Rebuilding Liberia’s Tourism Industry for Economic Growth
Syrulwa Somah, PhD
The modern tourism industry owes its genesis to a 1260-1271 voyage across China, the Far East, and other parts of the world by legendary explorer Marco Polo. It is said that no other man—Christian, Saracen, Mongol, or pagan—explored much of the world during his time than Marco Polo, son of respected Italian merchant and seafarer, Nicolo Polo. History tells us that in A.D. 1260, the 17th year old Marco Polo, his father, Nicolo, and uncle, Maffeo made a daring journey over high seas from Italy to China that eventually led to the creation of trade routes between Venice and China to much world wide acclaim. The journey by Marco Polo et al not only created a new avenue for cross-continental and leisure travels, but also created the impetus that laid the foundation for the modern tourism industry. Marco Polo and party visited the great ancient city of Constantinople and proceeded to the kingdom of the Great Kublai Khan. Marco Polo recorded accounts of their four-year exploration in his widely circulated book, Description of the World, which opened the eyes of Europeans to commercial opportunities and tourism travels in faraway lands. Polo’s accounts of Chinese paper money, books on philosophy, politics, religion, and mechanical devices, as well as precious metals, stones, ivory, jade, porcelain, silk, coal, and costly merchandise, pearls and spices—some of which he brought back with him—brought him fame and increased outside interest in eastern commercial markets (Burton, 1988). Hence, from 1450 to 1750, the “Age of Exploration” or travel tourism began to thrive and Europeans moved about the world in ways never before experienced, which changed for good the way humans travel about the world.
Today, tourism is a multi-million business and key foreign exchange earners in many nations of the world. The nonprofit American tourism organization, Tourism Works for America, indicates in a recent report that tourism is the third largest retail industry in the United States, next to automotive dealers and food stores, creating up to 19 million jobs, including more than half of a million executive positions. The Madrid-based World Tourism Organization (WTO) also states that 10 per cent of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) derives from international tourism, with net intake of about $443 billion in 1997. The WTO estimates that by 2020 tourism travel worldwide would climb to 1.6 billion tourists for a net revenue intake of about $2 trillion.
On the African continent, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda stand out as tourism-driven economies. According to traveldocs.com, in 2003, tourism became Ghana’s largest foreign earner, about $600 million, while the BBC reports that tourism is a cardinal economic booster in Kenya, generating half a million jobs, which account for 12% of the Kenyan economy. In Uganda, tourism is the second highest foreign exchange earner next to coffee, generating $276 million from 6,000 visitors between 1993 and 1996. Tourism is being developed and promoted elsewhere in Africa and other parts of the world, and we in Liberia need to exploit our tourism potential for the development and promotion of a fledging tourism industry in the 4th republic.
Our Tourism Potential
In spite of television images and news reports portraying Liberia as a country ravaged by starvation and the residual effects of a 14-year civil war, much of the roof of Liberia is fertile and well watered, with awe-inspiring scenery dominated by highlands and savannah grasslands. Liberia has tourist attractions such as shallow lagoons, islands, lakes, mangrove swamps, capes, rivers, colonial-styled wide porch homes and 350 miles white sandy beaches. Liberia’s unique history as the first black African republic and a haven for freed black American slaves in the 19th century can be great tourist attractions. In addition, palace of culture and ethnic Liberian kingdoms such as Bassa Kingdom, Belle Kingdom, Gola Kingdom, Klao (Kru) Kingdom, Grebo Kingdom, Krahn (Wee) Kingdom, Mende Kingdom, Sapo Kingdom, Kpelle Kingdom, Kissi Kingdom, Pleebo Kingdom, Gbii Kingdom, Via Kingdom, Dei Kingdom, Gio (Dan) Kingdom, Loma Kingdom, Mandingo Kingdom, and the Maih (Mano) Kingdom can be valuable tourist attractions once developed to host annual cultural history tours, rituals displays, and beauty contests, farming celebration, Women's Day just to name a few activities.
