By Rahul Bhatnagar,
Liberia is on an impressive march towards developing its tourism sector. How can the country’s ongoing efforts provide an example for peer countries in Africa to follow?
When thinking about Liberia, “idyllic” is not an attribute that typically comes to mind, but this may soon prove to be the case if the country’s resolute march towards reforming the tourism sector continues. For the first time in its history, Liberia is pursuing a determined path towards developing tourism as a pillar of its economy. In the context of several competing priorities, this strategic thrust is a courageous one, and can lead to Liberia becoming a successful case study for tourism development in the region. However, in a country where tourism has been such a low priority that the country does not even issue tourism visas, what is the outlook on this ambitious goal, and if successful, can Liberia offer important lessons to other economies?
Liberia: A tortured history
Liberia is blessed with tremendous natural resources, but luck is not one of them. Time and again, the country has battled adversity – natural and man-made – and forward steps have often been matched by reversals. The tourism sector is a case in point. Prior to the two civil wars, the tourism infrastructure was relatively good relative to West African standards, and tourism receipts were increasing at a 10 percent growth rate annually. Then the first civil war hit, followed within a few years by the second, which plunged the country into an abyss between 1989 and 2003. Hotels were destroyed, and feeder services were disrupted along with security services and other support infrastructure. With many alternative choices, including in the region, investors and tourists stopped viewing Liberia as a viable destination for their hard-earned dollars. In recent years, after the conflict, modest gains have been made in the tourism sector, but these have now been wiped out due to the effects of the Ebola crisis.
When Ebola hit, nearly all international aid partners pulled out of the country, leaving skeleton staff behind or freezing operations altogether, apart from select national and international health agencies. Hundreds of Liberians suddenly found themselves unemployed. Ebola has been contained in the country thanks to mobilisation and efforts of the international community and national actors. While reconstruction efforts are now paramount to bring the economy back on track, the government has decided to take a bold step forward in developing the tourism sector in Liberia, which will require to change the brand image of the country. The President has declared the development of the sector a priority for the country, and the tourism and commerce ministers are jointly developing – with the technical support of the Geneva-based International Trade Centre – a Tourism Trade Strategy for 2015-2020. The strategy will initially focus on four niche segments – surfing, wildlife, culture, and ecotourism. Efforts are ongoing to establish a Tourism Board, and an exploratory committee on tourism has been instituted by the President’s office to conduct interim due diligence.
Liberia’s tourism assets: A wealth of unexplored resources
The Atlantic coast of Liberia features an abundance of maritime resources, with species such as marlins, swordfishes, whales, and dolphins, which offers significant opportunities for touristic services such as sail fishing or dolphin and whale watching. On the other hand, Liberia’s 560 kilometres of coastline are characterised by a near unbroken sand strip, unexplored beaches, and “world class” waves. Surf in Liberia is slowly gaining a good reputation among the global surf community, notably with the emergence of surfing competitions and related events in recent years. Moreover, local initiatives have had a relatively high impact among local youth through employment, training, and the provision of youth mentoring programmes.
Liberia enjoys a rich natural capital with high touristic potential, including two UNESCO heritage sites – the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, and Providence Island, which is also a cultural treasure. Liberia’s natural attractions include two natural forest reserves, wetlands and mangroves, and biological and landscape diversity. The country is endowed with approximately 42 percent of the Upper Guinea Forest, rich in endemic flora and fauna, including including biodiversity hotspots: East Nimba Natural Reserve and Sapo National Park. Both are home to rare birds, and a high diversity of mammals such as elephants, monkeys, antelopes, and Liberia’s national symbol, the pigmy hippopotamus. All sorts of touristic services can be tapped around these natural sites.
Liberia has also remarkable historical and cultural assets. There is a great ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity in the country. Sixteen major tribes coexist in Liberia, each with their own traditions and religious beliefs. Historical locations include Providence Island, where freed slaves from the US first set foot and lived before moving inland.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the tourism industry generated US$2,364.8 billion globally in 2014, and this figure is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.3 percent until 2025. The World Tourism Organization estimates that the number of international arrivals will more than double in Africa between now and 2030 (from 50 million to 134 million visitors). Tourism is a strong driver of employment – the WTTC reports that in Sub-Saharan Africa, the tourism sector has directly supported approximately 6 million jobs at the regional level, representing 2.5 percent of total employment. In recognition of this potential, African countries, including Liberia’s neighbours such as Sierra Leone and the Gambia, have stepped up efforts to develop the tourism sector.
