Tourists Make Historic Visit To War-Ravaged Liberia

Apr 18, 2012
Originally published on April 19, 2012 8:26 am

Liberia has been better known for conflict than tourism the past couple of decades.

But this week, a group of 150 tourists, many of them Americans, arrived for a brief stay in the small nation on Africa's West Coast. When their cruise liner docked in the capital of Monrovia, they became the largest group of tourists to visit the country in many years, probably since the 1970s.

Dock workers in Monrovia usually unload cargo ships full of secondhand clothes or rice — not a cruise ship full of American tourists.

That's why the visitors on the National Geographic Explorer cruise liner Monday attracted so much attention. A dance troupe performed for them, officials from the ministries waved from the docks, and Vice President Joseph Boikai joined them for dinner.

"I just came from the United States a couple of days ago, speaking to a group of people, encouraging them to invest," Boikai told the tourists. "Little did I know that I would have a captive audience right here."

The cruise began in Cape Town, South Africa, last month. It was Day 26 for the tourists when they reached Liberia, and they had less than 24 hours before getting back onboard to head along the coast to Marrakech, Morocco.

Ralph Hammelbacher, director at Lindblad Expeditions, which organized the cruise in conjunction with National Geographic, says piracy and terrorism in other parts of Africa are making places like Liberia much more desirable.

"In a perverse kind of way, the Somali pirates have done West African tourism a bit of a favor," Hammelbacher says. "It's strange to put it that way, but a number of ships that would otherwise be in the Indian Ocean are now on the West African coast because of piracy."

But for Liberia, a country that suffered two civil wars from 1989 to 2003, this was a special visit.

"Even after 14 years of civil war, we still have something to show, and we would like for these tourists to take advantage of this visit to Liberia, and just let the sky be the limit," said Elizabeth Hoff, Liberia's deputy tourism minister.

Peace finally came to Liberia in 2003. And then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made history by becoming the first democratically elected female head of state on the continent. She began by clearing Liberia's crippling foreign debt, building new roads and strengthening the security forces. For her efforts, she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

But there is still a long way to go. Less than 1 percent of the country is connected to the national electricity grid; unemployment is alarmingly high; and access to justice is a challenge.

Peggy Williams — a tour guide with Barefoot Safari, one of only two tour operators in the country — had a busy day of sightseeing planned for the visitors.

Dressed in their khaki safari gear, the eager tourists explored Monrovia.

Some, like 80-year-old Jerry Harrington, had even been to Liberia before — in his case, more than 40 years ago.

There has been a lot of change between then and now.

"There's a lot of traffic, all these burnt-out buildings," Harrington said. "You know, they went through a lot here. I guess it was a free-fire zone for several war periods, but I guess we'll see more of that as our tour continues."

Liberia still resembles a war-torn country, and the U.N. still has 8,000 peacekeepers stationed here.

But there's been significant development in recent years, and the government said the visit by the tourists signaled that the country is moving in the right direction.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To the west coast of Africa now, where Liberia is better known for conflict than tourism. But this week, a group of 150 tourists made history for the small troubled nation when their cruise liner docked into the Port of Monrovia. They became the largest group of tourists to visit the country since the 1970s.

Tamasin Ford has our story from Monrovia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Dock workers here usually unload cargo ships full of secondhand clothes or rice, not a cruise liner full of American tourists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORD: This is why the visitors arriving on the National Geographic Explorer are attracting so much attention. A cultural troupe dances for them, officials from the ministries wave from the docks and even Vice President Joseph Boikai joins them for dinner.

JOSEPH BOIKAI: I just came from the United States a couple of days ago, speaking to a group of people encouraging them to invest. Little did I know that I would have a captive audience right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FORD: The cruise began in Cape Town last month. It is day 26 for the tourists. They will have less than 24 hours in Liberia before getting back onboard to make their way up the coast to Marrakech in Morocco.

Lindblad Expeditions director, Ralph Hammelbacher, says piracy and terrorism in other parts of Africa are making places like Liberia much more desirable.

RALPH HAMMELBACHER: In a perverse kind of way, the Somali pirates have done West African tourism a bit of a favor. It's strange to put it that way, but a number of ships that would otherwise be in the Indian Ocean are now on the West African coast because of piracy.

FORD: But, for Liberia, this is more than just a visit. These tourists are making history for the West African country. This is the biggest group of tourists in 70 years.

ELIZABETH HOFF: Yes. And that's what's so great about this whole trip and that's why we're excited about this whole trip.

FORD: Elizabeth Hoff is the deputy tourism minister.

HOFF: Admittedly, after 40 years of civil war, we still have something to show and we would like for these tourists to take advantage of this visit to Liberia and just let the sky be the limit.

FORD: Peace came to Liberia in 2003 and then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made history by becoming the first female head of state on the continent. She began by clearing Liberia's crippling foreign debt, building new roads and strengthening the security forces.

But there is still a long way to go. Less than one percent of the country is connected to the national electricity grid. Unemployment is alarmingly high and access to justice is a challenge.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: This way.

PEGGY WILLIAMS: All right. I want to officially welcome you to Liberia. Hope you enjoy your stay.

FORD: Tour guide Peggy Williams from Barefoot Safari, one of only two tour operators in the country, has a busy day of sightseeing planned. Dressed in their khaki safari gear, the eager tourists are ready to explore. Some, like 80-year-old Jerry Harrington, have even been to Liberia before. In his case, more than 40 years ago.

So, what are your first impressions of what's changed?

JERRY HARRINGTON: Well, there's a lot of traffic. All these burned out buildings. You know, they went through a lot here. I guess it was a free fire zone for several war periods, but we'll see more of that as our tour continues.

FORD: Liberia still resembles a war-torn country. Eight thousand United Nations peacekeepers are still stationed here, but development is everywhere and foreign investors are flooding in. The government says the arrival of these tourists signals the West African country is moving in the right direction.

For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.