West Africa Discovery website

Please visit the West Africa Discovery website to learn more about West Africa and our selection of sustainable tourism tours, accommodations and voluteer projects.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The future of tourism in nigh… at the WTM World Responsible Tourism Day

I have been going to the World Travel Market since 2007, and this year’s WTM, in my opinion, is going to be the most interesting yet, and the event that I have always looked forward to the most is the World Responsible Tourism Day.

The difference from 5 years ago is noticeable. The awards event, on the Wednesday, has blossomed into a glamorous display of candid debates, exciting nominations and inspirational stories. The competition has grown in leaps and bounds, the judges have become fiercer in their criteria, and most importantly, the notion of responsible tourism is spreading across the industry.

The atmosphere in the World Travel Market always feels more positive on that day. The buzz of the tourism entrepreneurs talking about their recent projects, their new environmentally friendly schemes, their community engagement achievements, or the new experiential activities they have launched, creates a permeating aura of progress and positivity, especially at the RT networking event.

Clients and customers meet to discuss future plans, connections are made, friendships developed, ideas discussed, and thoughts shared. It is, from experience, one of the most interesting and useful events of the whole tourism calendar in the year. No wonder why responsible tourism has become the talk of the whole WTM.

Having looked at this year’s schedule, responsible tourism workshops and talks have sprouted all over the 4 day travel industry bonanza, rather than just on the World Responsible Tourism Day. Apart from the RT awards, I shall be attending as many workshops as possible, including ‘Maximising Local Economic Development’, ‘Responsible Volunteering’, and ‘Activity Tourism’. Another opportunity not to be missed for someone wanting to expand their knowledge on the subject is the ‘Speakers Corner’ event that will allow people to share their ideas, frustrations and thoughts about how the tourism industry should be more responsible.

Wanting to play my part in the debate, I took the opportunity to voice my interest, and was nominated as one of the speakers to talk about a topic of my choice. I shall be talking about the responsibility that international consultants have when working with developing countries to implement tourism products. If you feel inclined to partake in the debate, come and join me at 12pm on the Wednesday. (Location: AS275 - South Hall and UKI230 - North Hall)

The World Responsible Tourism Day is a day of celebration for what has been achieved, of reflection for what is left to be achieved, and a coming together of like-minded people who want to make the travel industry more responsible, sustainable and socially aware. An industry in which tourism is not only seen to be an opportunity to discover the beautiful world we live in through more experiential and authentic travel experiences, but can also be used as a tool to make destinations better places to live, and better places to visit.

So join me, and many others, on Wednesday 7th November to experience the future of the travel industry, at the World Responsible Tourism Day 2012 (www.wtmwrtd.com). 

Monday, 10 September 2012

A review of "Stories from Lakka Beach" - a documentary about the lives of a community in post-conflict Sierra Leone

Whenever I speak about Sierra Leone, I usually get the same reactions: "is is safe?" "isn't there still war in Sierra Leone?", or I just get met with confused facial expressions that show off the thought process of: "Sierra Leone? I've heard of the name before, but I can't quite place it on the map." Having been to Sierra Leone myself, having travelled around the country meeting different local communities, and having already booked my ticket to go and live over there for a year (at least), I can say that it is a safe, beautiful and dynamic country with a lot of potential.

In the build up to my departure, I have been making a lot of contacts in Sierra Leone, and especially with those who are actively working to change the image of the country and to place it on the world map with a reputation it truly deserves, based on facts, transparency, and by telling the story of the people who make 'Sweet Salone' the country that it is, and is becoming.

One of these people is Daan Veldhuizen, a film maker from Amsterdam who spent months in Sierra Leone, specifically in a coastal village called Lakka on the Western Area Peninsula, just below Freetown (the capital). Whilst there he filmed a documentary exploring the lives of the people that make up Lakka beach, the characters that give it its vibrancy, its colours, and its unyielding positivity and lust for life.

