Addressing Sierra Leone’s national image crisis: An imperative to present the ‘Other’ Sierra Leone with the right national images.

By Ishmael Kargbo

National Images are everything when branding a destination for tourist consumption. The right images are a stimulant and an assurance for the suitability of a destination for a dream vacation. In a fierce and competitive war over tourists, no nation can be sure of attracting international audiences without the right national images. And this is the world in which Sierra Leone, the forgotten paradise is jockeying for presence. Click on google and search for Sierra Leone. The search engine will reveal an assortment of images ranging from the past to the present. Honestly, some of the old images one encounters on the global search engine makes for a little appetite for tourist consumption. Visibly seen in other search engines are some images that are reminiscent of the countries troubled past. A further search on other popular social media platforms like You Tube may also expose you to more troubling national images that will not get you packing immediately for a trip to Sierra Leone, if you had not previously experienced her. But do such images really capture the true story about Sierra Leone’s unique tourist characteristics? Is the country’s story been told the right way and by the right agents?

The usual narrative of Sierra Leone by international media exacerbates the situation, as it invokes negative images, which are undermining to say the least for any government’s tourism development ambition. In the context of Sierra Leone’s nation brand image, such images of the civil war, economic depravity, poverty, the outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in 2014 and the mudslide etc, all pose a threat to the way the country is perceived. Over time, very little attention to the country’s national image has gained prominence in nation brand image discourse. Despite efforts to reposition the country as a peaceful, regional peace-broker, attractive tourist destination, a growing democracy in the sub region, and foreign investment friendly, negative images have tended to blur the essence of Sierra Leone. Projecting her authentic and positive images amidst the fact of her murky past have been challenging to the nation’s rebranding effort. Imperfect knowledge or complete ignorance that some people have with regards to the country’s unseen features have tended to give rise to what had become detrimental with regards to national image perception. As all countries compete with each other for tourists, investors, donors, media attention, positive images are crucial for enduring and sustaining the competition.

Undoubtedly, Sierra Leone needs to re-brand and such an endeavor should embody the soul of the nation. Sierra Leone’s nation brand is much more than the images of a long forgotten civil war and the epidemic, both of which have been aptly condemned to the country’s past. The country’s national image had been left to drift away for a very long time. This was partly because in post conflict Sierra Leone, no government institutions had seriously worked on managing the country’s image. If at all some did, the promotion of Sierra Leone’s national image was done with lip service. Added to this is the subsequent neglect over the projection of core images that represent the true nature of what I will call “Sierra Leoness”. The nation’s brand image had been left to the mercy of the international media, with limited insight into the innermost characteristics of the country. It is therefore not surprising in the past, that the scanty and negative portrayal of Sierra Leone in the context of nation branding had not produced any intriguing results.

In the backdrop of growing marketization of tourist destinations and the concomitant global competition in a clogged international tourist market, Sierra Leone should in earnest re-double her efforts towards a long-term national image repair that could potentially strengthen her position globally. The imperative of presenting the ‘Other’ Sierra Leone is ipso facto a national urgency that will align the government’s ambition at rebranding Sierra Leone as an ideal tourist destination

Current activities at the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs are indicative of a paradigm shift. Sierra Leoneans are now telling the story of their country’s uniqueness. For all good reasons, Sierra Leone now immerses in an aggressive destination branding battle over the wallets of international audiences seeking the perfect get-away destinations. National agencies are amplifying the battle with their arsenal of eye-bulging national images, which are communicated to international audiences like never before. In simplistic terms, Sierra Leone is competing with geographies, not only internationally, but, subsequently against her closest regional neighbors for tourists, trade, investment and businesses. The rivalry among these regional entities has resulted inter alia the gradual development of a stream of promotion campaigns on the world stage. Since gaining political ascendancy, the new minister and the Tourist Board have participated in a series of international tourist trade fairs. Rubbing shoulders with top international tour operators and the throng of spectators at the fairs. Even sometimes to the extent of being the biggest attraction at the events. The resultant effect of such episodic activities has culminated in familiarization tours organized by the ministry. It is no secret that such efforts are designed to illuminate Sierra Leone as a unique tourist destination among her neighbors, who have come a long way in this fragile hospitality sector. For now, the national image repair process and the promotion of the country as a unique tourist destination are seemingly producing anticipated results. However, much is required to gain a greater impact globally.

The processes should look at the following areas. First, to correct existing image gap. Where Sierra Leone’s true identity fails to be appreciated by eternal audiences, indifference or overwhelming negative stereotypes will persist. Secondly, addressing the urgent need to develop a compelling brand position for Sierra Leone. Thirdly, to market internationally fundamental features of Sierra Leone’s national identity, which are relevant for our country’s undiscovered tourist industry, and lastly, to illuminate locally that such features are a perquisite for sustainable economic development.

Sierra Leone has come of age. The country should be reckoned with, with its multi-dimensional tourist offer. Yet it is believed that the soul of Sierra Leone is yet to be explored by both Sierra Leoneans and the foreign audience.

Despite the fact that Sierra Leone hosts an array of features, such as culture, art, heritage, or natural resources that make up the country’s complex national identities, comparatively, she had lagged behind in tourism development. But times have changed and the national image crisis she had suffered in the past is being corrected, albeit cautiously. These features, when properly marketed would work towards creating a differentiated image in the minds of the insatiable consumers. Unlike most countries in the West African sub region, Sierra Leone is endowed with a specific and more distinctive identity. With such virtue, the country needs to be differentiated through a unique brand identity, if she wants to be recognized as an alternative tourist destination and perceived by audiences as possessing qualities superior to those of her neighbors or competitors.

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