Hesta Baker, an outspoken tourism entrepreneur and advocate, has called on the government to prioritize and see the sector as an engine for growth.
Hesta, who spoke on the theme: “Sustainable Tourism – A Tool for Development,” during the celebration of this year’s World Tourism Day celebration, noted that Liberia, unlike Ghana, Seychelles, Cayman and many others, is endowed beyond belief with a multi-billion dollar tourism industry bursting to come alive, but yet neglected.
The celebration was held at the Providence Island.
Baker said tourism is an activity that has grown by around 25 percent in the past 10 years and now accounts for around 10 percent of the world’s economic activity, making it one of the main generators of employment.
“Yet, Liberia is not actually benefiting from this sector nowadays when they do in fact have a beautiful coastline with 360 miles of pristine, amazingly gorgeous and picturesque beaches and rural communities that are rich in culture and opportunities for conservation.
“However, in the 60’s and 70’s, the country was receiving tourists who came with their wealth and… celebrities came to stay (Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela, Nina Simone, basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell, and more).
“If you ever doubted whether we have what it takes…just look back. Imagine they were only in Monrovia. We had Kendeja with Nimba Burr, blacksmiths on sight, craftsmen where you could hang out for the day and feel the culture. It’s gone, but not lost.
“Tourism has opened a number of destinations worldwide, it is time Liberia’s government see the need to make it a priority, which will become a key driver of socioeconomic progress through the creation of jobs and enterprises, export revenues, and infrastructure development,” Madam Baker noted.
Meanwhile, she frowned at people who believe that developing the tourism industry in Liberia requires lots of money, something she describes as “wrong.”
“Tourism requires heart, love, and commitment to our country, its culture, people, and the need for the world to experience what we have. It cuts across all people. We now need to start with developing an all-inclusive strategy with short-term targets, a major education, and strong engagements. With that, we are on the first step to developing tourism,” she added.
On what Liberia needs to do to develop a sustainable tourism industry, Baker said the government needs to change direction from high impact tourism in order to reduce its impacts on the local environment, and improve quality of the products offered in line with new market trends.
“Within the tourism sector, economic development and environmental protection should not be seen as opposing forces—they should be pursued hand in hand as aspirations that can and should be mutually reinforcing. Policies and actions must aim to strengthen the benefits and reduce the costs of tourism.
“Spain, Mexico, and Egypt provide examples of destinations with established or developing coastal resorts and heritage towns where it was realized that better planning and reduced environmental impact were essential for long-term economic as well as environmental sustainability,” she revealed.
She said there is a need to back up a tourism product and market position that is based on the appeal of the area’s natural environment with a policy to underpin its good management and future sustainability.
“In Costa Rica, early success with ecotourism defined the market positioning of the country as a nature-based destination and has stimulated an emphasis on sustainability in the country’s tourism strategy,” she continued. “In Kaikoura (New Zealand) the focus on environmental management underpins the town’s appeal as a green destination based on a stunning coastal setting and a whale watching product. In Scotland and Australia, the initial interest stemmed from the importance of the fine natural environment for the country’s tourism.”
Ms. Baker said there is the need and opportunity to develop a form of tourism which would bring income to rural communities and benefit conservation, with a supportive policy framework.
“This is the situation in Bulgaria, where individual ecotourism projects were failing through lack of coordination and marketing. In Ghana the creation of a network of community-based tourism projects has raised the level of interest in tourism as a tool for sustainable development and the fight against poverty,” Madam Baker said.
She called for the government to get talking by calling a meeting with key stakeholders every week to develop an immediate tourism strategy – not policy, and start implementing it.