"Stories from Lakka Beach" has just been released on DVD after a year of touring independent film festivals and winning several awards in the process. I managed to get a copy, and sat down to watch it, excited at the prospect of discovering more about a country that already holds a place in my heart, and the people that call Lakka beach their home.

Set in beautiful surroundings, on a pristine beach that once featured in the 1980's Bounty chocolate bar commercial "A Taste of Paradise", this award winning docu-film follows the everyday lives of a cast of characters, diverse in the experiences they have been through and the aspirations they have in life, but united by a civil conflict that, even eleven years after its end, has left the country scarred and struggling to get back on track. By exploring their philosophies on life, their visions of the future, their past experiences, their struggles and their successes, the film gives the audience a rare glimpse into the psyche of a post-conflict society set on progressing positively towards the future, regardless of their economic hardships and ever mindful of the obstacles that lie ahead.

"Stories from Lakka Beach" is a tale of resourcefulness and determination, coupled with a simple yet deep philosophy that will make the viewer meditate on what is really important in this life, and realise that no matter how hard things get, the ability to look towards a brighter future and see the positive side to everything will overcome any hardships.

The trailer below will give you a taste of what to expect in the film.

For more information on the film itself, and how to purchase the DVD, go to www.storiesfromlakkabeach.com. The DVD is packed full with features such as 4TP's "Cham Chicken" music video (see below) and it comes in a very good looking case that could be framed as a photo.  You can even have the option to get an original wood carving as a gift item. Definitely a collectable!

To learn more about Sierra Leone, as well as other countries in West Africa, please visit www.westafricadiscovery.com or join our a community of people passionate about West Africa here.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Dust, Sweat and Cheers: Sierra Leone's first International Marathon - by Charlie Habershon

Charlie Habershon, co-founder of volunteering organisation The Collective - Sierra Leone based in Freetown, shares his experience of Sierra Leone's first ever international marathon.

Photo: Mark Gillett - JungleMoon Images

'Aporto, aporto' is the cry of Makeni's children whenever a white person is spotted. This comes from the Timni word for the early Portuguese settlers. But by 12 o'clock on Saturday the children's voices were hoarse. Never had they seen so many 'Aportos' on the streets of Makeni. Sierra Leone's first International marathon, organised by the charity Street Child of Sierra Leone, had just been completed. 

Running a Marathon is no easy task. Doing it in the heat of Sierra Leone, is exceptional. Officials reported that temperatures were at 32 degrees with a staggering 92% humidity. I took the decision not to run. Instead, along with The Collective - Sierra Leone volunteers I joined the support team ensuring that the runners had water, energy snacks and moral support around the track. All of us at The Collective were keeping a close eye out for Sally, a local runner who was a friend of our volunteers. 

I first met Sally in January, when we stopped in at the local poyo bar close to our volunteer's house. She was working hard ensuring all the local drinkers had their cups full of palm wine. 

She told us of her love for running. She had been part of a team that took part in the annual Waterloo to Freetown race, an event in which she finished second. Sadly, women's athletics has for a long time been short on funding and so she has received very little formal training. 

Fortunately, our first cohort of volunteers were keen runners. They soon got to know Sally and began to run with her in the early mornings. She would consistently put them through the paces, gliding gracefully over the muddy tracks around the outskirts of Makeni. While the volunteers rested over breakfast, Sally was straight back to work selling drinks. When it came to marathon registration, the volunteers all got together to pay Sally's entry fee and gave her some running kit that could give her the edge. 

Come race day, we gave Sally a lift to start line. She seemed unfazed by the challenge and excited to get started. I found out later that she had not even had breakfast. Surrounded by over a hundred runners from around the world, she looked relaxed as the official signalled the start of the race. 

Two and a half hours later and the runners started to trickle in. We continued to keep a close eye for Sally, hoping that she could be up amongst the top women. At around the 4 hour mark, the first female came across the line an experienced runner from the UK. This was a pattern that followed for the top three. But at around the 4:20 minute mark we spotted Sally, charging towards the line. As she breezed past the finish, she became the first Sierra Leone women ever to complete a marathon on home soil. What's more she barely looked tired. 