We can even advance our argument further by counting our tourism blessing in the likes of the soft tone language of the Rivercess Bassa, the mellow singing of the Krahn (Wee) to the toes tapping “che-che-che” of the Gola salsa. The mosaic of people, especially our women, have distinct and exotic beauty not found anywhere in the world. For example, Liberian women are blessed with “ring neck” among the Vai, Loma, Kpelle, and Gola peoples, and the “coco-la waist” among the Belle and Loma peoples. In the height division, Mandingo and Gio women represent our nation very well with their tall and slender sexy physique. As to complexion or skin color, Liberian women can showcase a variety of skin tone from very dark to very light, with particularly the Kissis (dark skin) and Grebos (light-skin or chocolate color). Other cultural attractions include the Bassa Ghna-ghna, the Gola Gbe-tu, the Dan giraffe-like Spirit dancers, the Mende ngafa, and the Dan female acrobatic dancers or “snake girls.” We can also showcase the Liberian Rum or cane juice and palm wine as tourist attractions, in the same way the Jamaican Rum has been a key tourist attraction since 1655 (http://www.appletonrumus.com/recipes.asp).
We have has more spices and recipes in Liberia with better aroma to bring her cane juice and rum to world attention. We can make more money from our paradisiacal natural resources. We in Liberia can showcase our mosaic of places, traditions, art forms, celebrations and experiences as key tourist attractions that highlight our diversity. Liberians are one of the friendliest, sweetest, and good nature people in the world, which qualities are the best ingredients for tourist attraction, as tourists will pay to see these uncommon qualities. Generally, people don't visit a country for its airports, hotels, or stadiums but for its cultural traditions such as the unique Liberian handshake, cultural dance, customs, mores, traditional rituals, and other outdoor activities. Liberia’s tropical beaches and waterfalls are unique tourist attractions as they provide a paradise for angling, fishing, surfing, swimming, and potential for golfing. Liberia’s rivers, bays, and tributaries are also great tourist attractions because of the opportunities they provide for sea kayaking, kayak sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, scuba-breathe diving, salt water sport-fishing and windsurfing in the tropics.
The majestic St. John River in Grand Bassa County, Cestos (or Nuon) River in Rivercess County, Yar River in Nimba County, St. Paul River and Cavalla (Youbou) River in Maryland County, and the Mano River that connects Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are among a few of Liberia’s magnificent rivers for environmental tourism. Our nation should design a fly-in safari so that tourist will experience the rugged beauty of Liberia's landscape from the air and see the highlights of one of the most watered nations in Africa. Even now the dead Sohnii-whein or Sohn Creek that divides Monrovia into halves can be resurrected for “River walk,” just like the San Antonio Riverwalk in the United States, which generates millions of dollars in tourism revenue to the people of the State of Texas each year.
In the island arena, the Providence Island in Montserrado County, Dead Island in Maryland County, Tregbe Island in Grand Kru (Kloa) County, the Massatin Island near Lake Piso in Grand Cape Mount County are few of Liberia’s scenic islands for tourism development and promotion. It is said that the Massatin Island got its name from an old lady named Massa, who lived alone on the island during 15th century, which makes the Massatin Island an added tourist attraction for its unique history.
Environmental Tourist Attractions
Apart from the rivers and islands, Liberia enjoys the earth’s finest climate for environmental tourism. The natural and breathe taking beauty of herds of prairie animals such as elephants, viviparous toad, cross river gorilla, water buffalo, lions, zebra duiker, leopards, Diana monkey, Iguanas, white mangabey, chimpanzees, Nile hippopotamus—derogatorily called pygmy hippopotamus—must be developed for wildlife-watching tour or safari. Liberia possesses some of the world's rarest flora and fauna and 30% of the country’s landmass is covered with forest in reserves and World Heritage Sites. Liberia is legendary for its hippotamus (not pygmy hippotamus), which is found nowhere else on earth. One should, however, note that while “pygmy hippopotamus” is mainly confined to Liberia, neighboring nations such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast have small herbs of them. In fact, in 1927, Mr. Harvey Firestone of the Firestone Rubber Plantations Company in Liberia gave as a gift to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge one of Liberia’s male hippos, which he named Billy. Billy became parent to many of the hippos found in zoos across the United States today.
