An African paradise: just don't mention the war

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even the most adventurous traveller would probably baulk at the idea of a week in Sierra Leone. The vicious civil war left the country synonymous with images of machete-wielding militiamen and child amputees. Two years on, postcards of palm-fringed white-sand beaches, crystal waters and lush tropical mountains are being prepared.

Even the most adventurous traveller would probably baulk at the idea of a week in Sierra Leone. The vicious civil war left the country synonymous with images of machete-wielding militiamen and child amputees. Two years on, postcards of palm-fringed white-sand beaches, crystal waters and lush tropical mountains are being prepared.

Much of Sierra Leone's infrastructure was destroyed during the 10-year diamond-fuelled conflict, with rebels and pro-government fighters alike slaughtering, mutilating, looting and burning as they went.

But Cecil Williams, the head of the National Tourist Board, is leading a campaign to put Sierra Leone on the map as a tourist destination rather than a war zone. "It's an unspoiled destination, and given the traveller vogue for virgin places, that's our selling point," he says. "We have beautiful virgin beaches, the sea is warm, the landscape pure. Eco-tourism and adventure are our watchwords."

The first adventure for any visitor will be crossing the river-mouth that separates the airport from the capital, Freetown. The choices? An old Russian helicopter with pilots who have a flexible interpretation of maximum passenger limits, or skimming across on a hovercraft but only when there are enough people to justify the trip. It might put off the masses in search of hassle-free fun in the sun, but that does not worry Mr Williams. "We are going for a niche market," he says.

Despite the challenges, it is a niche that is already attracting interest. In March, a local businessman, Wilfred Sam-King, opened Kimbima, a luxury hotel overlooking the Atlantic. And the British airline Astraeus is to start flying twice a week from Gatwick to Freetown. But both ventures admit tourists are not their immediate market.

"We're focusing on the Sierra Leonean expat community in the UK, people who are trying to do business out there, and aid workers and government organisations," says Jonathan Hinkles, the commercial director of Astraeus. "Although in the longer-term we do think Sierra Leone has a great level of tourist potential." Mr Sam-King adds: "Security used to be the primary concern, and that has stabilised. Now the infrastructure needs to be developed."

In Freetown, many buildings are still burnt-out shells. A ceasefire was brokered in 1999, but sporadic violence continued, and British peace-keeping forces were engaged in 2000.

The waterfront market, in all its yellow-brick splendour, is among the few areas rebuilt, but four months after its inauguration, there are no stalls. Travelling outside the capital to see the diamond mines in the south, or the wildlife in the north, is time-consuming. Many roads are dirt-tracks peppered with potholes. And there are no hospitals of international standard in case of accident.

Of course, enticing tourists is not the motive for fixing things. The people of Sierra Leone, who survived the war but even in peacetime have an average life expectancy below 40, deserve better.

Unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent of the five million people. And while the economy grew 3 per cent last year, billions of dollars in foreign aid and a large expatriate community mask the reality lived by many Sierra Leoneans. Residents say prices are being inflated every day, and the presence of well-paid international workers is aggravating the problem.

From the war crimes trials that opened this week, to the tourist makeover, much is being done to put Sierra Leone's past firmly behind it. But stamping out corruption is a priority. "Corruption is what brought the war to us," Mr Sam-King says. "If it's not addressed, then every investment, human or financial, is wasted."

Comments