As the other runners came in, Sally danced to the local band and quizzically examined the various energy supplements in her goody bag. It was an emotional moment as she stepped onto the podium with her proud father to receive her cheque from a local representative of UN women. But soon after her moment of glory it was back to work, selling drinks like she has always done.

It was a remarkable day for three simple reasons. Firstly, the organisers brought over 150 people from around the world to Sierra Leone. These people saw the beauty of the country, met the people and will now return home with positive stories. Secondly, it gave Sierra Leone athletes, like Sally, the opportunity to run in a competitive race and learn from experienced runners. Hopefully they will be motivated to continue to train and sponsors will step forward to make the dream of Rio in 2016 a reality. And finally, and probably most remarkably, everyone finished.

Follow Charlie on twitter @ www.twitter.com/thecollectivesl

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The many ways travel can benefit destinations in West Africa

Being a West Africa aficionado and responsible tourism campaigner, I talk within this blog post  about my thoughts on how travelling to a country such as Sierra Leone can help change the countries' image for the better, can allow for the traveller to have amazing experiences, and can go a long way to helping local communities develop a sustainable income. I have recently helped organise an expedition, in Sierra Leone, for Secret Compass to that effect.

Western perceptions of African countries are shaped by the media focus on the events that take place within its borders. Let’s take the example of Sierra Leone which was ravaged by civil war for 11 years from 1991 to 2002. The stories of atrocity and bloodshed were given high coverage by the western media.

In 2006 Hollywood highlighted the plight of the people in Sierra Leone by making the film Blood Diamond. This told the story of diamonds mined in African war zones, sold to finance the civil war and in turn profiting the warlords and global diamond companies. With such high media coverage the image and reputation of Sierra Leone as a war-torn, dangerous country has stuck. Now ten years after the civil war has ended Sierra Leone wants to change that image for good, in order to show the world that the country is a totally different place today. It is safe, the people are friendly, and it is still untouched by mass tourism.

Does this look like a scene from Blood Diamond?

What better way to change peoples’ perspective about a destination than by letting them see for themselves how the country is now, and they will go back home, tell their friends and share their experiences.

This is what I did. Having travelled to West Africa on several occasions, and having lived in Senegal, I had an idea of some of the misconceptions that people have of West Africa, and especially of countries that had experienced conflict, famine and drought.

The western media has, for many years, portrayed many of West Africa’s nations as dangerous, oil spilling, disease ridden, dictator ruled, underdeveloped countries; but the truth couldn’t be further from this. I can’t deny that some parts of West Africa are less safe than others, but there are so many exciting places to discover, inspiring people to meet, and life-changing experiences to have.

In my recent trip to Sierra Leone (locally known as Salone), I travelled across country from the Ocean to the ‘Provinces’ – the Hinterland of the country – to learn more about the backwaters of such a misunderstood part of the world.

My first experience was the western Peninsula are region found just under Freetown. A place of natural beauty, lined with pristine white and yellow beaches, gradually fading into virgin rainforest covering mysterious hills cloaked in mist, inspiring many a legend told by the locals.

"A place of natural beauty, lined with pristine white and yellow beaches, gradually fading into virgin rainforest covering mysterious hills cloaked in mist..."

I don’t want to sound clich├ęd, but I felt like I was in paradise! I had walked along the vast stretch of beaches from community to community, trying to get a feel of the area. The local communities’ hospitality was overwhelming. One moment I had a freshly opened coconut in my hand, and the next a cup full of sweet Poyo, or Palm Wine, freshly tapped from this special type of palm tree. As the locals put it, the fermenting nectar is “a gift, from god to man!”. I could’ve stayed there for the whole time, but the promises of adventure in the rainforest were calling!