Changing the narrative
So what are some of the lessons learned and success stories that Liberia can share with policymakers in other countries with a comparable profile and similar aspirations? There are several aspects to consider.
Important prerequisites must be met
Several important prerequisites exist without which tourism development will not occur. First and foremost, the policy focus on tourism needs to stay in place. Continued political stability also needs to be ensured. A safe and secure environment for tourists is a must, along with essential health infrastructure. Another precondition is to avoid any other major health crisis, such as the recent Ebola epidemic.
Pilots! Pilots! Pilots! (think big, start small, scale appropriately)
In an untested and risky environment, using an approach based small pilot projects, and retaining, discarding, or scaling up based on the results of those pilots may be preferable to investing significant resources in areas that are uncertain. Short pilots spanning several months, and accompanied by a strong monitoring and evaluation framework to measure success, offer effective and quick mechanisms for gauging the real potential in technical areas. This way, the return on investment per development dollar is stronger. In the implementation of Liberia’s tourism strategy, this is the approach that is being followed.
Involvement of local communities in sector development is key
Tourism development needs to involve local communities if it is to be sustainable and acceptable, especially in a post-conflict context like Liberia where the root causes of conflict still ferment under the surface. The Liberian tourism strategy is touted as a roadmap developed “in Liberia, for Liberians, by Liberians.” Two aspects are paid particular attention: inclusive participation of the local communities, notably through regional consultations, and due consideration to the environment in all project design and implementation activities. The government has laid emphasis on ensuring that the local communities stay involved and reap the benefits of any tourism-related activity on their land.
Involvement of youth in the tourism value chain is critical
With 70 percent of the population under the age of 35, the business case for involving youth has been clear from the start in Liberia. In Africa, 60 percent of the unemployed are youth, a worrisome sign when considering that Africa’s youth population is expected to double by 2045. Tourism is an excellent sector for youth to get involved in productive economic activities, and indeed the sector starts to benefit from the energy and enthusiasm that youth bring to the table. All that is required is a robust skills infrastructure and a will to learn the “tools of the trade” so as to build human capital. Skills in the tourism sector are, moreover, transferable to other sectors, creating a multiplier effect. Skills development, youth employment, and entrepreneurship are thus cross-cutting focus areas that Liberia has identified as priorities.
Everybody wants (needs) success stories
One of the frequent refrains of Liberian tourist operators used to be that in an underdeveloped sector, no one – from donors, to banks, to policymakers – is seeking to push the tourism agenda. Indeed, as a case in point, only the International Finance Corporation is pursuing a direct skills development program in the Liberian hospitality sector, while the majority of traditional donors are focused on humanitarian and economic development. The reality is that tussles between competing priorities will always exist in developing country environments, and success stories will guide prioritisation for decision makers. This is another reason why pilots are an appropriate choice for kick-starting activity in the tourism sector.
Fostering collaboration and coordination among value chain stakeholders is a must
Liberian hotel receptions typically lack any tourism brochures, and with only two registered tour guide companies in the country, there is very little collaboration between hotels, taxi companies, food outlets, and other stakeholders in the value chain. Deprived of a menu of choices, expats and domestic tourists tend to therefore frequent the same establishments and tourism attractions. To solve this, existing tourist associations have made efforts to develop end-to-end “products” such as facilitated day-long excursions for individual and group tourists. Efforts are also on to practice active outreach to tourists, in order to bridge the information gap and build trust. Development in this sector will be closely tied with development in other sectors such as transportation (feeder services), hospitality (training schools for hotel management, catering, etc.), wood products (handicrafts), etc.
Gaining experience catering to the market nearest to you and building from there
An international flight to Liberia’s Robertsfield airport is more likely to disembark visitors such as missionaries, staff of one of the many concessionaires operating in the country, or staff of the UN or other international organisations (intergovernmental or not), rather than “typical tourists.” Even with the recent drawdown of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, a significant number of UN and NGO expat staff remains in the country. These represent a very real tourism market segment – with a high spending power on a per capita basis – that is “starved” of good tourism products. Then, there is also the domestic market. While this market segment represents consumers with only a low-medium purchasing power, it is an essential platform on which tourism businesses can build and expand their products. Therefore, this market must not be neglected.
Promoting tourism in Liberia is arguably a difficult value proposition against the backdrop of two civil wars in the recent past, and the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged the economic and social fabric of the country. However, the country’s authorities have taken impressive steps to develop this sector. The next decade will be decisive and there is much hard work ahead, but Liberia’s resilience may yet pay dividends through tourism.