As Sierra Leone's complications slacken, hotel investment finds fertile ground

Atlantic Lumley Hotel
The official opening ceremony for the Atlantic Lumley Hotel. Photo credit: Scott Wayne

Ranking 130 out of 137 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index and 131 out of 136 on the Tourism Competitiveness Index, Sierra Leone is working to develop its economy and tourism sector, including infrastructure, education and health care—and hospitality.

While some businesses would only see the challenges to overcome, others see opportunity. When Hilton announced a hotel for Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital and largest city, it was a strong sign of faith in the country’s tourism and business potential. With international investors and management companies taking an interest in the country’s hotels, Sierra Leone is poised for growth.

Challenges

I first visited Sierra Leone in 2013 with a World Bank team when the economy overall and tourism were rapidly growing. In 2013, according to World Bank data, GDP grew more than 20 percent following three years of growth ranging between 4.8 percent and 5.4 percent. From 2012 to 2013, the number of arrivals increased 36 percent from almost 60,000 to 81,250. We were reviewing ways to further stimulate and sustainably develop the sector, especially the country’s rich cultural heritage, stunning coastline and great ecotourism destinations. At about the same time, the World Trade Organization’s Enhance Integrated Framework program was helping the Government launch a related $3-million technical assistance project—the Sustainable Tourism Development and Promotion Project. The country was poised to regain its 100,000-plus visitor numbers of the 1980s and use tourism again a key means of developing the economy.

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And then Ebola hit. In 2014, the country went into a veritable lockdown for more than a year, and nearly all travel to and within the country stopped as Ebola took its toll on the population and the economy. By the time the crisis passed, some 4,000 citizens had died, and infrastructure improvements grounded to a halt.

In the three years before the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone’s economy was booming. Today, two years since the crisis ended, the economy is regaining steam and is poised to continue growing. In 2016-17, the International Monetary Fund estimated average growth of 5.95 percent, more than double the world average of 2.5 percent.

Growing Interest

Global companies and investors have expressed interest in Sierra Leone for some time, and even the Ebola scare didn't keep businesses away. During the crisis, the 171-guestroom Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel in Freetown was one of the few hotels open to serve the many international aid organizations and workers who flowed into the country—and chalked up some of its highest occupancy and revenue levels ever. According to General Manager Johan Klang, the hotel maintained 75-percent occupancy in 2015, with more than 80 percent of that generated by aid organizations, especially the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Radisson took over management of the hotel in 2014, and the property is now owned by a public-private partnership with the National Social Security and Insurance Trust, a major shareholder, which administers the country’s National Pension Scheme.

The 60-guestroom Atlantic Lumley Hotel opened in October 2017. The property is partly owned by Hong Kong-based Cinda International Holdings, an asset management company.

And coming up, the new 200-guestroom Hilton Freetown Cape Sierra Hotel is due to open in 2019. The property will have its own desalination, sewage and energy cogeneration plants.  

These and other hotel developments in Freetown will help boost tourism in the country. Still, the sector needs more support to grow sustainably. While arrivals have been growing, the glass is still half-full in terms of capacity: The Radisson Blu, for example, had a 49-percent occupancy rate in 2016, Klang said.

Filling the Rooms

As the economy grows, demand for guestrooms and meeting space will grow as well. Foreign aid organizations, extractive industries and others doing business in Sierra Leone will continue to fill rooms at the Radisson Blu, the Atlantic Lumley, and other independent business-oriented hotels such as the Country Lodge, the Bintumani Hotel, the New Brookfields Hotel, the Hub Hotel and the Hilton when it opens in 2019.

Longer term, these hotels—especially the Hilton—are expected to also attract more leisure visitors. The country’s government and donor agencies such as the World Trade Organization’s Enhanced Integrated Framework, the United Kingdom’s DFID and the World Bank are helping to create a more solid foundation of related infrastructure, experiences, activities, and service capacity to build and sustain a revived tourism sector.