Liberia is an untapped tropical for varied birdlife or birder's paradise. Our nation’s luxuriant mountain offer some of the most challenging trekking in West Africa and virgin forest can attract any nature enthusiast and birders. Some of the world's most unusual birds are found in Liberia. We can showcase a variety of birds, from our parrots (considered to be one of the smartest in the world) to the “dancing birds,” the gymnobucco calvus, gymnobucco peli, pogoniulus scolopaceus, pogoniulus white-breasted guinea fowl atroflavus, pogoniulus subsulphureus, buccanodon duchaillui, lybius vieilloti, and the “lazy” dodo bird. Birders will flock to Liberia year-round to spot colorful resident and migratory birds if Liberia can develop a Birding Trail or designate several forest sites for bird viewing. We can also develop a national Bird Sanctuary for research purposes, national wildlife refuges and other birding hotspots should be easily accessible for tourist visits and bird watch.
Liberia is also known for iron ore mining, but there are other ways to use our mountains besides mining. The mining for iron ore at such mountains as Bong Range, Putu Range, Nimba, and Bomi, have not generated the desired economic benefits to the local people in each mountain community or county. Therefore, we need to protect the other mountains such as Mt. Bee in Margibi County, Mt. Wologisi in Lofa County and Mt. Gedeh in Grand Gedeh County from mining exploitations. These mountains can be reserved for mountaineering, trekking or excursion activities. For example, Mt. Gibi’s Oracle, with its parallel tunnels and a” rock kitchen” upheld by two rock pillars, which extend against the walls of the mountain and resemble the Hanging Garden of Babylon, has such rarest sacred wonders such as white bats and Zhor birds that can be great tourist destinations and revenue generating outlets. Similarly, Mt. Zeesiah in Margibi County with its rare rock containing human footprints can bring in thousands of tourist dollars as well.
Apart from rivers, islands, mountains, Liberia also needs to promote its food, music, and dance troupes as tourist attractions. For example, the Kendeja and Besoa Cultural Centers near Monrovia can be boosted by establishing similar cultural centers in each of the 15 political subdivisions or counties of Liberia. Each county shouldn’t only have several cultural troupes and centers to entertain tourists about indigenous culture, customs, and traditions unique to each county, but there should also be a month-long annual event or “Carnival” to display our nation’s traditional folk dance and music events, workshops, traditional samba shows and other activities. Moreover, since food has always been a bonding element in social situations such as birth, death, dating, wedding, work, play and so forth, delicious Liberian dishes and foods such as Jollof rice, plantain, bitter ball, baked eddoes, cassava, Malaguatta pepper, mushroom, coffee, kola, cocoa, mango, okra, palm nuts, papaya, and dumboy can be great tourist attractions as well. Using the Liberian mortar and pestle to pound farm rice, and prepare dumboy and other grains is a great Liberian tradition handed down through the generations, which any tourist would be interested in knowing. The Liberian "Country Chop," consisting of meats, fish, and greens fried in palm oil, fish cooked in coconut cream, along with fried plantains, and Beef Intestine Soup for Dumboy are a wealth of dishes to attract tourists to Liberia.
In essence, Liberia has enormous tourism potential to generate revenue for economic development in the country if only we could tap into the resources we have. Liberia enjoys good dry and sunny weather, coupled with a gentle breeze unique in West Africa. Hence, Liberia has potential for the following tourist attractions and recreation activities:
What Other Nations Have Done
- fee fishing
- skeet shooting
- canoe livery
- bird watching
- hang gliding
- hot air balloon rides
Tourism as we know it today did not appear on the world page until the 19th century, as an out-shoot of leisure travel, which has formed the larger part of the tourist industry. Naturally, as the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain set the pace for leisure travel by offering leisure time to factory owners, traders, and other pillars of the Industrial Revolution. France followed suit with launch of the French Riviera, one of the glamorous holiday resorts in the world. The French Riviera, winter sport in Sweden, competitive boxing in Great Britain, and professional tennis at Wimbledon became renowned tourist attractions for some time prior to improved transportation and communications infrastructure that allowed large movement of people across international boundaries. It is said that in 1841 Thomas Cook of Great Britain organized the first known tour in human history by transporting a group teetotalers to Lounghborough from Leicester. Great Britain later developed the Grand Tour, which featured 18th century British artists and their European contemporaries in the likes of Claude Lorrain are consumers. Florence, Naples, and Rome soon emulated the British example to attract “tourists” up the social ladder such as William Blake and Lord Byron.
