A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE BUREAU OF TOURISM AND THE PROPOSED LIBERIA NATIONAL TOURISM AUTHORITY

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The President of Liberia,  Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,  recently announced the setting up of a Tourism Exploratory Committee headed by Dr. Dawn Barnes, to assist in the formation of a Tourism Agency which will evolve into an autonomous agency after separation from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism.  First of all, if we take into consideration the Law under which the Ministry of Information currently exists, then the Bureau of Culture and Tourism should not be a part of the Ministry.

The whole “new idea” of separating Tourism from the Ministry of Information is something that has been in the making since 2013 when Dr. Barnes and others drafted an Act to create the Liberia National Tourism Authority.  A technical working committee, headed by the Ministry of Information, and comprising representatives from the Liberia Maritime Authority, National Investment Commission, the Environmental Protection Authority and others, was set up by the Governance Commission with the following mandate:

  • Review all laws relating to the establishment of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, including PRC Decrees;
  • Determine all laws to be amended or repealed relevant to the establishment of the Liberia National Tourism Authority;
  • Research and establish the legal status of the Tourism Bureau and the Tourism Board;
  • Determine functions proposed in the Act that may conflict with other existing entities; and
  • Receive, analyze and incorporate institutional comments.

The Committee was to work for a period of ten days,  beginning from its formation,  and report back to the Governance Commission. It has been a year since then and now an exploratory committee, comprising a member of the Technical working group, Ms. Barkue Tubman and Dr. Barnes who drafted the Act, has been set up to get things moving again.

While I wholeheartedly welcome the move by President Sirleaf, there are first a few things that I would like to reflect upon as the Committee gears up for the task ahead.

There is a lot of talk about the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) not doing much to uplift Liberia’s culture and Tourism image. Some people may say yes, but I disagree; and I would like to delve beneath the surface to find out the true source of the problem by being brutally frank here.  First, let’s go back to the draft Liberia National Tourism Authority Act:  “ the Act seeks to establish the Liberia National Tourism Authority, LNTA, as the principal government agency charged with the responsibility to encourage, promote, and develop tourism as a major socio-economic activity to generate foreign currency and employment in Liberia; to spread the benefits of tourism to both the private and public sector; and to serve as a regulatory agency with respect to strategic sectors of tourism. The LNTA will be the principal implementing agency of the Government’s tourism policies.” Fine. Now, let’s look at the existing laws that govern our tourism sector:

Under the Executive Law of 1971, the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Cultural Affairs was created. The Law also created a Bureau of Culture and a Bureau of Tourism within the Ministry. The Bureau of Culture was responsible to “plan and initiate programs in Liberia for the production, improvement and popularization of Liberia’s indigenous arts and handicrafts; to execute programs for the preservation of the folklore, mores and indigenous culture of the nation; to operate the National Cultural Center and ethnographical museum”. 

The Bureau of Tourism, on the other hand, was mandated by the Law, “to encourage and promote the tourist industry by conducting continuous surveys of potential touristic and historical sites.” The Executive Law of 1971 also created a National Tourist Board as an advisory Board, with the mandate of “recommending measures to stimulate the development of the tourist industry in the country, as well as recommend rules and regulations for the preservation, protection and operation of tourist attractions and centers all over Liberia so as to ensure the safety and comfort of tourists.”  

The Executive Law was carried out to the letter, until the military coup d’état of 1980, which brought a new outlook to the functions of the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Cultural Affairs.  The military coup brought into effect PRC decree 46, which created a Ministry of Information. Period. Under that Decree, which MICAT still operates, it shall be “responsible for the direction and supervision of all matters relating to THE INFORMATION programs of the government of Liberia, internal and external.”  Against this backdrop, there was created, under the Ministry of Information, the following sections: Public Affairs Bureau, Liberia News Agency, Bureau of Research and Library Services, Bureau of Audio-Visual Aids, Overseas Press Bureau, National Communications Bureau, and Motion Picture and Television Review Board.

Going further, PRC Decree 47 established the National Bureau of Culture and Tourism as an autonomous agency, separate from the Ministry of Information with the mandate of promoting the tourism industry in Liberia by collecting and publicizing all information pertaining to historical sites, landmarks and places of natural scenic beauty in the country; provide efficient administration, direction, and coordination for the activities of the National Tourist Board; serve as the regulatory body of the government in all matters on culture and tourism; organize, supervise and encourage the mass production, improvement and popularization of Liberia’s indigenous arts and handicrafts, etc. Under the National Bureau of Culture and Tourism, there was established a National Historical Publications Commission, a National Museum, and a National Tourist Board. The PRC decree also mandated that all budgetary appropriations of the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Cultural Affairs in respect of all cultural and tourist activities and functions be transferred to the National Bureau of Culture and Tourism.

While I do not have anything against the creation of the LNTA, the laws that established the Bureau of Tourism, as well as the National Bureau of Culture and Tourism as an autonomous agency of Government have yet to be repealed; and until this is done, the LNTA will remain a concept. I am not sure that the LNTA wants to be caught in the same tough spot where Culture and Tourism are today, especially since the Bureau’s autonomy abruptly ended somewhere around 1987 (under rather strange circumstances; no one seems to know how). The return of Culture and Tourism to the Ministry of Information led to a situation where culture is suffering and tourism is barely kicking.

The meager amount that Culture and Tourism receive in the Ministry’s annual budget as compared to Information, in my view, is one of the main reasons why the sector is not up and running.  Another thing is the way Liberians think of their culture. Most of us tend to look at culture more from an entertainment perspective rather than an educational perspective. As for Tourism, it must be seen from a marketing perspective.  It is a sector that has to be packaged as attractively as possible and sold to potential investors; and in order to accomplish this, it must be de-politicized.

If the law or decree that created the Ministry of Information in its present state is not repealed, then the Ministry of Information should be left to perform what it was established to do; and that is to interpret public policies so that they can be seen to relate to the aspirations of the people. Culture and Tourism should go back to being autonomous. Retain public affairs, audio-visual, research and planning, graphic arts and other media-related sections under the Ministry of Information, with a corps of highly trained staff to propagate government’s programs and policies.

But as it now stands, the Ministry of Information is faced with the rather Herculean task of running three agencies (information, culture, tourism) under one roof, which is proving to be a cumbersome task, to say the least. 

About the author: Elizabeth E. Hoff is Deputy Minister for Culture and Tourism at the Ministry of Information. She previously served as Deputy Minister for Technical Services from 2006 – 2012. She is also former President of the Press Union of Liberia.

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