After civil war, Sierra Leone is rebranded as a holiday paradise

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The Independent Online

Thirty years after Sierra Leone's beaches first featured in a television advert that linked chocolate coconut bars with the search for paradise, the country is set for a tourist revival.

For the people of Sierra Leone, who have endured a brutal 11-year civil war and raging poverty that once made it the poorest place on earth, the arrival of holidaymakers cannot come soon enough.

London-based travel companies are now marketing the former British colony as an adventure holiday destination as well as the setting for off-season sun and surf vacations to compete with the Canary Islands. Kevin McPhillips Travel claims Freetown is growing in popularity as a place for groups of "sophisticated adventure travellers", while Sierra Leone Holidays promises customers that they will be drinking palm fruit cocktails beside the "kitchen salt" beaches of the Atlantic.

Three years ago it seemed unthinkable that Sierra Leone would ever be able to move on from its troubled past. In the fighting, some of the most brutal witnessed in Africa, thousands of children had arms or legs amputated by rebel soldiers trying to terrorise the local population.

But the UN peace mission, which at one time numbered 17,500 soldiers, has been universally recognised as one of Africa's success stories.

Last month the final contingent of peacekeepers flew out of Freetown, handing over responsibility for internal security to the newly trained army and police.

At the same time some of the more enterprising Sierra Leoneans have begun to fill the vacuum by offering the kind of beach service familiar to holidaymakers who frequent more established Caribbean resorts.

During the war the men of Freetown earned valuable dollars working with Western journalists and photographers who needed "fixers" to get them close to the fighting.

On Lakka beach, just four miles from the city centre and a popular location with NGO staff, a group of young men have formed a collective to run restaurants and organise fishing trips for the visiting Europeans.

There are no menus and diners are simply asked to place their orders on the basis of recommended dishes of the day. Fresh lobster and barracuda, served on beds of rice, are local favourites. The waiters simply disappear into the palm tree forests that fringe the beaches and reappear half an hour later carrying plates stacked high with food.

Lakka beach was once the scene of a thriving luxury holiday resort based on a complex of chalets called the Cotton Club. On the walls of the old Cotton Club bar there is a set of black and white photographs that proves how post-colonial Sierra Leone enjoyed a special place in the hearts of the European gin and tonic brigade.

The Lakka co-operative believes a friendly and can-do approach will bring back a return of those days.

But a word of caution. While the genuineness of the Sierra Leonean hospitality is not in doubt, the welcome is not wholly supported by the infrastructure. The 11-year war has left the country so under-resourced that the national power grid can manage to generate electricity for just a few hours a day. Only the very expensive "hotels" can afford to run diesel generators 24 hours a day.

In such a tropical climate, where temperatures regularly touch 38C, most guest houses still have to limit air-conditioning to between the late evening and the early hours of the morning.

The war has left its mark on the buildings of Freetown. Many, including the American embassy, show signs of war damage, while others are supported by wooden scaffolding as money for refurbishment has run out.

The hotels and guest houses retain the kind of security that provokes suspicions about anyone unfortunate enough to live beyond the barbed-wire fencing. The same is true of the fortified compounds that house the headquarters of the city's NGOs.

Walking through the city today it is hard to imagine how such friendly and welcoming people were once bent on literally tearing each other limb from limb.

For the next few months the atmosphere is bound to be tense as the country adjusts to life without peacekeepers and begins fending for itself. Such nervousness was reflected in a new law that makes it an offence to wear combat clothes in public.

Meanwhile, 30 years after the "Bounty hunters" came in search of paradise for their commercial, the next generation of chocolate industry executives have begun to recognise the country's economic potential. A delegation from the chocolate confectionery industry arrived earlier this month to assess the potential of Sierra Leone's cocoa plantations. Once again Sierra Leone looks set to become a country known better for its chocolate and its beaches.

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