Exploring the Potential of Tourism in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Tourism Lumely Beach, Freetown

Lumely Beach, Freetown

By the time I arrived at the beach in Sierra Leone, I had still not seen another tourist in all of West Africa. Little did I know then that it would be almost 3 months before I finally meet a legitimate tourist in the region.  Sure, it was the rainy season in West Africa, but tourism wasn’t just slow it was non-existent.  Thus I’m going to look at tourism as both a formula that needs to be completed to draw people and then later a quick breakdown of what needs to happen for West Africa to start growing as a tourism destination.

Sierra Leone Tourism Freetown

Freetown, Sierra Leone

The “Formula” to Tourism

I like to believe that there’s a specific formula that can be drawn for whether a destination is a worthy tourism destination.  Basically, it’s a points system.  The higher you score, the more likely you are to have interested travellers.  Certain things, like having a world wonder, are worth many more points than something minor like having a small herd of Giraffes.  But even without that one big draw a destination can still become a tourism hotspot as long as it has a variety of other things.

Now there’s no science to this, but imagine the points are something like this:

  • World Wonder (Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu, The Great Pyramids, etc.) = 100-200 points
  • Beautiful beach = 10-50 points depending on how beautiful
  • Wildlife = 10-50 points depending on how accessible and “intense”
  • Urban Life, History and Architecture (Paris, London, etc) 20-50 points
  • Culture (Think Papau Guinea or Nepal) = 10-30 points
  • Adventure (hiking, kayaking, etc) = 10-30 points
There are then also “bonus points” for things like accessibility, security, cost and good press.

Sierra Leone Tourism kidsNow, obviously I left a lot of things out of the list, but that’s a basic breakdown.  So for fun we can play with certain places.  Let’s take a look at the granddaddy of all destinations: Paris.  It has the Eiffel Tower (200 points), History (50 points), and let’s say 25 points worth of culture.  That’s 275 points.  Now let’s look at Costa Rica: Beaches (35 points), Wildlife (30 points), Culture (10 points), adventure (30 points) = 105 points.  It probably also gets some bonus points for good press and accessibility, so maybe 115 points.   By this estimate Costa Rica would see about 60% less tourists than Paris.

Now what is interesting to me are the X-factors, which leads me to Sierra Leone.  My the typical standards Sierra Leone would actually probably score as high or higher than Costa Rica: Beaches (40 points), Wildlife (40 points), Culture (15 points), Adventure (25 points) = 115 points.  And the truth is, as someone who has visited both, Sierra Leone is probably a more intriguing location overall.

Of course, there are a plethora of factors which can limit that tourism score; basically negative scores.  Things like: safety, perception, poor infrastructure and unstable governance all come into play.  However, in the case of Sierra Leone most of the negative scores are more perceived than they are real.

Below I give some “advice” to Sierra Leone on how to boost tourism in the country.

Change Perceptions

One of the big negative scoring factors is the perception that a country is dangerous.  No matter how beautiful or amazing, most foreigners aren’t going to travel somewhere they perceive to be dangerous.  Even Mexico, over the past couple years has taken a hit as it has been seen as more and more dangerous.

West African nations complain to no end about getting bad publicity, and they are right.  But, there is a simple solution and that is creating your own publicity.  Right now, the image in people’s heads of Sierra Leone is that of child soldiers and war.  Pump out a media campaign via a tourism board (either government or private) in hopes of changing that perception; show them images of the beaches, the chimps, and of the people.  Use some of that aid money that pours in to help the image of the country and it won’t only help the tourism industry but foreign investment in general through all sectors.

Never once in Sierra Leone did I ever feel threatened.  I certainly felt safer than I ever did in tourist zones like Bolivia and Mexico.  Hell, I felt safer than I did riding the metro in Barcelona.  But perceptions are everything, and people associate Sierra Leone with violence still to this day, 10 years after the end of the war; regardless of the fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sierra Leone Tourism No 2 River

When you think Sierra Leone, do you think about big open beaches like this?

Make it Easier for Tourists

The problem here is that there is no sense of delayed gratification, everyone is trying to get their piece right away.  I’m much less likely to visit a country that I have to pay $100 visa, as well as be taxed along the way, than I am a country like Senegal which doesn’t charge for a visa.  Yes, you’re going to get $100 from a tourist for visiting your country.  However, if you have no visa process for people visiting from the so-called “have” countries, it will entice more people to come.  These people won’t be giving you $100 each, but they will be putting $1000s of dollars into the country directly via hotels, restaurants, etc.  Tourism is the only industry in the world that I can think of that passes money from one country’s economy directly to another without “trading” anything back.

