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SIERRA LEONE - INTERVIEW 
Interview with Mr. Cecil Williams
NATIONAL TOURIST BOARD


Summit Communications: we have been impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the Sierra Leone people: Obviously the tropical vegetation and the beautiful beaches. Indeed we understand that there was a time, not so long ago when Sierra Leone attracted around one hundred thousand (100,0000) visitors a year. Mr Williams what are the main challenges that you are facing in order to try and bring these tourists back?

One of the main challenges really is cleaning -up the image that was created as a result of the war. You rightly pointed out that Sierra Leone used to attract a large number of tourists from Europe. This is because we have a very beautiful landscape; we have beautiful people; we are very friendly, hospitable and we were not going for mass tourism. Our target was the A.B.C Socio economic group which meant we attracted the top professionals, who were looking for something unique, unspoilt; and Sierra Leone had that to offer and even now, Sierra Leone is an unspoilt destination and we want to maintain that because our focus is to target the Eco -tourists; People who are environmentally friendly. As such, we are putting together an image that would attract such people back to Sierra Leone. With the right type of infrastructure, and with the right type of activities to be undertaken, like fishing, mountaineering trekking, bird-watching etc. because these are specialists; so we are trying to turn Sierra leone into a specialist destination rather that going in for the mass market. One of our biggest attractions immediately you come are the beaches. One of the good things about our beaches is that they are clean and the sea is warm and they are safe, which is very difficult to find in any of the West African countries. In some countries the beaches are not very clean, or if they are clean, the water is very cold; not very ideal for swimming and are not safe. We have all the three attributes that help us.

Even in the raining season; we have been to the beaches. That was enjoyable.

Yes.

Absolutely beautiful beaches. So you are really looking forward to still targeting the A.B.C?

A.B.C. Yes the top end of the market. So you will understand that this is a very discerning group; so what they are looking for is not the something that they left to you but something that is acceptable. We don't want to go for high-rise infrastructure. We're going in for things that blend with our environment, but are clean, safe and acceptable.

Fantastic. It is a sector that is showing a remarkable amount of progress, last year 2004 and according to the world travel and Tourism council, demand is expected to grow by around 5.5% per annum from 2006 all the way through to 2015. Mr Williams, we are keen to understand your outlook for the tourism sector and how important you feel it can become for the national economy as a whole?

You, know, Tourism has a multiplier effect on the economy. We see tourism as one of the sectors that will enhance job-creation. It helps government to provide jobs for a lot of people and because of the multiplier effect of the industry itself, for every one job created, because of the extended family, you provide for nearly five to ten people. And with the re-activation of the tourism industry, it increases government's Revenue through taxes. And there are several taxes that government will generate from any tourism activity. And it also generates foreign exchange as people come in and bring the Foreign Exchange it helps to improve the country's economy. Another major aspect is the alleviation of poverty. Tourism activity generates employment opportunities; it means it reduces the poverty level of certain people. You enhance for instance, a certain family so that, may be one member of the family is able to provide for the others and thereby increase their welfare. It also showcases for Sierra Leone. That's very important. The (negative) image that was (initially) created can be nullified when people come and see that they are able to move around without any hindrance or disturbance. So we see tourism playing a very pivotal role in the socio-economic development of this country and that is why my institution is putting everything in to ensure that the industry plays a very positive role in enhancing our economic development.

There are many particular attractions that we've heard about even in our short time here such as the……Island…..factory?

