- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

MONROVIA, Liberia

Liberia’s slow but steady recovery from more than a decade of civil war has raised the prospect of developing a tourist industry in this nation with historic ties to the United States.

Moreover, a recent $38 million deal brokered by the World Bank, United States, Britain, Germany and Norway allowed Liberia to retire $1.2 billion of its debt, freeing up government resources that could be used to draw visitors from wealthy countries.

“Danger lovers and people who have to get information come to Liberia,” entrepreneur Menipakei Dumoe said.

Mr. Dumoe, 23, founded Wow Liberia Tours last year with the help of American investor Seanan Denizot, who manages marketing for the new company.

Catering mostly to expatriates and people in Liberia on official business, Mr. Dumoe and his staff arrange tours of the capital, Monrovia, and day trips outside the city to forests and beaches.

Along the way, tourists learn of Liberia’s tumultuous past and see the hidden beauty of a country that is often overshadowed by its many problems.

Liberia was established in the 1820s, when black Americans sailed to West Africa as part of an experiment arranged by abolitionists and slave owners in the United States.

But in recent decades, poverty, tribal rivalries and economic instability have produced a succession of civil wars that ended in 2003, when warlord Charles Taylor, then the nation’s president, was driven into exile. Mr. Taylor is being tried in The Hague on 11 counts of war crimes.

An estimated 200,000 Liberians died in civil wars that began in the late 1980s.

The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005, the first democratically elected female leader in Africa, plus the presence of nearly 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers, have brought a measure of stability.

The U.S. State Department warns visitors to “exercise caution” when traveling to Liberia “especially at night” and to be aware that U.N. peacekeepers won’t necessarily be able to protect visitors.

In other words, Liberia remains a dangerous place, mainly because of crime. Its near-term appeal is likely limited to adventure seekers.

But some investors are looking ahead.

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of the BET entertainment network in the United States is the main investor in an $8 million resort on the outskirts of Monrovia.

Kendeja Resort & Villas, slated to open in early June, offers visitors a protected oasis of swimming pools with sculpted waterfalls and Western-style accommodations.

Liberians have high hopes that the resort will attract more foreign investors and create jobs.

New restaurants also are setting a foundation for tourism.

A fusion cuisine cafe called Ro-Zi’s N’yla Cafe - “n’yla” means “watering hole” in a local tribal language called Kpelle - opened in February.

Owner Rosemarie Tolbert, the niece of late President William Tolbert, moved from Rockville, Md., to Monrovia in 2004. She hosts “Tapas Thursdays” and “Fondue Fridays” at the small, modern cafe behind a steel gate in a poor neighborhood of Monrovia.

When U.N. peacekeepers, whose presence now helps support upscale eateries, leave Liberia, she hopes that tourists will take their place.

“It’s really my hope that we don’t give up, even though things may be rough and some days may be worse than others,” Miss Tolbert said. “Keep thinking of where we could possibly be and then keep on trucking.”

Before the war, Liberia had several upscale restaurants and hotels. The Ducor Palace Hotel, managed by the Intercontinental chain, boasted a large swimming pool, tennis courts and a French restaurant. Hotel Africa was another luxury hotel. It was built during Mr. Tolbert’s administration in the 1970s, with a casino and chalets on the beach.

“All of these places were world class,” Minister of Tourism Scholastica Doe said. “But unfortunately for us, the war brought everything down.”

Dreams for ecotourism also are big.

Before the war, Liberia’s largest protected rain forest, Sapo National Park, had an annual canoe tour. Staffers from embassies piled into the wooden boats and drifted down the murky green Sinoe River like a scene out of “Huckleberry Finn.” The park also had a camping site and a game-viewing area.

Today, that’s all gone and one enters the forest at his own risk.

Illegal mining and game poaching camps, with names like “Iraq” and “Afghanistan,” lie deep within the forest. Campers who want to hike just a few hours first must take a bumpy, 10-hour drive along dirt roads to reach the park’s outskirts. They must bring their own tents, food, water. A life jacket also is advised because they must also cross the Sinoe River in a canoe.

But a few visitors come every year with the hopes of getting a glimpse of rare species such as a small deer called the zebra dyker or the colobus monkey.

Morris Kamara, Sapo’s manager for protected area management wants to see more tourists.

He said the forestry ministry is planning a new national tourism program that includes carving out trails under the forest’s thick canopy.

On the Atlantic coast, domestic tourism is already blooming at an oceanfront tent lodge at Robertsport, a sleepy town on the edge of Sierra Leone, where 10-foot swells lure surfing enthusiasts.

At Nana’s Lodge, visitors can stay in large tents with double beds, a mini-fridge and an attached deck for $100 a night.

Alfred Lomax, a Liberian surfer featured in the 2008 documentary “Sliding Liberia,” has a dream to run a surfing business at Robertsport. He found a body board during the war while scavenging Monrovia’s port for rice and he taught himself to surf.

On his Web site, www.surfingliberia.com, he offers to show surfers the waves in Monrovia and Robertsport.

His dream is big, but business is slow right now.

“Like most everything in Liberia, this site is currently under construction,” he wrote on his Web site.

It may take years before Liberia has the capacity to support a large-scale tourism industry - or can persuade visitors to come.

But informing people about new developments is a start. Entrepreneur Hester Pearce, who moved to Liberia from Texas a few years ago, publishes a quarterly tourism magazine, Liberia Travel & Life.

The glossy, $7 magazine, she said, is expected to reach racks in Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble in the United States later this year.

“I was always frustrated with the portrayal that Africa always got,” Mrs. Pearce said. “You begin to lose the image of your own country. I began buying into the fact that Africa was war, starving children.”

Inside the latest issue, the glossy photos don’t capture the poverty, insecurity and destruction that continues to haunt much of Liberia.

Instead, fashion models pose on green hill tops, among church ruins and along blue waterways. Past issues tell visitors where to find a Sunday gospel brunch, where to find a love nest and where to shop.

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