By Joe Monyue
When Lonely Planet, the authoritative global tourism magazine, rated Liberia as a must-visit tourist destination early last year, the endorsement, in essence, was a call to action for the government of Liberia to reimagine tourism and make it a national priority.
The magazine article notes: “Africa’s oldest republic, has mountains to climb, cities to explore, broad sandy beaches to play on and national parks to search for some of the continent’s most enigmatic wildlife. You can also surf, swim and trek or just kick back in a hammock on the edge of the rainforest. Yet nobody you know has ever been here.”
The fact is that Liberia is endowed with unparalleled natural assets: over three hundred miles of sun-kissed beaches, West Africa’s largest virgin forest, not to mention lakes and rivers dotting the country from Cape Mount in the West to Maryland County in the east.
Given the proper focus, there is no doubt that tourism can dramatically become an economic game-changer for the country. Global tourism is a $1.7 trillion industry. Tourism in Africa contributed 8.5% (or US$194.2bn) of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). So, as the data states, there is an abundance of opportunities in that sector, but how does Liberia monetize its natural tourism resources?
For starters, the country has to have an autonomous agency that serves as a regulatory body; that means decoupling the Bureau of Tourism and Cultural Affairs from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism where it has been relegated for the past 50 plus years.
Moreover, It is imperative that the newly minted agency be headed by an entrepreneur and not a politician. The reason is simple. Successful entrepreneurs, by nature, are problem solvers; they have the vision, drive, ambition, and stamina, soft skills that are critical to the development of a vibrant tourism sector.
Additionally, the tourism head will also have to get a buy-in from the private sector, a group that will definitely be more comfortable dealing with someone who understands the nuts and bolts of the private sector, as well as the challenges they face. Besides, tourism is a business, and it makes sense to have a business-minded individual at the helm.
The agency would work hand in glove with the National Investment Commission (NIC) to help catalyze private investment and strengthening promotional and marketing efforts.
Setting up an agency is one of many steps toward boosting tourism. Firstly, there needs to be a merger of public and private partnerships; the government will need to provide infrastructure, i.e., roads, clinics, etcetera, as well as incentives such as tax breaks, guarantee bank loans to entrepreneurs to get greater participation of the private sector.
It is the entrepreneurs within the private sector that will build hotels, restaurants, and spur a thriving job-creating, supply-chain ecosystem that will help the government increase its tax base, boost foreign exchange, and in essence, expand the economy.
Ordinary Liberian citizens can also benefit by signing up with Airbnb to temporarily rent out their homes or rooms to visiting tourists, as is the norm nowadays in tourist-friendly countries. Ghana in February (2019) saw an upsurge in Airbnb rentals from homeowners during the Year of Return, an indication that even the average citizens of that nation are now part and parcel of its tourism ecosystem.
While the establishment of a national tourism agency or authority will serve as a cog for job creation and economic growth, the Liberian government will have to send out feelers and indicators to the international community that it’s open for business. So it’s mission-critical that measures such as Visa-free travel to Liberia, or visa on arrival, as well as an aggressive marketing campaign that will promote some of the tourism hotspots.
Tourism is a pretty expensive business. Building the infrastructure that includes a transport network to the various destinations will require a massive infusion of capital, so the Liberian government will need to come up with an out-of-the-box, creative strategy for financing, and reaching out to the Liberian Diaspora for help with development financing via a Diaspora Bond may be the answer.
And here’s why. The Liberian Diaspora has one of the highest proportions of remittance per population on the planet; a few years ago, a third of Liberia’s GDP came from its Diaspora. In fact, remittances from the global Diaspora eclipsed the revenue collected by the government, according to the then-president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. There is no doubting the affinity of Liberians abroad for their homeland, so, like Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, and other African countries that have floated Diaspora Bonds, once a plausible presentation can be made, mechanisms, audits and controls put in place to ensure transparency, there will be strong support from Liberians abroad.
Lonely Planet and the global surf community have given tourism in Liberia a thumbs up; now, it is the government’s turn to ensure that this multi-million dollar sector is given appropriate attention.
Joe Monyue is an entrepreneur living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He can be reached at [email protected]