Sierra Leone Tourism outamba national park

The accommodation in Outamba-KilimI National Park

Improve Tourism Infrastructure

Sierra Leone’s national parks are badly underfunded and neglected.  The incredible Outamba-Kilimi National Park bursts with wildlife, but the infrastructure is shocking. There is no electricity, the road in is horrendous, and there is no system set up to make it easier for visitors to see the wildlife.  Hell, they can’t even afford to build a wildlife tower over the grasses which would make watching the Elephants easy.  I might be one of the only travellers in the world who likes the challenge, but, at the moment, people will constantly use the excuse that “it’s not worth the struggle to get there”.  The amount of investment needed is quite minimal, and could increase tourism greatly.

Typical rural Sierra Leone “road”

Accept and Incorporate the Past

Some seriously horrible things went down in the past in Sierra Leone both recently and during the age of the slave trade, and most of the press in the world relates to that because it is exciting.  People are interested in that past, so as shameful as it may be, bring it into the tourism business itself.  I’ll never forget how in Belfast there were tours set up related directly to the war, and they were very interesting.  Tours in Sierra Leone could talk about the war, or slavery.  The past was hard on this country, but using it to draw people to the country could not only turn a negative into a positive but also be a tool for teaching people of the grave mistakes that were made and how to avoid them in the future.

Look at Rwanda’s Model

Perhaps the best example I can think of a country that has done everything right post-conflict and use it to prosper is Rwanda.  The country used foreign investment to improve its image via the mainstream media, tourism boards, and social media.  They improved infrastructure, enhancing the popularity of draw like Mountain Gorilla safaris.  And they have accepted the past, and incorporated things like mass graves and genocide memorials into their tours.

Despite the dozens of movies made about the horrors in Rwanda, the country has successfully pushed this perception into the past and changed the way potential tourists view the country.

Sierra Leone Tourism tcugama chimpanzee

Rwanda has Mountain Gorillas, but Sierra Leone has Chimps!


This has been the longest post I’ve ever written, and if you are still reading I congratulate you.  But the whole time I was in Sierra Leone I kept thinking to myself, this place has so much potential for tourism.  I could almost see the ziplines being built through the mountains, pale Brits laying out on the beaches, and the Germans in the best safari outfits money can buy spotting chimpanzees through their binoculars.

I’d like to know your thoughts.  What would need to change in your minds for you to consider Sierra Leone a tourism destination?

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Good point about Rwanda, but the movies, Nicholas Kristoff, and Clinton have also helped attract attention to the region, and even though it portrayed an infamous time, any publicity helps. They’ll need more SL films and people to draw attention to that past. Keep writing about it. Not many are.

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  2. Very interesting read/perception, considering I am from Sierra Leone…

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  3. Without having been to Sierra Leone, but having read a fair bit (yep, mostly about either the war or blood diamonds), I’d agree with everything you say. How to go about it all is a different thing altogether, but how great to note that someone from the country has read your post.

    Your observation about tourism struck a chord with me. We read so much about corruption in Africa (and I have absolutely no idea on how the current SL government stands re that) meaning that money goes into the wrong pockets, aid is diverted to private use etc etc. Yet, as you say, tourism, could help a lot….if the money one spends goes directly into the pockets of those who have earned it + a country with a big tourist trade must be more open and honest, or word would filter back, it seems to me.

    BTW have you ever heard of these guys? http://www.sierraleonesrefugeeallstars.com/fr_home.cfm Their story is amazing.

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  4. The main thing for me seems to be the difficult connection between Lungi International Airport and the capital Freetown. Ferry is too slow. Helicopter was too risky. Hooverceaft was too unreliable. From my point of view this is the main thing to focus on. I have heard plans of building a bridge. My advice; start planning it now! And get it done.

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    • Jan – That goes to the tourism infrastructure… it’s a pain in the ass. But the truth is, I’m not sure that anyone has not visited Sierra Leone because of that… although it might annoy them to no end.

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  5. Brendan, probably true, but I’m pretty sure that most of those who have been there, tell others about this bottleneck. You can see the airport from the city center of Freetown, but wou must start travelling from there 6 – 7 hours in advance, in order to get your flight.

