New pool and sun deck - now, for the tourists
After 10 years of civil war, Sierra Leone isn't vacationers' top pick. But one resort is optimistic.
A crowd of revelers dances on the white, sandy beach to the pumping rhythm of techno music - a scene none too unusual for a coastal resort.
But this is Sierra Leone. And the Lakka resort has seen nothing like this for close to a decade. Today, it sits at the intersection of a war that has not quite ended and a tourism industry that has not quite resumed.
Pierre Johnson, the resort owner, surveys the boogeying crew of diamond dealers, ex-guerrillas, aid workers, and diplomats - as a UN helicopter patrols overhead - and grins.
He talks about his plans. He wants to open a boutique, perhaps bring in some bamboo sun umbrellas, get light bulbs into all the bungalows.
"Small small," he says, speaking in the local Krio, a pidgin English language spoken here. It means "slowly," and it also means "patience." It's a common phrase heard on these lovely, but desolate, shores.
With the cease-fire to a 10-year-old civil war holding and the UN cautiously optimistic that peace is on its way, the economy here is seeing some small signs of revival. And Mr. Johnson is fervently hoping that the revival will eventually extend to his line of work.
Tourism was never a major industry in this small West African country, which had long relied on subsistence farming as the backbone of its economy. However, before the war ravaged the land, scared off any visitors, and forced all other countries to put out travel advisories warning against setting foot here, there were those who considered Sierra Leone a secret paradise.
Charter flights would be filled months in advance with adventure and sun seekers, and the dozen or so beach resorts along the white sandy coast were booked solid for most of the year.
"We would take them to African villages, we would take them on swamp trips .... They would see waterfalls and jungles," says Chris Robertshaw, financial director IPC Travel, the largest travel agency in the country. "We were a hidden wonder. A gem."
Johnson, a Sierra Leonian whose father built the Lakka resort 20 years ago, ran away to the United States when the rebels showed up in the early 1990s and ransacked the resort.
This year, he came back to rows of bungalows buckled onto the sand and tennis courts swallowed in weeds. Looters had sold everything from the beds to the light fixtures.
He bought a generator, re-tiled the swimming pool, and rebuilt the sun deck. He began renovating the bungalows and renting them out to guests for $20 a night, asking them to bring their own towels and soap.
The last time these bungalows were used was three years ago, when the Red Cross briefly transformed the spot into a hostel for war amputees. Since then, the place has been deserted.
"I was homesick," says Johnson, "and moreover, I had a gut feeling it was over. The war was over. My being here is not much about money. It's about my country. If we are lucky, this place could really be something."
Johnson is happy to play host to the expatriate crowd on weekends for now, and while he is planning to get some "real" tourists sometime soon, he has his skeptical moments.
"I'm not sure anyone in their right mind would take such a big leap of faith as to market Sierra Leone and start bringing in charters again," he says bluntly.
"No matter how well the peace process seems to be going ... there is always a 50-50 chance it will reverse and all collapse," he pauses. "But I am prepared for the best."