Your friend and mine Tony Blair has been arguing that tourism is the way out of Sierra Leone's troubles. Mr Blair wrote in the Guardian that;
"economic collapse and a decade-long civil war drove tourists away – many to neighbouring Gambia which now attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, mostly Europeans in search of winter sun.The day after Aminatta Forna disagreed. She points out that;
"But the fundamentals that made Sierra Leone an attractive destination remain strong: unspoilt beaches, beautiful tropical islands, world-class fishing and diving, and a rich cultural and historical legacy linked to its role in the slave trade and beyond."
On Blair's last few trips to the country he has never left the airport... But it is the madness of how modern aid is distributed and prioritised that, despite the billions spent by the international community, the country's infrastructure remains scarcely improved.Quite. For real development you need a real economy, but there's a deeper issue here about how tourism effects nations in the developing world. It creates an economic and political apartheid.
In 30 years every new leader - be they dictator or democratically elected president - has promised the economic miracle of tourism, the quick fix. It hasn't happened yet. For the Gambia, a small strip of country with few natural resources, tourism offered the only choice. Forget diamonds - Sierra Leone, with rich agricultural soils, has a better choice. Once a rice-exporting country, it is now a rice-importing country. Investment in agriculture is long-term, sustainable, and would benefit the entire country.But nothing can happen without a working infrastructure.
In many countries it creates entire swathes of a nation where the poor cannot go. Sometimes the poor are simply priced out by a parallel economic system, sometimes they are literally barred from entry by force. Tourism can also create an economic distortion that actually shifts people away from the long term work of building an economy that benefits everyone. As I wrote in January 2008;
"If people in the local area see that they can, potentially, make five times as much engaging in tourism rather than, say, agriculture or manufacturing the simple truth is that you are encouraging that area to develop the least sustainable, least useful part of their economy. Your friendly tour guide has made a very rational choice to try to groom tourists rather than doing something that might actually help build up long term resources."In order to create safe zones for Westerners an overt militarisation takes place to keep out those whose living standards fall well below that of the wealthy visitors. The corrupting influence of corporations entrenches a staggering inequality.
A new resort in Sierra Leone would require helicopters priced highly enough to exclude 98% of Leoneans. A resort would mean beaches "unspoilt" by Africans, Hotels where the only locals in sight are taking out the bins and turning down the beds. Lastly it requires walls. High walls well manned with armed guards so that one patch of Sierra Leone excludes Africans just as surely as Fortress Europe and the USA.
Health care, electricity and policing are all improved for the tourists. But this comes to the detriment of improvements for the poor. I'm certainly not opposed to tourists per se, we should all have the opportunity travel, but I am opposed to gearing a poor economy towards prostituting itself to the Global North.
It makes sense to Blair who appreciates the benefits that living in a pampered parallel universe brings. For the millions living in grinding poverty tourism offers nothing because it closes off opportunities rather than creates them. Building infrastructure, economic regeneration and democracy has to be done for the benefit of all the people.