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  6. Well….Even before reading this just wanting to let you know that I and my two children will be tourists this Christmas. We are planning 2 weeks in Sierra Leone and we can not wait!!!!

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    • Great to hear Judy! I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it 😀 Be sure to check out Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary and No.2 River for sure!

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  7. The farm is such a beautiful place for the shows shopping, eating, counting how many dogs you can spot walking around. Looking forward to being there again!

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    • Haha, Richard, I’m glad you included dog watching… 😀

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  8. My husband, my best friend and I all went to SL last year as tourist. We were also the only tourists we met (there were lots of NGO workers having a weekend off though as internal tourists). Some of the places we visited were amongst the most beautiful we have ever been to and hold up on a global scale. Also, on the plus side, some places had really got the right idea about attracting tourism:
    1. River No 2 cooperative were excellent. Basic, but good value, accommodation and friendly and effective customer service. Felt safe, welcome and happy tube there! The stunning beach was also kept very clean.
    2. Tacugama: another very good value experience with lovely accommodation.
    3. Sussex generally and in particular Francos/Florence’s for good customer service.

    There are some big drawbacks ATM though. We personally did not find these ‘put offs’ but are seasoned travellers. These are certainly things that might put of friends though:
    1. The journey from the airport to the mainland. Generally a pain!
    2. Most tourist accommodation in SL is very, very overpriced. Much of this accommodation is more expensive than staying in cities like London (UK) for a night but is nowhere near the same quality level. I think these prices come from NGOs willing to pay those prices but they are not equivalent to other African prices.
    3. Our so called welcome at the airport was awful as was our departure. Airport staff trying to get bribes from us and people trying to get into bags….

    As I said earlier none of these things put us off SL. We loved it and tell everyone how beautiful the place is!! These are all things that need addressing to start attracting mainstream tourism though.

    My husband and I are moving out to SL to volunteer long-term from September – we did fall in love with Sweet Salone!

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    • Agree on your view of the “issues” I think that the currency is an issue for sure. Also, I’d add to your list the road down to No. 2 River, and actually all the way down to Kent should be improved.

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  9. Ps sorry about typos earlier, writing on my phone! Great article!

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  10. I really enjoyed the article. It’s really familiar to me, I have posted on our facebook wall. I run Visit Sierra Leone and we’ve been doing what we can the last few years. I am sending you a message through your site’s contact page. Good work, and thank you.

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    • Bims – Thanks for sharing it. The truth is that this is a part of the new-age press isn’t it? Via facebook and blogs perceptions can be changed :D. Anyways, I’ve received your email and will get back to you soon.

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  11. Looks like you stopped by Tiwai Island from the photo of the children above. I knew them well. 🙂 I was researching pygmy hippos on Tiwai Island for 2 years. Thanks for the article and photos!

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    • April – OK, That was you everyone was talking about on Tiwai!!! I passed by the station you would have been at then. I was there during the rainy season of course so I didn’t spot any of the pygmy hippos. Stay tuned because tomorrow’s article is actually about Tiwai Island!

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  12. This was really interesting and probably spot on. I am a reasonably adventurous traveler, but with limited vacation time and so many places to see, I’m going to prefer a place with accessibility over somewhere like this. And yet your photos are making me think Sierra Leone is absolutely gorgeous, so I hope it and other countries in the region advance their infrastructure in the future!

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  13. Good plan Brenden!

    As much as changing the perception from the outside and getting more responsible and open-minded tourists and travellers to SL is important so is changing the perception locally that tourism is not the way to a quick $ – but about building long-term, sustainable businesses that provide jobs, development and protect the natural environments.

    What we’re seeing at John Obey where we’ve been for the past 3 years working in partnership with the local community to build a model sustainable tourism community at Tribewanted is that there is a lot of enthusiasm and support for such a project but simultaneously the same community is also undermining it’s other similar projects and businessnes future potential by destroying the natural environments > forests, but especially sand mining. This is the biggest threat locally to a sustainable tourism model for the Western Peninsula – we’ve seen a huge upsurge in trucks coming to the neighbouring beaches to us over the last 6 months and taking the sand. Local government is not managing it and everyone is getting a very good cut.

    By the time perceptions are changed the beaches and wonderful wildlife may well be gone!