The recently relaunched $2.2-million Sustainable Tourism Development and Promotion Project, sponsored by the World Trade Organization’s Enhance Integrated Framework and the government, is expected to improve the country’s tourism marketing and drive more business and leisure visitors to Sierra Leone. It will also help boost hospitality education and training by supporting the renovation of the Hotel and Tourism Training College (HTTC) and revamping of its curriculum, as well as expanding capacity of the National Association of Tour Guides. In addition to this assistance, the World Bank was also planning a $10-million Sustainable Tourism Development Project to support the tourism industry, which might be launched in late 2018.

Eco-Tourism

Tour guides will be increasingly important as the STDPP begins supporting the further development of five key ecotourism sites around the country. Two of the sites—the Wara Wara Mountain and Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary—are approximately five to six hours from the capital by car, and are thus less accessible and developed than the other sites.

A third site, the Banana Islands, are about two hours from Freetown (90 minutes by car and then 30 minutes by boat) and the other sites—River No. 2 and Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary—are less than an hour from Freetown. A common need, which the project will be helping, is the development of visitor accommodations, especially eco-lodges.

Wara Wara is a popular nature trail and wildlife area in the north-east, which offers untapped ecotourism potential, especially with its mountaintop trails—but has no facilities yet. Visitors can do a mini-safari and see antelopes; elephants, leopards, gorillas, buffalos, chimpanzees, Diana monkeys, deer, and pygmy hippos. The project is intended to help improve trails and establish eco-lodges and other visitor facilities.

Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, in the central-south of the country, offers the second-highest concentration of primates in the world, including rare and endangered species such as the Diana Monkey and ten other primates. The rare and elusive pigmy Hippopotamus is also resident. The project is intended to help improve accommodations, water-based transport and visitor interpretation, as well as establish eco-lodges, an arts and crafts center and training facilities.

The Banana Islands are south west of the Freetown Peninsula in the Western Area of Sierra Leone. Comprised of two main Islands—Dublin, known for its beaches, and Ricketts, known for its forests—the islands were settled by freed slaves in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The Islands offer a mini-tropical paradise experience of fruit tree rain forests, secluded coves, fishing, snorkeling, lobster catches and a range of wildlife. Dotted across the island are remains of old slave forts. The project is intended to help develop visitor facilities, including eco-lodges. 

The River No. 2 is a beach area along the Freetown Peninsula, about 35 kilometers from Freetown. More than 20 years ago, the youths of the River No. 2 community organized a Community Based Tourism Development Association to provide visitor facilities and services, and generate income for the community and protect the environment. The tourism initiative started with support from the community members and the American Embassy. The project is intended to help establish eco-lodges, rehabilitate nature trails for hiking and bird watching, construct a local boat for excursions and provide hospitality training. 

The last site, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, is known for its rehabilitation program for orphaned and endangered chimpanzees, which is working to combat the bushmeat trade prevalent in West Africa. Tacugama also provides public environmental education and training programs. The eco-tourism component of the Sanctuary's work helps increase the long-term sustainability of the project and increase the opportunity for visitors to learn more about the rich biodiversity of the country. The project is intended to reinforce these efforts and help refurbish existing eco-lodge units and establish new ones, improve water supply, establish a visitor center, improve trail signage and increase community training.

The country’s Private Sector Development Strategy, supported by the Department for International Development, is seeking to encourage Sierra Leone’s entrepreneurs to continuously discover new opportunities to create jobs and wealth. Tourism will be considered as a possible sector focus for the updated PSDS, according to Tom Ratsakatika, the private sector development adviser for DFID Sierra Leone. DFID was also the donor facilitator for the WTO-EIF program.

With all this development activity underway, Sierra Leone is well poised to become an increasingly competitive and appealing international tourist destination. International visitors are returning and bringing the country closer to its past tourism success. Hotel investors, developers and operators are taking notice within the country and beyond. And government and donor support are helping to stimulate the development, strengthen capacity building efforts and sustainably utilize the country’s tourism assets.