So I jumped on an Okada (a motorbike taxi) to the next major city of Waterloo, negotiated for a space on a rickety minibus and took-off on a 6 hour trip along a “surprisingly smooth motorway” (recently funded by an Italian mining company) to the second largest city of Sierra Leone, Bo: ‘Gateway to the Gola Forest’.

I had heard of some amazing places to visit in the Gola Forest located in the Lower Guinea Rainforest belt. Once the notorious stronghold for the rebels during the Civil war, it is now a stable part of Sierra Leone where small mud hut villages are separated by meandering jungle paths criss- crossed by streams. Not to mention the mighty Moa River running through the region!

The mighty Moa River, with Tiwai Island in the background

During my brief stint in the region of Bo, visiting a village called Potoru and the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, I managed to gain a clear insight into the regions potential for organising expeditions, ‘off-the-beaten-track’,  so as to explore the region more in depth.

I had never seen such a concentration of wildlife in one place! Primates, birds and insects; all competing to be the centre of attention. I had also heard of there being cobras and green mambas, as well as crocodiles, hippos and the elusive, rare and endemic pygmy hippo.

I had conversations with local fishermen about the relationship that the people living along the Moa River have with the animals. Talks of crocodiles saving fishermen from drowning, and hippos warning them of impending danger was one of the topics covered; villagers speaking to monkeys through special calls passed down from generation to generation was another. However, I did meet a local guide who had had a close encounter with a crocodile and had the scars to tell the tale.

I remember talking to villagers around an open fire about spirits, secret societies and magic. There is still the local fascination with the ‘Kamajor’, traditional hunters who claim that they have supernatural powers thanks to the ‘gri-gris’ or talismans they wear. It is said that they can shape-shift into animals and inanimate natural objects and remain concealed until the opportune moment.

This is definitely not a place for the faint-hearted, but would appeal to those with a sense of adventure, a thirst for excitement and knowledge, and those searching for unforgettable and awe-inspiring experiences.

The most important is the journey, and not the destination...

Sierra Leone is still somewhat of an unexplored part of the world for travellers, but holds an undeniable potential for the development of expeditions, adventure activities and exciting cultural encounters. Slowly but surely however, tour companies and hotel developers are creeping in to tap into the natural beauty and relaxed vibes that Salone’s coast radiates, and if not managed properly, the local communities are at risk from losing what could be their ticket to a sustainable economic development through tourism whilst holding true to their ways of life and unique laid back attitudes.

Taking this into consideration, I will be going back at the end of November to explore the coastal and rainforest covered regions of Salone more in depth, as well as to visit many local communities. I will be conducting a recce for an expedition run by Secret Compass that I helped organise, and I’m hoping to look into other possibilities that could hold the key to helping local communities develop an income through tourism that respects the social and environmental elements of the destination through the implementation and development of the responsible tourism concept.

Sierra Leone and its people deserve more than being known as a nation in turmoil. The country’s people are positive, the times are changing for the better, and so should peoples’ perspectives towards some of the most beautiful yet misunderstood parts of the World. Exploring a country such as Salone can help develop more of a respect and understanding towards the country, its culture, its environment and its people. So, what are you waiting for?

Thomas is the founder and CEO of West Africa Discovery, a web portal aiming to raise awareness towards West Africa as a travel destination, as well as promoting responsible tourism ventures that aim to make destinations “better places to live in, and better places to visit”. Visit www.westafricadiscovery.com, or join a growing community of people passionate about West Africa on Facebook or Twitter.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Responsible Tourism is here to Stay!

I woke up one morning, in a tent, to the sound of birds chirping. Adapting to my surroundings, I slowly became conscious of where I was. I opened the tent door, stepped outside and thought: “Wow! This is why I am here”. I was on Tiwai Island, a place of significant biodiversity, located on the Moa River, in the middle of the Gola Rainforest, in Eastern Sierra Leone. I had decided to visit the island on my trip of research and discovery in a country renowned for a brutal civil war and child soldiers. Those images couldn’t be further from the truth.I was travelling by local transport from tourism project to tourism project, assessing the level of responsible tourism principles that had been implemented within the current activities, or failing that, the potential for implementing responsible tourism ethics within already established tourism ventures.