    Nothing like a challenge 🙂

    Amazing country – can’t wait to get back next month

    Nothing like

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  14. We visited SL in March and loved, loved, loved it, feeling the same “wow, why aren’t there tourists here yet” sentiment and yet realizing the same hurdles you speak of, notably perception and cost of traveling here/getting the visa, etc.

    But also agree with Ben above; the get-rich-quick mentality was pretty noticeable around the country, and the environmental cost is already huge. We were alarmed to see those sand miners as well as the incredible deforestation already underway. The govt needs to recognize and protect and regulate its natural resources before it’s too late–tourists won’t want to visit a barren land–and there’s plenty of education that needs to happen locally as well. We saw a positive example of this at beautiful (and protected) Tiwai Island…many of the guides, all of whom live in nearby villages, expressed their surprise at how many visitors come to the island to look at trees and primates…for a long time those were just trees and pests (sometimes food) to them, but now they see they are special b/c people will come from far and wide to pay money to experience them.

    I can also wholeheartedly recommend Ben’s project, Tribewanted–not only is it located on a stunning beach, it’s an amazing cultural experience for visitors and offers a model of what tourism might look like in SL moving forward…if all goes well! From there there’s also easy access to other community-based initiatives, like that at pretty River Beach No. 2.

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  15. There is a major problem with qualified and efficient Sierra Leone Tour Operators. We contacted http://www.visitsierraleone.org/ #BIMS, and it is unfortunate but the service that he provides is very inefficient. He makes you wait one month for a quote and then turns around and states that he is too busy to work with you…. This is not good for the destination of Sierra Leone and for the moment he is lucky as his only competition is Patricia Brown……

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  16. Brendan, I have already commented under Banana Island. As one of our local writers you may feel I could contribute to the challenge you have assumed in once again building up an attractive Tourist trade in SL. I am in Dubai until Jan when I shall return to the UK. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you via my web site or my email address winston.forde@ymail.com. The road is long, and the requirements are endless, but you are on to a good thing for the future of Government would wish to facilitate any such progress.

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  17. Nice pics.Thank you.
    With regard to your question about Sierra Leone tourism potential,I believe SL won’t achieve anything until the country gets leaders with a clear vision of what SL should be.Not every african leader has the competence and leadership of president Kagame of Rwanda!
    In addition,there is a lack of security in SL as well as in neighbouring countries such as Guinea Conakry.You’ve probably noticed that the locals are afraid of hanging out once the sun has set.They are afraid of getting killed by robbers and other armed bandits.Like in many african countries the safety is a big issue which stops tourists from visiting.Of course there some safe places in Africa for short visits:Burkina Faso,Ghana,Botswana,Tanzania,Malawi,Swaziland etc.These countries are relatively safe for visitors.Or you can visit Rwanda.The country is currently number 1 in Africa in terms of safety;the last one being South Africa where the crime rate is the highest in Africa if not in the whole world.

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  18. Beautiful photos – I would love to travel throughout Africa, but unfortunately have been “brainwashed” into thinking it’s a very dangerous continent, especially towards foreigners. I will now adopt an open, yet cautious mind.

    As someone that has holidayed in PNG – the concept of eco-tourism is working there, though not encouraging great numbers of tourists due to PNG’s crime problems. I genuinely believe eco-tourisms are the way of the future.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  19. Beautiful images and what a great holiday location. I especially enjoy going to places that don’t have tourists so I am able to experience the culture. I have bookmarked your blog for more holiday inspiration. Thanks. 🙂

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  20. I would like more information on how i can begin my own tourist center in Sierra Leone ?

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    • are you theresa kallon who work in gambia..school teacher..if you are..please contact mladen ib croatia

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  21. Great article and good points of how to get the tourists to come to beautiful Salone. I love the country and have lived in Freetown 7 years ago. We are going back in three weeks and there is a huge difference on the development now and then. This country is absolutely amazing and could be a paradise for tourists around the world! Still alot of things to do and especially to change the mind of the goverment and the locals, to use the tourism to defeat the poverty.

    //Swedish tourismeducated woman married to a man that grew up in Freetown.

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  22. I’m a bit late to the party – but great post Brendan!

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  23. Sierra Leone is uniquly situated both historically and geographically to host an African Cultural Renaissance City.Such an attraction can draw 10 million international tourists annualy to the nation.
    But how does one get the Government of Sierra Leone to take interest in such a project.
    To get the contact of te Minister for Tourism and Cultural Affairs Sidi Yahya Tunis is next to impossible.

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