How can Liberia's tourism strategies promote public-private partnerships, creating jobs and economic linkages, particularly for the large numbers of unemployed youth?
By Amara Quardu Muhammad Kamara
The coronavirus pandemic and its global impact on the worldwide economy show the Liberian economy's precarious nature, including the painful effect on Liberians. In the span of two years (2018 - 2020), the country saw a deep decline in its primary export sectors, notably a sharp decline in the mining and timber trade. Over the same period, the country's currency depreciated by about 26%, and citizens witnessed a rise in inflation of more than 21%. Overall, the Liberian economy has been struggling for the past years; however, there is a prospect of growth, with GDP projected to increase from 0.4% in 2019 and the updated 2021 economic projection; the country's GDP is expected to grow by 1.6% (World Bank, 2019).
Despite these optimistic projections, the country's economy is still confronted with several challenges that have continued to stagnant its sporadic growth and keep its 4.5 million people at the bottom. Fortunately, the Liberian legislature, specifically the lower house, has suggested the establishment of the Liberia Tourism Authority, which with appropriate measures, will expect a positive impact on the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in terms of beefing up the revenue generation capacity, impact domestic product and as well attract more private sector investment - noting that the tourism sector is driven by private sector participation (Gboerreh-Boe). Since the act's endorsement, the Liberian National Assembly has received applause from experts and citizens with a deep belief that the hospitality industry will redirect the declining Liberian economy's path. To capture such benefits requires environmentally, socially, and economically grounded policy frameworks derived from industry experts. Given Liberia's current economic condition, tourism can be a potential trigger for economic growth and a conduit for job creation, drawing from examples of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya, respectively.
Tourism and Its Economic Impacts in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda
In Kenya, the tourism industry is the third-highest contributor to the country's gross domestic product, which is being promoted by the government as a source of growth and poverty eradication and a foundation of its Vision 2030. Tourism is a trigger for investment in other sectors, and it stimulates economic diversification across sectors of the Kenyan economy. Kenya's tourism product has grown up by offering unique products in its three major product lines: safari, coastal, and business and conference travel. Initial projections put Kenya's direct GDP contribution from tourism for 2009 at about US$1.5 billion, which is approximately 3.7 percent of GDP. This figure is on par with competing tourism destinations in Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, total direct employment in the sector is estimated at 217,000 to 483,000 if indirect jobs are included (World Bank, 2010).
However, Tanzania's success as a semi middle-income country is indicative of the country's efforts in ensuring strong income growth over the past decades, which has significantly influenced the sustainable economic paradigm and a persistent decline in poverty of the 58 million populations. Tourism is focused around its renowned attractions in the "Northern Circuit," the great plains of the Serengeti, the wildlife spectacle of the Ngoro-Ngoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, as well as the island of Zanzibar. Official statistics from Tanzania's recently updated gross domestic product (GDP) series suggest that tourism accounted for about 9.9 percent of GDP (equivalent to an amount of US$4 billion in direct and indirect contributions (Tanzania's Tourism Futures Harnessing Natural Assets, 2015). The author can vividly recall his unforgettable experience in Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, and Zanzibar Island during his educational tours in East Africa.
Meanwhile, Rwanda, as a landlocked country, has deeply harnessed the potentials of the hospitality industry through tourism, which is considered a trailblazer for the country's economic development. In 2019, the employment in the Rwandan tourism sector rose to 429 thousand persons growing at an average annual rate of 10.63%. Then in 2020, the sector's contribution to the country’s GDP was 1.7 billion US dollars. Over the last 20 years, the contribution of the industry to the GDP of Rwanda grew substantially from 0.1 to 1.7 billion US dollars rising at an increasing annual rate that reached a maximum of 71.72% (World Data Atlas). The tourism policy elaborated by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI) projected the country to grow international tourist arrivals to 2,219,000 visitors and anticipated to earn the country US$627 million in revenues by the year 2020.
The contributions of tourism to the mentioned regions can further be seen as an eye-opener of the Liberian government through the Economic Management Team, particularly the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Ministry of Commerce, National Investment Commission, and the Liberia Revenue Authority, to be deeply committed to its socioeconomic significance thus improving the service industry, gross domestic product and providing job opportunities for the unemployed youths. So, the passage of an act seeking to establish a Tourism Authority by the bicameral legislature marks the beginning of structural and radical economic governance and an essential source of economic diversification, particularly for a developing economy like Liberia.
