FREETOWN (Reuters Life!) - Check the reservations book of any city hotel in Sierra Leone, and the chances are most guests will be businessmen on trips to prospect for diamonds, gold, iron ore or other minerals.
But the West African country is looking beyond its natural resources as it searches for ways to rebuild an economy left in tatters after a 1991-2002 civil war, by playing off its image to attract a more adventurous class of tourist.
“It takes a fairly intrepid person to visit Sierra Leone but extreme tourism is a growing market,” said tour operator Jim Louth. “People want to get somewhere before it becomes mainstream.”
Louth has recently added Sierra Leone to his British company Undiscovered Destinations’ list of unlikely trips, which include Angola, Bangladesh and East Timor.
In Sierra Leone, supplies of water, power and internet are intermittent nationwide, while arrivals to the generator-powered airport must battle several risky journey options to cross the river to the capital.
A helicopter crashed in 2007 killing 22 passengers, the hovercraft service is out of order and roads in disrepair.
The national tourist board says the sector needs a minimum $200 million in investment.
“Sierra Leone is perfect for adventure tourism. I wanted to be a pioneer,” said Marissa Hart, a British shop manager who paid 2,000 pounds ($3,180) for a 12-day trip this year.
“Their tourism infrastructure is shot to pieces but I really enjoyed my time. I thought: they’ve had a war and could probably do with a leg up.”
President Ernest Bai Koroma has vowed to boost tourism.
The sector attracts around 4,000 people a year and accounts for only 1 percent of the fragile $1.7 billion economy, according to the National Tourist Board.
The World Travel and Tourism Council says the average in Africa is closer to 10 percent.
“It’s a crime for Sierra Leone to be poor,” said Bala Amarasekaran, who started the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in 1995, soon after which missiles whistled overhead and repeatedly landed near the reserve.
Now the setting for $120-a-night eco-lodges built into the forest with hammocks overlooking mist-covered mountains, Tacugama is the type of attraction Sierra Leoneans hope will revive the tourism industry.
The UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says the proportion of tourist arrivals to developing countries rose to 45 percent in 2008 from 31 percent in 1990, and Africa’s poorest states are increasingly in travelers’ sights.
“We have always had the tendency to go beyond our barriers,” said John Kester, chief of marketing and market trends at UNWTO, of the growing trend for extreme tourism.
“Thirty years ago that meant going to Thailand, India or Morocco. As the world has become so much more travelled, Africa is still one of the last unexplored areas. It’s where Asia used to be 20 years ago.”
Some Sierra Leoneans are already banking on growth.
Among them is Bimbola Carrol, 32, who established tourism company Visit Sierra Leone — whose slogan is “do something different” — two years after the war ended.
“People sometimes perceive Sierra Leone as high risk, but it’s no longer a no-go zone, just something out of the ordinary. It’s right off off-the-beaten-track,” said Carrol, who left an IT job in London to return home in 2007.
“You probably shouldn’t be traveling if you’re going to be morally squeamish about the poverty,” said tourist Hart, who aside from visiting the chimp sanctuary and trekking near the beaches talked to village schools and supported local artists.
“You can do things on your own abroad today that once they would have given you a knighthood for doing.”
Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Paul Casciato