Lonely Planet Writer

Why Sierra Leone has been named the world’s fastest growing travel destination

Sierra Leone has topped the list of fastest-growing tourism countries in the world according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). The West African country welcomed 310% more tourists last year compared to 2015.

Sierra Leone, Western, Bureh Beach.
Sierra Leone, Western, Bureh Beach. Image by Getty Images

According to recently released figures, in 2015 24,000 people visited the country but it is anticipated that figure rose to 74,400 for 2016. The sharp rise in visitors is partly due to the country being declared Ebola-free at the end of 2015. For the traveller, Sierra Leone is still West Africa’s secret beach destination.

Africa, Sierra Leone, Freetown Peninsula, Banana Islands, Ricketts Harbour
Ricketts Harbour in Sierra Leone. Image by Nick Ledger/Getty Images

According to Lonely Planet destination editor for Africa, Matt Phillips, Sierra Leone is a country, “with staggeringly beautiful beaches, rainforests sheltering endangered species and a vibrant capital laden with subtle historical overtones, and it should not be Africa’s secret destination any longer. The scars of its civil war are fading, as is the trauma of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, and tourism can play a huge role in bringing some prosperity back to this warm-hearted nation.”

Chimpanzee in Sierra Leone
Chimpanzee in Sierra Leone. Image by Shutterstock

The country is up there with the bigger African nations in terms of wildlife attractions. The Tiwai Island wildlife sanctuary alone is worth a visit and with 11 species of primate present in the sanctuary, it is one of the very few places in West Africa where you are guaranteed to see chimpanzees and other endangered primates such as the beautiful Colobus and Diana monkeys.

A couple of hikers admire the spectacular blue of Phoksundo lake while crossing a bridge in Dolpa, a remote region of Nepal
A couple of hikers admire the spectacular blue of Phoksundo lake while crossing a bridge in Dolpa, a remote region of Nepal. Image by Getty

Other countries to feature in the UNWTO list include: Nepal, which saw an increase of 39.7% in visitors last year. The country was hit by an earthquake in 2015 and is slowly recovering. According to Joe Bindloss, Lonely Planet Destination Editor for the region, “tourism to Nepal took a hit after the 2015 earthquakes, but visitor numbers are rebounding strongly. While many of Nepal’s most famous sights were affected by the disaster, there’s still an astonishing amount to see, and the trails that snake through the Nepal Himalaya still offer some of the best and most accessible high-altitude trekking on the planet.”

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, Iceland
Iceland is one of the key destinations in the series Game of Thrones and was the third fastest growing travel destination last year. Image by ©Adellyne/Shutterstock

It’s no surprise that Iceland is number three on the list for most visitors. James Smart, Destination Editor for Lonely Planet explains the rapid appeal of the country: “Ten years ago visitors to Iceland were eccentrics or adventurers or both. But travel to the country has rocketed in recent years. Essentially, word got out that it’s an astonishing, unique place with a tightly packed bundle of volcanoes, glaciers and fjords with a great wilderness at its heart. The people are a stoic and creative bunch, and a trip here can open up some amazing experiences, whether you hit popular Reykjavik and the Golden Circle in the south-west, or roam further afield.”

The top 10 fastest growing travel destinations for 2016 are:

Sierra Leone (visitors up 310%)

Nepal (visitors up 39.7%)

Iceland (visitors up 39%)

South Korea (visitors up 30.3%)

Moldova (visitors up 28.6%)

Chile (visitors up 26%)

Vietnam (visitors up 24.6%)

Japan (visitors up 21.8%)

Liechtenstein (visitors up 21.7%)

Kiribati (visitors up 21.6%)