How Tourism Could Leverage Economic Recovery Process of Liberia
In Liberia, the challenge of economic governance and the effective oversight of fiscal policy, concession, procurement, and natural resources pose a threat to our financial sustainability. However, the economic recovery process would consider the variety of policy issues to be addressed even before harnessing the tourism industry's enormous potential.
First, environmentally, socially, and economically grounded policy frameworks derived from industry experts should focus on strategies such as spur policy focus and improve the investment climate for the Tourism sector, improve necessary infrastructure for supporting the industry, improve skills development in the industry, ensure environmental sustainability and integration of local community involvement in the sector development process, improve institutional capacities and coordination in the sector and to improve the Liberian Tourism brand, and develop robust Tourism offerings amongst others.
Second, the government should reaffirm its support and commitment to the continuation of infrastructural development such as roads, energy, water and ensure that security and the healthcare sectors are meanwhile supported.
Third, at the local level, the government should be deeply committed to structural adjustment of the sector by ensuring that the cascading waterfall elsewhere in Kpatawee, Bong county, is secured, developed, and an environment-friendly site for tourism. Create recreational activities around and improve Lake Piso's experience as Lake Kivu in Rwanda. Also, given the historical significance of Providence Island, the government should redesign the island that will depict its historical nature. Upgrade Liberia National Museum with artifacts and statutes showcasing the days of slavery and the arrival of freed slaves to Liberia. Like Bagamoyo Island in Tanzania, Providence Island could attract international tourists based on its historical significance. Meanwhile, efforts to revitalize the industry will require the private sector's participation through a public-private partnership where conservation institutions will squarely handle the Sarpo National Park management and rebrand the park for tourism destinations.
Lastly, revisiting the visa policy by ensuring a visa-free approach will onward attract tourism destinations to Liberia considering our natural features, the cultural sites, and our history as the first republic on the continent to gain independence will further enhance the potential of the sector. These policy recommendations, when effectively applied, will break the nation's economic nightmares and enlarge the investment portfolio of Liberia by increasing the capacity of local firms, boost support for infrastructure development such as hotels and real estate, improve revenue generation, and as well lead to job creation.
Tourism is a catalyst for investment in other sectors, stimulates economic diversification across industries, and offers strong potential for environmental and cultural linkages by providing a financial incentive to preserve natural and cultural sites; undertake ecological cleanup efforts, and improve habitats. It is estimated that the sector accounts for over 30% of the global service exports and generated an estimated US$1.5 trillion in export earnings (UNWTO, 2020). This means that tourism expenditures can turn over 7 to 11 times in an economy and is essential to achieving effective socio-economic development.
The tourism industry is regarded as the most extensive and fastest-growing sector globally and a key driver for socio-economic development. In countries like Kenya, the industry's total direct employment is estimated at 217,000 - 483,000 jobs. It is also noted that the sector is labor-intensive, and stimulates the growth of Small Medium Enterprises, and can widely support poverty reduction strategy. Tourism also has a strong spillover effect; spurring growth is closely related to sectors and subsectors such as agriculture, furniture manufacturing, foods and beverages, arts and crafts, etc. (Liberian National Export Strategy on Tourism, 2016).
Given its unique history and natural beauty, Liberia is poised to capture a fair share of tourism revenue. A virgin forest representing 42% of the rainforest in the region followed by its endangered species, its geographical outlooks, the beautiful beaches and lakes, including miles of coastline, and the cascading waterfall Kpatawee provide opportunities for water sports and other recreational activities. Our country, founded on the foundation of freed slaves, connects our bond to African-American linkage. In Ghana, for example, the government has recorded consistent growth in GDP as a result of "Year of Return," which commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in the United States. The Year of Return represents an effort to "unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora." Like Ghana, Liberia is placed significantly to exploit the dividends associated with the Year of Return and to engage African-American communities in the diaspora to visit the oldest republic on the continent, which is home to enslaved Africans and the freed slaves.
About the author: Amara Quardu Muhammad Kamara holds double masters in Development Studies and Project Management at Mount Kenya University, Kenya, and the University of Kigali, Rwanda. He can be reached at email@example.com