Otamba kilimi which is a National park in the far north and not very far from the Guinea boundary. This is where you see rare species of animals like the hypo, the pygmies- hypo and we have certain baboons. And these are all areas that have opportunities for expansion. Government's role now is to create the enabling environment. My institution's role is to attract private investment, because in our industry, private investors play a primary role. Government's role is to ensure the basic infrastructure is there and one of things why we are a little bit happy about the whole industry, is you see vast developments taking place. The road network is improving and within the next few years, the Electricity situation should improve by the opening of the Bumbuna Falls. That will create more energy provision. So far there has been marked improvement in the telecommunications sector. Few years back, we were only able to communicate within the Western Area. Now you see with the introduction of the mobile phone through liberalisation of the Telecommunications Industry, there are several mobile companies now. You can move all around the country. Now people coming here as tourists, want to see these basic things, either as people coming for leisure or even people looking for investment areas. Once you have these basic opportunities or infrastructure in place, it makes things very easy for them to be able to either stay here in the investment of the other factors within the industry or come here as Tourists. So we are very pleased with the progress of development taking place, but we are constrained in terms of certain capacities. Currently our view is that, many people still shy away from Freetown. We need mass publicity for people to know what is happening. One positive thing about the war is that it made Sierra Leone known in the market place. Not many people knew about Sierra Leone, before. So, suddenly because of the war, even though it has its negative effect, people were able to ask, "When is Sierra Leone" "Oh in West Africa". Most people who came here on peace-keeping, became ambassadors of Sierra Leone because they went back and explained to their friends or relatives what they saw in terms of the people, the landscape, and in terms of the where- with - all.

It is very important. What do you feel are the most important aspects or the particular attractions ( you mentioned a few already) to highlight to the readers of the New York Times?

One of the things I mentioned to you is, that it is very important that people go to destinations that are unspoilt. Because you know now all over the world there are many destinations that have become known. One of the primary advantages is that this is an unspoilt destination. The landscape is very beautiful; natural. There has not been any ecological damage to our environment; so this is why our focus is to attract Eco-tourists. I mentioned to you the beaches. These are among the most beautiful beaches you can find in the world. They are clean and safe. You also have some natural parks that have certain species of animals that you don't find anywhere else in the world. We don't compete with the East African market because it is a very well known market for Safari. Here, it is the uniqueness of finding animals in their natural habitat, not disturbed; you can move around and not Shephard around; you know you are going on a Safari in a Land rover. So these are some of the attributes and of course one of the most important factors is the hospitality of the people, the warmth the people give, their smiles and friendliness that they give to you make you sometimes wonder whether this country ever had a war. This is one attribute that we have. Many people who come here as visitors find it very strange that they find people like us. When you move along the West Coast, you don't find any people as friendly as Sierra Leoneans. We are not a very aggressive nation. We are very mild and docile people. So we believe with all of these attributes, we find ourselves in a very unique situation to be able to attract quality tourism. That is what our focus is. In fact this is why our philosophy is not numbers but earnings. We are not looking at "we brought a Million tourists and then they are at the cheap end of the market; we are looking at a smaller group of people; people who have good earning powers and people whose culture will not also affect our younger population". Because if you bring in mass market. It's the cheap end with lower quality or what you refer to people who are not well up there; well educated. You bring in people like the professionals such as Medical Doctors, Lawyers etc. So this is the way we look at things.

There are also, Islands that may be of particular interest to the African-Americans?

Yes, I was going to come to that. You know you have different Islands. Because of the historic links Sierra Leone had with the slave trade, the Bunce Island which was the most important Island of the slave trade Islands along the West Coast. This was where you had the best slaves from and sent to America for rice growing. Because Sierra Leone is very renowned for rice growing. Now we have a fort, which depicts that history because it brings vivid memory of what happened, even though it may be something that we don't accept. And then you have other Islands where they also have natural beauty not related to the slave trade like the Banana Island, the Turtle Island; these are very beautiful natural islands with a lot of space, a lot of opportunities. Then you go to Bonthe. Bonthe is an Island that has some commercial connection. These were the first Islands that the Europeans who came to trade after the slave Trade, stayed because of their closeness to the Atlantic Ocean. And when later on that trade ceased, a lot of tourists came here for fishing. There is a specialised fishing called tarpon fishing. It is very ideal here. And the largest catch was here in Sierra Leone about a few years back before the war escalated. So that also has opportunity and we have little islands where people could go on camping and also bird watching. There are some unique birds you can find when they migrate from other places. So the islands, the beaches, the landscape, the people; these are all some of the factors that we put together to try to attract the high end of the market.