You can read more about this journey of discovery here, but I think that responsible tourism needs explaining first.

So, what is responsible tourism? It can be summed up with this quote from Prof. Harold Goodwin, founder of the International Centre of Responsible Tourism, on the occasion of the drafting of the Cape Town Declaration (2002) on responsible tourism in destinations: “Responsible tourism aims to make destinations better places to live in, and better places to visit”.

Responsible tourism also aims to:
  • Increase the benefits that tourism can have on a destination whilst making sure to reduce the negative impacts associated with mass tourism.
  • Offer authentic and unique experiences to the tourist, whilst taking into account the social, economic and environmental elements of a destination.
  • Highlight the fact that local communities are hosts, not tourist attractions; and that the environment is an important element of the overall experience rather than being a playground for the planet's privileged.
  • Make common sense the principal driver for change; and that disrespect and injustice, the colonial perspective, must become obsolete. “Treat people the way you want to be treated” is the ethic behind the idea.
This type of tourism, this movement, this ‘new’ (not so new in the grand scheme of things) way of thinking is growing. The idea that tourism can be used as a tool for poverty alleviation, for peace, for the understanding of new cultures (whether from a hosts perspective or that of the visitor) is slowly taking over the ‘mass tourism’, only for profit, generic model.

Responsible tourism may be considered a niche by critics, a ‘fad’ that will fade with time, but it is far from it. Responsible tourism guiding principles can be applied to all forms of tourism that cater for all age-groups, all markets, in all destinations. It is here to stay!

To learn more about responsibility and responsible tourism, here are a few resources:

Or for more information contact me at thomas@westafricadiscovery.co.uk or follow me on twitter or Facebook.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Event - Responsible Tourism Week 2012 - Volunteering: Good, Bad or Ugly?


Responsible Tourism Week 2012


Good, Bad or Ugly?

Highlighting Responsible Tourism week, Travel Matters in association with West Africa Discovery are hosting an event with guest speakers Ben Keene from Tribewanted and Chris Hill from Hands Up Holidays.

Voluntourism – good, bad or ugly?
Wednesday 15 February 2012 at 7pm – 9pm
Make Travel Matter Talk @
Harrisons 15 – 19 Bedford Road, London SW12 9EX

For interest to attend, contact Travel Matters by email info@travelmatters.co.uk or tel 0208 675 7878

Responsible Tourism Week is a free, five-day unconference exploring down-to-earth applications of noble concepts including responsible tourism, conscious travel, the local travel movement and ecotourism with effective and inexpensive social media and local events.


Travel Matters make it their business to not only organise bespoke holidays which minimise on negative impact whilst maximising on quality, but to educate clients as to how they can continue to make a difference in their future adventures. Karen Simmonds, owner of Travel Matters set up the awareness campaign Make Travel Matter www.maketravelmatter.co.uk

West Africa Discovery is a web portal raising awareness towards West Africa as a destination for responsible travel by actively promoting accommodation, tours and volunteer projects that implement responsible tourism principles within their activities.www.westafricadiscovery.co.uk


Tribewanted Their mission is to build sustainable communities in amazing places that benefit locals and visiting members; inspiring positive change within and far beyond the village. http://www.tribewanted.com/

Hands Up Holidays is a luxury travel company with one big difference. They want people to have more than an amazing vacation; they want them to have a remarkable experience that you will treasure forever by combining expertly-led sightseeing with meaningful community development through volunteering or philanthropy. http://www.handsupholidays.com/

Organisation of interest

Fair Trade Volunteering has been set-up to kick-start a movement towards a more transparent volunteering practice.http://fairtradevolunteering.com/

Our thanks to Meet the People Tours for supporting this event. http://meetthepeople.skedaddle.co.uk/


February 15th 2012 - 7pm until 9pm


Balham, South West London
Harrisons 15 – 19 Bedford Road, London SW12 9EX