In much of the developing world, particularly in countries with a beautiful coastline, tourists flock from all over the world to experience new cultures, environments and activities. Not so for Liberia.
Nearly 15 years of civil war have given the country an international reputation for gruesome violence and child soldiers running amok. Thought that reputation is now out of date, the legacy of horror remains as a deterrent to foreign visitors. Although there are hordes of expatriates working for development organizations, there is no industry to serve tourists, and no tourists to support the growth of such industry.
Up in Robertsport, a picturesque fishing town three hours drive from Monrovia, two California men aim to put Liberia on the tourism map. Likely, they will succeed, as they have an attraction to offer that can be found, nowadays, virtually nowhere else on earth: world-class surfing with no crowds.
Sean Brody, 28, brother of American actor Adrian Brody of “The O.C.” fame, and Daniel Hopkins, also 28, opened Kwepunha Retreat on a wide strip of beach last fall. So far, they’ve been hosting mostly ex-pats from Monrovia, but now the first destination surfers are starting to trickle in, lured by waves up to four metres tall that form the swirling tubes worshipped by devotees of the sport.
The guesthouse is providing direct employment to cooks, cleaners, and souvenir makers whose carvings and craft goods Brody and Hopkins sell to their guests. Money for food supplies, such as freshly made banana bread for breakfast and fish and pineapples for meals is flowing into the community. And the two men are putting 15 per cent of their profits into a community-health plan created by a New Zealand medical consultant last year.
The incredible natural beauty of Robertsport is a draw in itself. Palm-lined beaches, white sand, jungle-covered mountains and warm water perfect for swimming appeal across the board, whether a visitor surfs or not.
Quite likely, as surfers come, and rumour spreads about an untouched paradise on the Liberian coast, backpackers will start to arrive, more guesthouses will spring up – the typical first stage of tourism development. As these first visitors bring stories back home, other travellers will come, and tourist facilities will grow in response.
Robertsport, where jobs are few and the fallout from the war still troubles much of the population, stands to reap considerable benefits from the growth of tourism. But such industry carries risk: UN human rights officer Daniel Achireko, stationed in Robertsport, believes property values will go up tenfold in the town over the next decade, and he envisions huge hotels along the beach. Such an outcome would bring jobs, but displace Liberians and raise the cost of living significantly.