TOKEH, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - Before Sierra Leone’s civil war, a 600-bed resort stood on this beach of blinding white sand a short drive from the capital Freetown.
Guests included everyone from former French President Jacques Chirac to British reggae group UB40, while helicopters whisked arrivals to a man-made offshore helipad.
During Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 conflict the resort was so comprehensively looted that only roofless ruins remain. An 11-bedroom pleasure boat lies scuttled offshore.
Today though, nine years after the end of hostilities, the son of the original landowner is bringing Tokeh back to life, a sign of increasing confidence in Sierra Leone’s ability to reinvent itself as a tourist destination.
“My aim is to overcome the obstacles,” said Issa Basma, who has already opened 12 rooms and is investing $3.5 million of private money to bring that number to 68 by the end of 2013.
“I think this place will go far, I really do.”
In another vote of confidence in the tourist trade, Air France is due next month to begin flights to Freetown.
Tour operators and officials hope the airline’s arrival will drive down fares, which currently stand at a pricey $980 return from Europe.
However, no one disputes that opening the still-impoverished country for visitors remains at an early stage.
According to Cecil Williams, director of Sierra Leone’s tourist board, the country received just 7,728 leisure visitors in 2010, bringing between $25-27 million to the local economy.
While that number is an increase from 4,892 in 2005, it is still a fraction of the more than 100,000 tourists who descend each year on the equally glistening beaches of nearby Gambia.
Sierra Leone’s dire international reputation — as depicted in the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film “Blood Diamond” with its scenes of wartime amputations and other atrocities by fighters — is a key factor still keeping tourists away.
“I think the biggest challenge we face is still the image perception issue,” said Abimbola Carrol, managing director of local tour operator Visit Sierra Leone.
“Some of the images that came out of our war — the chopping off of hands — were quite horrific,” he said of the rebels’ use of machetes to hack off the hands or feet of victims.
Slowly, that image could be wearing off, though.
Alongside the home-grown redevelopment at Tokeh, this month British tour operator Exodus is bringing its first party of visitors to Sierra Leone.
Product manager Dan Cockburn conceived the trip after he visited his sister, who was working in the country in 2008.
“I came out and visited her and was so impressed with the country,” he explained. “It’s a very raw country, and for our clients that’s the main draw.”
Exodus joins a handful of other operators in Sierra Leone.
Fellow British firm Rainbow Tours arrived in 2009, while last year Tribewanted, a company that already has an eco-tourist operation in Fiji, opened a camp.
At John Obey beach, close to Tokeh, Tribewanted’s guests live alongside the local community; 72 have come so far.
Instructions in the lavatories ask visitors to drop in two coconut shells of sawdust after their use.
“We want this to be a model village for cross-cultural sustainable development,” said Tribewanted co-founder Ben Keene.
There are still obstacles to tourism in Sierra Leone though.
Costs remain high. As well as the expensive airfares, a persistent war economy is reflected in exorbitant rates for accommodation and vehicle hire.
Freetown’s airport is possibly one of the most challenging arrival points in the world, separated from the capital as it is by a wide estuary.
Transport options include rusty ferries, helicopters and speedboats. “None is without risk,” notes the British High Commission in advice to travellers.
A final hurdle awaits guests at Sierra Leonean restaurants.
While the food itself can be fresh and appetising. Years of civil war obliterated the concept of service. At best waiters exhibit studied indifference, while many are openly rude.
The United Nations last year sponsored training for customer facing staff as part of a $500,000 effort to boost the sector but it will take time to change mindsets in a country whose contact with the outside world has been limited for two decades.
“Running a modern tourist industry is not self-evident,” said Peter Zetterli of the United Nations Development Programme. “20 years is a long time ... People forget, people move on to other things, people die.”
Editing by Mark John and Paul Casciato