And in terms of the high end of the market and the spending power, obviously the North American travel market is the most lucrative. What are you doing to market yourself there particularly?

Well, one of the difficulties my organisation has of course is finance. Marketing and promotion are very expensive exercises. We have been dealing with groups like the Armistad and we are also dealing with the pack services who are interested in the Bunce Island. And there is a connection. Recently there was a homecoming. Pricilla's homecoming. This was a slave girl who was taken from Sierra Leone about three hundred years ago and taken to America and by some research done by Joseph Opallah, they were able to trace the great-great grand child who was brought back here with various media groups- the print media, the electronic media. They came with that great, great grandchild and they were able to find her roots. Now that is an avenue for people to know about Sierra Leone. Ideally, what one would like to see is the situation where through other pictorial adverts like posters and providing guidebooks. The one on Sierra Leone, we are now trying to update. We should be able to take part in Trade fairs- Tourism fairs- currently we do that in Europe. I was in Fitoria last year. The world travel mart, which is one of the biggest Tourism, just wrote to us; that takes place in London in November. We are going there. During those events, we interact with American tour Operators. We let them know about us because it is an interaction of tour Operators, Airlines, hoteliers; we let them know that there is a place called Sierra Leone. Infact some that already know come to our stand to find out what development have taken place. We would ideally want to go to the United States to take part in Tourism Fairs or may be have documentaries. But several documentaries again have been made based on the slave trade like the Steven Speilberg's Armistad. All of these I think are avenues for Sierra Leone to be known in the North American market, which is a very lucrative market. The Americans are big spenders and they travel and we believe again in attracting the Black Americans as an avenue for investment, because some of these people would come here as visitors or Tourists and see opportunities; These have happened before; when they brought in some Tour operators few years back some of those people came in, some stayed; some went into the mining industry, you know in partnership with Sierra Leoneans; some went into the Agriculture industry. Unfortunately they have not done anything in the tourism industry. But these are avenues to expose the country not only in the promotion of tourism but also in the promotion of other sectors of the industry.

Of course, because if they come here and see (things) happening and see everything of course, they might go for it. It will be necessary to….. meeting, may be they would be more emotional part of everything, not just the business market?

yes, you are right.

And it is a testament to Sierra Leone to know that all foreign investors are already coming back?

Yes.

As we have the Hanan Guji here at Lumley Beach?

The Hanan Guji is a project from the Chinese.

Two hundred and Sixty-six million dollars ($266,000,000) I understand?

Well, yes. This is a joint venture that the board is getting into with the Hanan Guji. That figure may vary a little bit, because initially when they approached us they wanted the whole stretch of Lumley beach. And we believe that it would be very unfair to the local people if we were to just turn that place into a china town. We have curtailed the plan to may be a little smaller than what it was supposed to be. But we are talking about over a hundred and fifty million dollar project. Because what they are going to do is to create town houses, flats, and holiday apartments in the swamp area with a mariner from the golf Gold club to part of the swamp. And within the site where the UNAMSIL Helipad was, they are going to put- up a first class hotel with over a hundred and fifty (150) bedrooms, first class conference centre and other ancillary facilities. So, how did this come about? These were people who came in to Sierra Leone for something completely different; to set-up the Export processing Zone. But they realised that this is a beautiful country and they saw the opportunities; they saw potential, they approached us that we could go into partnership wherein my institution is to provide the land and they are bringing in the capital and the equipment and at the end of the exercise we will have a management group that will manage the facilities not exclusively as what is happening at the Bintumani (hotel). We have learnt from the experience of that. May be the infrastructure will be built and we find an American Hotel Chain like Sheraton, Inter continental, etc. As the situation stabilises, you see people coming in for one thing but they branch into other things. We see the Hanan Guji project as one avenue of meeting government's aspiration of creating jobs for the people, bringing in taxes; bringing in foreign exchange, exposing the country all over the world and of course, alleviating poverty.