In the United States, the desert-ridden Las Vegas was changed into an oasis for gambling and tourism, while preserving its natural beauty as the central of attraction. In 1855, Las Vegas was still a small town populated by the Mormons. In 1905, the town was formally established by auctioning out land. Then in the 1930s, with the construction of Hoover Dam, Las Vegas was transformed into a major tourist attraction for legal gambling and such landmarks as the Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead, the Grand Canyon, the Mirage, and the Stratosphere Tower Hotel. New hotel/casinos such as MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, Desert Inn, the Sands, Hacienda, and Tropicana attracted more tourists to a city built right in the middle of the American desert. In other words, the Americans turn the 2.17 miles by 4.18 miles wide Grand Canyon in Las Vegas into a money making machine, as the Grand Canyon is “among the most popular camping and hiking destinations and all around must-see in the Southern Nevada area” (http://www.lvlg.com/lasvegas/attracts/parks.htm).
I mentioned earlier about the tourism industries in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. For example, the Ghanaians first set about the formal development of tourism in their country by evaluating the country's tourism resources in 1970, just 13 years after independence in 1957 (Obuarn Committee, 1972). The objective of the Ghana Tourism Program was to catalogue and classify the potential tourism resources for a five- year development plan covering the period 1972-1976. As a result of this study, the government issued a White Paper on Tourism, which identified investment areas for foreign participation, including various concessions and incentives for investors. Between 1972 and 1978, other studies on various aspects of Ghana's tourism industry were conducted, but due to local financial and technical constraints, in Ghana, the studies had to be funded and carried out largely by foreign agencies and personnel. But this did not, however, diminish the growth of the Ghana tourism industry as a key foreign exchange earner today.
I believe if the rest of the world can turn their deserts and natural attractions into principal economic and employment powerhouses, Liberia can learn from these nations and develop a robust tourism industry in Liberia that will ensure a better standard of living for all Liberians. With natural and agricultural resources such as cash crops, rivers, lakes, diamond, gold, iron ores, timber, palm oil, sand, mountains, rare birds, and even fine men and women, Liberia should be nothing less than a treasure trove in West Africa. Sadly, all these natural resources do not mean a grain of sand to the socio-economic, political, and cultural development of our nation and people when our political leadership continues to fail us by their poor leadership and management styles.
The Way Forward
If the treasures I have named in this paper--- from the enchanting view and snowy peaks of Mt. Nimba to the sobering calm of Lake Piso; from the hardwood forests, mangrove swamps, and savannah plains of central of Liberia, to alluvial diamond deposits in western Liberia; from meandering rivers and miles and miles of powdery white sandy beaches and panorama of wildlife criss-crossing the country, then let someone tell me what other wealth we need in Liberia. I think Liberia has enormous wealth by which we could develop our country and enjoy a decent standard of living but for poor national leadership and management. For instance, after 157 years of our national existence as a nation and people, we still do not have modern rail systems, air transport systems, bus systems, and adequate medical facilities, ferry rides or easy access to our rivers, lakes, and islands. Our country is grossly underdeveloped while we sit on “diamond and gold” and still beg for food and water to survive.
I know we cannot change our past but we have every opportunity for rebuilding our shattered economy by developing our tourism potential to our advantage. We should use tourism to showcase the best things about Liberia--its colorful culture and rich history, lush, heritage sites, historical shrines, green forests and fine, white sand beaches and abundant marine life. We can dub our new tourism program "Liberian Bests” in order to set high expectations for our post-war tourism program. I believe it is our moral and ethical duty to change Liberia’s image from a beggar nation with or trusteeship threat handing over it, to a haven of tourist attractions and economic boom, without handling our country over to foreign agents. I would be glad if many Liberians devoted time and brainpower to rebuilding Liberia than to sit back as the UN, EU, ECOWAS and our “mother country”, the United States, endeavor to place Africa’s oldest independent republic under trusteeship. I think if Liberia were placed under trusteeship of any kind, it would not only be a great insult to the intelligence of all Liberians, but also a clear test of the lack patriotism and nationalism in Liberia.
