunities for Sierra Leoneans, a desire to leave a legacy of accomplishments for the people. Whatever it might be, it is clear that whether you support him or not it will be nearly impossible to unseat him come the 2012 elections. A friend on a recent trip back from Bo, was amazed at the ease and quickness that he reached Sierra Leone’s second city, a journey that used to take anywhere from 6-8 hours, he made in 3 hours. As he reminisced on how awful the road was he alleged that “If Earnest Bai continues like this, he is really going to give them [the opposition] a run for it in the next elections.” Freetown
(Disclaimer: The Vickie Remoe Show was offered an opportunity to interview President Koroma, the shows title is "100Questions for EBK". As a result i got invited to cover his trip to the AU. I wrote the article when i returned back from Ethiopia to make sense of the whole experience. There is a line in this article about Ghadaffi that i was advised to remove but...the story would have been lost without it. After all i am just a foolish girl with a blog...no one should take me too seriously. I express and represent only my views, opinions, and feelings...photos coming soon)