MONROVIA, Montserrado â€“ On the commemoration of World Tourism Day in Liberia, stakeholders within the sector have advanced new concepts to improve the sector and make it sustainable for development.
Speaking on Tuesday at a conference in Monrovia, owners of tourism businesses joined others with interest in the sector to discuss how tourism can place Liberia on the map and contribute to development.
Located on the Atlantic Ocean with hundreds of miles of beaches, coupled with abundant lakes and rivers in addition to hosting a vast virgin rainforest containing a variety of species, Liberia would seem to be an ideal tourist destination. However, the country receives very little tourism despite its potential.
The founder of the Elizabeth Village Resort in Buchanan, Hester Baker, said she believes a lot more can be achieved from tourism when much attention is given the sector.
â€œWe need to look into our forests, especially the ones that have been preserved, like the East-Nimba Natural Reserve,â€ she said. â€œThen you look at just our history, including that our country being the only point for freed slaves, and partner with other countries for tourism.â€
Baker was referring to countries like Ghana and Senegal who have marketed their slave castles and other destinations as â€œpoints of no return,â€ and have amassed millions of dollars in tourism earnings just on the concept alone.
She said Liberia could partner with Senegal, for example, to market their destinations in tour packages that can be sold around the world, especially to African-Americans, who she said are very interested in their history.
Another advantage the country has in the sector, she said, is that its first ten presidents were African-Americans.
â€œIn 2005, there was an exhibition at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, and it was called the First 10 African-American Presidents,â€ she said. â€œPresident Carter actually opened the exhibition, and it featured Joseph Jenkins Robert, Stephen Allen Benson, Daniel B. Warnerâ€¦ and it was before Obama became president.â€
Baker said the event drew children from schools across Atlanta who were eager to learn about their history.
â€œSo, that is something people saw a lot of history in. So African-Americans would also be proud to know that is part of their history,â€ she added.
While Liberia has missed out on a lot of opportunities due to war, Baker said good marketing could rebrand the countryâ€™s image, but that is a responsibility that rests on the current generation of Liberians.
However, she cautioned against a marketing-only approach: â€œYou can have the [best] marketing strategies out there, but if you have not developed the destinations, they would have a bad experience, which would negatively affect promotions.â€
At the same time, Chiquita Johnson, the executive director for West Tourism Management, stressed the need for sustainable tourism.
Johnson said sustainability impacts the social and economic life of locals positively. She said those entering the sector must understand local culture and mindset.
â€œGet into those villages, find products and services,â€ she said. â€œIf you have your old ma that you know can cook the best bitter leaves or the best palm butter or the best cassava leaves in Liberia, you take your tourists to that place; they interact with that old ma; they learn how to cook with her; they learn how she eats, how she sleeps, how she has her daily interactions as somebody who is from the village.â€
She said unlike in the past when tourism was just about going to places with the most beautiful and best infrastructure, people are now more interested in having authentic traditional experiences.
However, she said a major reason why tourism is also not doing well in Liberia is that many entering the sector do not know how it works.
Johnson believes Liberia has a lot of potential for sustainable tourism, but wants citizens to believe in themselves, market the country, and get rid of negative perceptions that give it negative pictures, including war and corruption.
â€œWe are the only country that has 45 percent of West Africaâ€™s rainforest,â€ she said. â€œWe have mountains; we have rivers; we have lagoons; we have beaches; we have wildlife; we everything. Thereâ€™s so much potential that we have. All we need to do is to believe in ourselves and market Liberia effectively; and get rid of this perception of politics, war, corruption in Liberia.â€
She said if an independent body managed the tourism sector, it would help make the industry work more efficiently.
â€œThe public sector is really supposed to create the policies and procedures of how tourism is supposed to be, and an autonomous body in tourism will actually implement what is supposed to be done,â€ she said, adding that she is looking forward to such legislation.
Lisa Antoune, who runs the popular Marshall-based Libassa Ecolodge, encouraged more Liberians to get involved with ecotourism. Antoune said ecotourism preserves wildlife and environment and promotes creativity.
Her resort has already delved deep into ecotourism, using sustainable and mostly locally sourced materials in the resortâ€™s construction, in addition to now adding a wildlife sanctuary.
Joyce Kenkpen, the assistant minister for culture at the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism, said although tourism remains one of the largest sectors for employment globally, and the country has so much to offer to improve income generation, not much has been achieved.
Kenkpen said the conference was organized to identify the gaps and foster collaboration with stakeholders in the sector to improve on sustainability for development.
She clarified that the role of the public institutions was to regulate the sector, and building the infrastructure was a responsibility that lies with those in the private sector.
The event was organized as part of activities to commemorate the United Nationsâ€™ 38th World Tourism Day. It brought together entrepreneurs and students in the tourism sector.
World Tourism Day is an annual observance adopted on September 27, 1970 to raise awareness on the role of tourism within the international community. This year, the celebration focused on sustainable tourism.
A ceremony marking the national celebrations of the day will take place at the Providence Island on Wednesday.
Kenkpen said the celebrations would be held in honor of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for her contributions to tourism in the country.
Sirleaf was appointed among other world leaders as an ambassador of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development this year for the United Nations World Trade Organizations.
Featured photo courtesy of Elizabeth Village Resort