Does my opposition to trusteeship mean I condone the current plight of the Liberian people? “No,” because if so, I wouldn’t be discussing how tourism can be used to improve our lives. In fact, I see many fellow Liberians who are so sick and tired of our national woes and other ills society to want to entertain the recent UN, EU, ECOWAS theory (economic plan or trusteeship for Liberia). The whole idea of a trusteeship over the land beneath which my ancestral fossils and the umbilical cords of our parentage and us are buried makes skin creeps, for the least. Liberia is a land that has given us so much of nurturing, a land enchanting beauty and fascinating roles in world peace and stability is about to relinquish its independence, its culture and way for life for the unpredictable mantle of foreign trustees. And I am talking here about a country that is a founding member of the League of Nation, now the United Nations, a country that produced the first female president of the United Nation Security Council in person of Angie Brooke Randolph, a nation that cast the decisive vote for creation of the state of Israel, and a country that is founding member of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank (ADB), the Mano River Union (MRU), and the Non-Aligned Movement. Besides, Liberia didn’t only play a key and critical role in the fight against fascism that almost obliterated its existence at the hands of Nazi Germany, but it also led the touch of the independent movement of Africa and fought, defeated and sent apartheid to the dustbin of human history.
I feel sick because Liberia’s history is so rich for us to fall so flat on our faces under trusteeship. Instead of tourists coming to Liberia to read about its indelible role in human civilization, Liberians are waking up to yet another stranger chapter. This is a fearful legacy to be left to future generations of Liberians. I therefore submit that although we now live in another Liberia, a Liberia that can no longer hold onto the glories of the "Sweet Land of Liberty", are all Liberians corrupt to the point that trusteeship is the best option to our unity and development on the eve of national elections? Do we really need to mortgage the future of Liberia to a trusteeship instead of the vision of a new administration after the October elections? We must have the political will to rebuild Liberia for the better by choosing the kind of national leaders that will hold our country together. We must show our moral empathy or courage as lawyers, doctors, journalists, farmers, students, market women and men to rebuild our country. We must endeavor to build a new malaria-freed 4th Liberian Republic endowed with capital cities with technological innovations in communications and transportation to facilitate the free movement of goods, services, people, and information across Liberia in the faster and cheapest ways. We need an integrated transportation system and new national capital city that include:
- Planned airports
- Sport Stadiums—around which Liberia should design and develop (West Africa Major Soccer WAMC) which will be first of its kind on the Continent
- Recycling plants
- Public and private buildings
- Colleges and Universities
- Four four-lane superhighways (such as a new Liberia Highway and specific lanes for trucks only)
- Recreation Parks
- Bus stations
- Buildings with postal zip codes for efficiency mail delivery and zonal location
- Rail systems
We also need an Integrated Ferry System connecting ports of Harper in Maryland County, Greenville in Sinoe County, and Buchanan in Grand Bassa County to one another and to rivers and lakes adjacent to these ports for the free movement of people in these communities. We should develop our tourism industry to include not only traditional canoe safaris but also other non-vehicular mode of transportation. I believe Ferry is by far cheaper than regular transportation, so I am proposing that contacts should be established between the Liberian government and Marine system companies in the United States or Europe to build a custom ferry system at strategic crossing points in Liberia such as the port areas. Passenger tolls and other taxes could be imposed and collected to pay whatever marine company selected for the project. In addition to tourism, the lower decks of the ferry could be used to transport foods and other items like the Staten Island Ferry in New York does. Since 1905, the Staten Island Ferry has carried over 19 million passengers annually on a 5.2-mile run between the St. George Terminal in Staten Island and the Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan in the United States. Of course, in order for the tourism plans proposed to be successfully implemented, a number challenges will have to be met. First, we will need to expedite sites visits, improve the planning process, streamline our current tourism program and human resource capacity development to implement an ambitious national tourism development plan in a coordinated manner, with a multiplicity of public and private sector entities at the national, regional and local levels. The second challenge is to establish a separate Ministry of Tourism detached from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism for efficient management and coordination of the revamped Liberian tourism Program. The third challenge lies in financing the plans with respect to general infrastructure, tourism facilities, attractions, marketing and delivery of quality tourism services. Hence, I would suggest that the four funding sources below be considered:
- government funding
- establishment of a Tourism Development Fund
- international donor assistance and
- private sector investment.
