Bunce Island sits in the mouth of the River Rokel, an hour by boat from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. It’s a small rocky bump, measuring 0.053 square km, covered with the ruins of a British Fort and gigantic Baobab and Cotton trees.
When I visited, it was peaceful and picture perfect. From 1744 to 1807, it was a place of profound human misery and exploitation where thousands of African men, women and children were herded in shackles through the ‘Gate of No Return’.
It’s fanciful to talk about the memory of place, but on Bunce it’s impossible to ignore what happened here, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never visited before. Nor had the other Sierra Leonean in the party. Yet Bunce played a tremendously significant role in the transatlantic slave trade and in the history of Sierra Leone and Great Britain.
Sierra Leone’s historic sites
To be frank, with the exception of the peninsula’s admittedly fabulous beaches, I can’t say I’ve been to many of the country’s natural or historic sites. I’m fairly sure most Sierra Leoneans would say the same, which is a great pity because Sierra Leone is not short on these.
Visit Sierra Leone is Sierra Leone’s leading tour operator. Their website lists pages of monuments, forest and island reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries. The country is packed full of the rarest wild, plant and bird life, unique historical monuments and places of unique geographic interest. Truth be told, travelling up and down the country would be a fascinating journey of historical, cultural, geographic and scientific discovery. So it’s a glaring shame that more Sierra Leoneans aren’t becoming tourists in their own country?
Fair do’s, there are a number of barriers besides apathy. Poverty! In countries as poor as Sierra Leone, most people focus on survival not leisure activities. Then there is uncertainty about available infrastructure and access, and a vacuum where accurate information should be.
There is as well, the issue that we in Sierra Leone and much of the world see tourism largely as hedonistic escapism for the more affluent. With its focus on casinos, beach side resorts, night clubs and big hotels, Sierra Leone is not much different. Plus, we really do need international tourists and their forex, so it’s hardly surprising that our government focuses on bringing them in.
What is domestic tourism?
Yet domestic tourism – tourism within the country by the country’s residents – could be and should be more important than it is. It would help with job creation. For example, Kamara, our tour guide for the day, says he is one of only a handful. A dearth of jobs means most of the people he trained with have left the industry. In the same vein, domestic tourism would support much needed skills development, inject income into more remote communities and encourage the development of the necessary tourism infrastructure. Innovative trends like Airbnb which is slowly edging across Sierra Leone, already contribute by creating a wider pool of budget priced places to stay.
Domestic tourism supports local economies
Domestic tourism also encourages entrepreneurs in local communities to develop small cottage industries aimed at visitors, and to protect local historical and cultural assets. Going back to the example of Bunce, Salieu or Spiderman as he preferred to be called, has been the island’s unpaid caretaker for over ten years, keeping the paths clear, taking away litter and repairing the simple seating areas on the beach. It’s a job, a responsibility and a commitment.
Sierra Leone is longing to be discovered by international tourists but the history of international tourism in Sierra Leone is that it is too often interrupted by short to long term crises. Although the Sierra Leonean domestic market is tiny, developing internal tourism could play a role in the sustainability of the sector overall, by unlocking potential growth areas like sports tourism, school based tourism, scientific and other educational trips, as well as encouraging niche initiatives like religious tourism. It will all help with the marketing of Sierra Leone, when we are finally discovered.
Equally, or arguably more important, is the effect that domestic tourism can have on national pride, nation building and cultural integration. We can’t understand people without meeting them, or develop pride in our country without experiencing its beauty. We can’t respect our history, without witnessing its significance, or preserve our environment without appreciating its value. Sierra Leone is a nation in transition, giving its people the opportunity to discover its worth, might help us care for it the way we should.