Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Thu November 12 2015

Now Ebola-Free, Sierra Leone Looks to Tourism

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 12, 2015

Now Ebola-Free, Sierra Leone Looks to Tourism

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Last Saturday, Sierra Leone passed Day 42 - the 42nd consecutive day without a new case of Ebola. This was a benchmark put in place by the World Health Organization. WHO will now monitor the country for the next 90 days to make absolutely certain that the outbreak is over.

Even though this “probationary period” has only just started, countries are beginning to relax their travel advisories for Sierra Leone. The UK, for example, has said that it no longer advises its citizens to stay away from the West African nation. (Before Nov. 7 the Foreign Office had told British nationals to avoid nonessential travel to Sierra Leone).  

A fledgling destination

The outbreak, which began in 2014, came at the worst possible time for Sierra Leone’s tourism industry. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during a bloody civil war that began in the early '90s and lasted for more than a decade. Even after a cease fire in the early 2000s, the country’s image was still associated with the war, mostly because of the well-documented mistreatment of civilians. 

Sierra Leone slowly built its infrastructure after the war ended. When it became clear that the peace would last, travelers started becoming interested in this West African country because it had many of the ingredients of a great tourism destination: wildlife sanctuaries and untouched landscapes, accessible traditional villages, idyllic beaches and exciting urban areas like Freetown. The country also benefited from the worldwide attention given to the music scene thanks to the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. The group became media darlings after a documentary about their post-war musical ambitions was released.  

Since it is a former British colony, English is widely spoken in Sierra Leone. Most locals, happy with the lasting peace, are welcoming and friendly to tourists. Perhaps because of the focus on security after the war, Sierra Leone became even safer than many of its neighbors. In short, the country had all the makings of a tourism hotspot. 

The Ebola crisis

Then Ebola came, and tourism ambitions were put on hold. Sierra Leone was especially hard hit by the virus. WHO estimates put the overall death toll from the outbreak at 11,000. 4,800 people died in Sierra Leone. Investors, including many who were interested in the tourism sector, stayed away from the country. Development plans were halted and businesses who did decide to stay had to pay exorbitant insurance premiums to protect their investments (and themselves).

Even though the outbreak has ended, it will take time to get tourism-related projects and investment back online. Many entrepreneurs had completely given up on the country and started looking to put their money elsewhere on the continent. 

A quick comeback for Sierra Leone?

Adventure travel companies started offering new tours almost as soon as WHO announced that the 42-day threshold had been passed. Travelers and adventure outfitters will most likely have to rely on medical evac insurance for some time because Sierra Leone’s medical infrastructure is in complete tatters after the outbreak. Other than that, and some general safety-net precautions against Ebola infection, these companies should be back to business as usual quite quickly.

The more promising signs come from the hotel industry. Right after Day 42, work restarted on the 12-floor Hilton Freetown Cape Sierra project. This luxury hotel will sit on the capital city’s most beautiful section of beachfront. The hotel will be completed in fall of 2016. Others in the hospitality industry will see the end of the Ebola crisis as a chance to get in before the competition returns. 

Yes, Ebola did set Sierra Leone’s tourism development (and overall development) back. However, the optimism seems to have returned quite quickly. Barring any unforeseen complications, Sierra Leone is back on track.

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