For many people, the name Sierra Leone still conjures up images of the country’s decade-long civil war and subsequent war crimes trials.
However, eight years after the end of the war, the country is hoping that tourism will be the key to its future prosperity.
One organization with an innovative plan to attract the visitors back is Tribewanted, a project to build an eco-tourism community on John Obey beach, 20 miles from the capital Freetown.
From October, the project hopes to attract tourists paying $450 a week to live in the community and help build a sustainable tourist village on the beach. The price includes all meals and a contribution to the community development. In addition, visitors will pay for their flights and transfers from the airport.
Ben Keene, co-founder of Tribewanted, told CNN, “We are going to be working with the local community of John Obey. We are going to build our village on this tiny peninsula and this is going to be our new life.”
This is the second Tribewanted project. The first began four years ago on the Fijian island of Vorovoro, which the organization claims has injected more than $1million into the local economy.
Elijah Eccles, a John Obey villager working as a cook on the project, told CNN, “We want to have tourists coming in so a lot of people will have a job to do.
“We used to work with tourists before, but because of the war everything broke down,” he explained. “But we want the tourists to start to come again.”
Daniel Macauley, another local working for Tribewanted, said: “I believe that eco-tourism will be good for development because the locals will be involved and we are controlling it. It will help to develop the community and other areas like schools and healthcare.
“We are sending out a message to the world that Sierra Leone is open for people to come and visit, to actually see what we can give to them,” he continued.
“There’s a lot to come and see: the people, of course, and the country and also the nature we have,” he said.
Filippo Bozotti, co-founder of Tribewanted, told CNN, “It’s the perfect project for Tribewanted to partner up with the local community for sustainable development.
“We are looking for this to be a long sustainable project that helps the community in the long-term,” he added.
The area has already come a long way since the devastation of the civil war, which ended in 2002 with the help of a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission.
“What’s amazing is this whole place has been built up since the end of the war, so these villages have been built completely from scratch,” said Keene.
The World Travel Guide, which describes itself as the “bible” of the travel industry, said Sierra Leone was trying to recreate the tourist trade it enjoyed before the war, when 100,000 foreign visitors came every year for its natural beauty, secluded white sandy beaches and unspoilt rainforests.
The guide said: “The government is starting from scratch, going back to basics to entice foreign travelers to return to this small corner of Africa.”
It said Sierra Leone was modeling its tourism development on that of nearby Gambia.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns its travelers of petty crime, poor infrastructure and few health facilities.
It said: “Transport infrastructure is poor. None of the options for transferring between the international airport at Lungi and Freetown are risk-free.”
The website VisitSierraLeone.org describes Freetown peninsula as “a taste of paradise”.
It said: “Probably offering the greatest potential in the tourism industry, the beaches along the Freetown Peninsula are a sight to behold.
“As tourism is still a developing industry in Sierra Leone, the beaches are not overwhelmed with visitors which means that most are still in pristine condition and on a weekday you could have an amazing beach entirely to yourself.”
A U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Freetown convened to try militia leaders on both sides of the civil war ended in October 2009 after seven years.
Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor is still on trial in The Hague accused of instigating atrocities during the war in Sierra Leone.