Yes. And it is really your institution that has the responsibility for both promoting the country abroad and facilitating those sectors.. ?

Yes exactly, because there is an act that created my institution; we refer to the Tourism Development Act 1990. It came about as a result of a study done by the European Union. They realised that if management of tourism was to be left in the hands of the Ministry, then there is so much bureaucracy, lack of finance to undertake that. So they set-up a separate institution called the National Tourist Board of which I am the head now. We have a free hand. We operate under a board of directors that has both a public and private sector representation. We generate our own income independently from government i.e. we license all Hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, casinos. That is part of our revenue. We also generate 7.5% bed tax. So any client who stays in a hotel, pays 7.5% on top of their normal rate. So with that source (although it is not very adequate), we are able to develop our own programs relating more to development and marketing and try as best as possible to articulate those needs and at the same time fulfil government's aspiration because we function under the Ministry of Tourism which is the policy-making body. And that is why the policy of government is to encourage the private sector to be the major player. You know earnings are not numbers. Eco Tourism as the major avenue to attract people here other than bringing the mass market that you just move around.

In terms of your personal leadership here; I imagine the Chinese project must be one sort of great satisfaction for you. Please, can you make know to the readers of the New York Times which of your achievements or initiatives since you have been leading the Organisation that has given you most pleasure and satisfaction?

Well, first of all, even re-activating the institution itself after the war, was a big achievement because as you will imagine, the escalation of the war in 1998 there, was no need for people to come here. There was no need for tourism or the Tourist Board because there were no visitors; none of the hotels were operating; the entire infrastructure was destroyed even with my office there was nothing. And to come back and reactivate it and get accepted with my stakeholders, was a major achievement. You yourself would not be talking to me if there was no Tourist Board; you would be talking to Ministry officials who might just say things that are not practical. And of course, with the re-establishment of the Board, and having kept our heads above water, the fact that we were able to negotiate with the Chinese-because the Chinese are very difficult negotiators. They are hard. They just wanted to shove things down our throats; but we were able to get them to accept some of what we believe to be in the interest of Sierra Leone. There is a common perception that there is a mass movement of the Chinese into Africa to do things the way they want. We had a lot of negotiations on the joint venture. We could have easily given them the land and then turn our backs; but we said that we must go-in as a joint venture partner, which means we will monitor the employment criteria; monitor the standards of the facilities they are going to provide. We are going to learn from the mistakes of the other Chinese company that came here and made promises but did not fulfil all those promises. So to me the re -establishment of the board itself for the past seven years is a major challenges and satisfaction to me. And attracting big investments like the Hanang Guji. And another good thing we have been able to do is, over the past three years we have attracted well over forty major tour Operators in Europe in conjunction with SM Brussels which is one of the major carriers here for them to take us seriously, it means they must have trusted our integrity. So every year we bring in an average of twenty Tour operators from Europe i.e. from Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and you know and now we are trying to bring in sometime in November or early next year, a group of journalists (travel writers) from France. So as a result of those familiarisation Tours, Sierra Leone has again re emerged on the tourism map in Europe. Now people know that it is not all gloom and doom. There is a lot opportunities, hope and there is stability.

It is quite a fascinating story; the turn around you have managed in such a short time. Actually, I think you can see from the layout of our report, that we are always very interested in talking to the personalities and not just the important institutions of the country but the leaders who are spearheading the transformation of these important institutions of the country. We were wondering if we could communicate something about your background and how your past experiences have helped you in your present position?

