VENTURES AFRICA - Although international hotels groups continue to pump billions into new tourist developments across West Africa, there is one country where, until now, such investment has been missing. Sierra Leone, still recovering from a civil war that divided its people and devastated its productive capacity, remains off the tourist radar, far less popular than package-holiday havens in nearby Gambia. But Ventures Africa can be the first publication to reveal that one business aims to change all that.
Sweet Salone, founded by a publicity-shy British multi-millionaire, has in recent months been quietly developing two new hotels on the picturesque Sierra Leonean coast. The first to open will likely be a business-oriented airport hotel at Lungi International Airport, while the second, on the Western Peninsula outside Freetown, will cater mostly to beach-going tourists.
Construction has been slower than expected, reflecting problems with title deeds and land ownership records in the wake of Sierra Leone’s chaotic civil war. Other construction delays have stemmed from issues common throughout rural West Africa: poor electricity connectivity, for instance, and drainage issues. But Sweet Salone seems confident of opening both of its hotels by the end of 2013.
This will be a considerable achievement. A rival project, called Mape, aimed to build a new city outside Freetown, and Hilton Hotels promised to site a new tourist hotel within the complex. But despite vigorous government backing and generous funding promises, Mape has still not materialised: the usual problems of electricity, sewerage and land ownership have caused severe delays. In this context, Sweet Salone’s progress is impressive.
Furthermore, the company’s foreign backers profess a convincing emotional attachment to Sierra Leone, its people and its landscape. For this reason, they are committed to the wider development of the Sierra Leone economy: local farmers, for instance, will be brought into the supply chain at Sweet Salone’s hotels, and other locals can expect much-needed training and employment. These initiatives are sadly atypical at other hotel developments in west Africa: at one five-star hotel in Accra, for instance, the staff is made up exclusively of Kenyans.
But Sweet Salone will have its problems. Tourist numbers in Sierra Leone remain stubbornly low, at just 4,000 visitors per year – by comparison, Gambia gets more than 100,000. Tourists stay away from Sierra Leone because of overhanging – though no longer justifiable – fears over the country’s political situation, and the situation is exacerbated by the government’s short-sighted visa policy, which requires all non-ECOWAS nationals to pay at least $75 for a visa and queue at an embassy for hours. Sweet Salone will face an uphill battle to attract tourists in sufficient numbers to fill its rooms.
On the other hand, business traffic to Sierra Leone is booming. The country already welcomes about 60,000 business visitors per year, and this number is growing fast. Business is driven principally by Sierra Leone’s natural resources: not just the diamonds of the eastern Koidu fields, but rutile, bauxite, and now oil (exploration is taking place off the coast). As a sign of how quickly things are developing, Air France launched direct flights to Paris in 2011, and Lufthansa will fly to Frankfurt from 2013. British Airways is deploying bigger planes than before and will add an extra weekly service from October. Expats and foreign contractors report that many flights to Freetown are full.
All those business passengers need somewhere to sleep, but at present, quality hotel accommodation is scarce (and hence eye-wateringly expensive); indeed, outside Freetown, it is virtually non-existent. So, as elsewhere in West Africa, businessmen are often confined to expensive private apartments where basic amenities are poor: showers are cold, electricity is intermittent, and guests can forget about exercising in a gym or swimming in a pool. Imported alcohol is so rare that, in expat bars, gin-and-tonic cocktails sell for upwards of $15.
Sweet Salone hopes to secure long-term block bookings from these weary businessmen, attracting them with a host of services previously unheard of in Sierra Leone. Through Mango Aviation, a consulting firm with expertise in African aviation and hotels, Sweet Salone has brought in European experts who have created a four-star amenities menu that will deliver international service standards (and cheaper cocktails) while remaining sympathetic to local culture.
By opening its first two hotels in 2013, Sweet Salone hopes to steal a march on big-name rivals like Hilton and Marriott, who each have their own plans to open franchises in central Freetown. The company aims to cement its first-mover advantage by later opening a third hotel in inland Sierra Leone. But in the meantime, a fight is on to establish supremacy in this virgin territory. If Sweet Salone wins, Sierra Leone will benefit.