I don’t think we in Liberia need to sit around and cry about the kind of infrastructure developments and standards of living we should have been enjoying instead of begging for handouts from others. But we are not the only nation playing catch up in terms of our development. The great nations of Europe had to count on the generosity of the Americans through the Marshall Plan to rebuild their societies. We can do the same. We can start with developing a tourism program that rivals Ghana and the Caribbean countries with respect to natural beauty, adventure sports and hiking, excursion tours and safaris up our mountains, traditional villages, and open fields.
Equally important for our tourism program is a “one stop” Foreign Investment Assistance Center (FIAC). For example, if anyone wants to visit or do business in Liberia, that person could go to a FIAC and process all necessary travel and business documents from there. Fees to establish business in Liberia must be written down and Liberian lawyers should be available at each FIAC to help these investors with their business documentations. In other words, FIAC offices will do all the phone calls so investors will not have to go from one office to another, as is the case at present. Each FLAC should be staffed by representatives of the various Liberian ministries and agencies concerned with tourism and business travels and investment opportunities in Liberia. Each FLAC is also likely to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic, corruption and expectation to be tipped for service.
I think those bringing investment or visiting our country MUST not be discouraged through any form of bitter experiences. With the FLAC, the visitors or businessmen or women do not have to deal with greedy bureaucrats demanding kickbacks for their services. I do not see the need for the issuance of visa to visitors and investors going to Liberia because Liberia is still emerging from civil war, and I don’t think it is a wise thing to do now. And this is a fundamental question we need to consider as we explore the idea of developing a tourism industry and our investment sector in post-conflict Liberia. We need to look at the larger picture as opposed to delaying those who want to do business in our country with a low capital investment for a mere $50 or $100 in kickbacks.
Finally, we ought to muster the political will and moral fortitude to succeed as a nation and people and stop our petty jealousy by fighting to sabotage ideas and projects that do originate with us. The future economic growth of Liberia depends not only on teamwork but also on the collective vision of all the sons and daughters of Liberia. In this context, improvement in teamwork, communication, and coordination at all levels of Liberian society, including public and private entities and higher institutions of learning in Liberia will be the key to the future success of any tourism program in post-conflict Liberia. I fervently hope and pray that the God of our Ancestors will help us to work hard to restore and uphold the national honor, liberty, and glory associated with our national sovereignty. It is in honor of our national sovereignty that I beseech you, my fellow Liberians, to weigh this whole matter of trusteeship of our nation in the sanctum of your heart. I believe if we can search our individual hearts and find that self-governance, no matter how problematic is better than trusteeship, then we will join hands together as one people and speak forcefully against trusteeship. The fate of Liberia now trembles at potential loss of our self-determination, sovereignty, independence if we permit outsiders to take advantage of our divisions and impose trusteeship on our country and ourselves. With a deep-seated love for ourselves and our country, we can rebuild Liberia to become a tourist paradise. I believe hardship or the threat death can never destroy the ideas and visions of a great people, so we should never surrender our national sovereignty to anyone because of our present hardship from the 14-year civil war. We can rebuild Liberia, and we can start today by revamping our tourism program.
Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D., is an Associate Tenured Professor of Environmental and Occupational Safety and Health at NC A&T State University in Greensboro , North Carolina . He is the author of several books, including, The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and It Environmental Impact, Christianity, Colonization and State of African Spirituality, and Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration & Government of the Bassa (a book about traditional Bassa leadership and cultural norms published in 2003). Dr. Somah is also the Executive Director of the Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), a nonprofit organization based in Greensboro, North Carolina . He can be reached at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org