Okay, my education really is Tourism and marketing and I studied in England and Italy. I did my post- graduate in Tourism management in Italy. And when I came home, I worked briefly in the Ministry of Tourism as a young man and then I moved into the Airline industry. You know, travelling and tourism are inter related. So I believe with my academic training in the UK and my practical knowledge at government level and in the private sector through the airline industry, which plays a very major role in the tourism sector, has helped me greatly in understanding the crucible of the industry; how to tackle them. And my speciality is marketing and that has helped me to see how you re -package yourself to be accepted. Where things are going wrong, you try to change the situation. And I am also somebody who is willing to learn from the lowest cadre or personnel because I believe we live in a very dynamic world. And my discussion with you is a learning process. I have been meeting different people, my involvement with a lot of people. I have travelled widely in the world. I am one the very lucky Sierra Leoneans. I was also working as a Tourism Promotion and Marketing Manager. I brought those experiences in, when the Board was set-up. I was one of the few Sierra Leoneans who was identified and I worked under an expatriate for a year or so and when his contract ended, I was recommended to head the Tourism Board. But, of course, I took over at a very critical time. The moment I took over, then Sierra Leone was black listed as a country not to be visited. And it for me re-activate it again; I have a lot of contacts in the world; I have also been able to get membership of my intuition in he World Tourism Organisation. I am an affiliate member of the World Tourism Organisation; and the WTTC also invites me to their meetings. And my interaction with top people in the industry has helped me greatly because I believe that I'm still learning. These attributes are what give me satisfaction to be able to take this challenging job. It is not very easy; even to survive after the crisis. We have seen for example our hotel bed capacity rise from 450 at the worst time of the crisis to one thousand eight hundred, 1,800. And this is because within my Act, we have provision that gives incentive to the industry. I go around, look at people refurbishing their hotels or building new ones, and I encourage them to talk to Government. And Government has (through my recommendation) been able to grant duty free concession, which is very important. Because when you are refurbishing, reconstructing or building a new structure, when Government comes in and sees all your equipment, all the building materials you are bringing in, you will not pay custom duty. Though Government may be loosing but it is helping to enhance it; It is an investment. So to me that is another role the Board has played and I have also been part of the Global Investment Code- the whole picture. When they were formulating the investment code ,I had made some contributions stressing the importance of tourism; not forgetting that tourism is the life of Sierra leone not the Diamonds. The diamonds are wasting assets. Once you invest properly in tourism it's for life. You know it continues forever. Diamonds can be depleted; and industries can be depleted. But not tourism. And so that is why we believe more resources should be directed to it; to enhance it growth.

It is incredible the turn around in such a short period of time. I will like to introduce the next question with the words of Nelson Mandela "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb". Sierra leone has travelled a long way since the end of hostilities. What are your hopes and aspirations, both for your sector and your country in the coming years?

Oh! I am very optimistic. To be frank with you, we have been through very trying times; and I believe we have learnt a lot of lessons. There are quite a lot of people who did not come out of this situation properly. But there is now a situation. There is now awareness because the fact that a lot of people left here and went to the neighbouring countries and went through difficult times, has brought the people closer together, regardless of the differences we have. But at the same time it has also created some awareness; even in terms of governance; people are aware of their rights. The Rule of law prevails in this country. And when you have an environment of that nature, it encourages an industry that has longer potential, like my industry. So I believe that with a very conducive atmosphere created within the socio-political atmosphere, Tourism has a greater opportunity and also it has a big future in the development of this country. I have already explained to you some of the benefits. Tourism is people-related and majority of the activities are connected with people. Once you get people involvement whether it is people coming in or the local people being provided opportunities, then you only have better hopes in terms of transforming the whole development of the country. So I am very optimistic that tourism, given its position within the general economy, has great potentials.

Do you have a message of friendship or invitation to readers of New York Times?

This is a wonderful opportunity and I look forward to visitors from all over the world especially from North America. In spite if what has happened, this is one of the most peaceful places you can find in the world with hospitable and friendly people; a most beautiful country with wonderful landscape; beautiful Islands, the most beautiful beaches you cam find in the world. And you will discover also certain species of animals that you will not find anywhere in the world. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to welcome all here, whether as visitors, tourists or investors.