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Visitors to the Liberian capital of Monrovia who pick up a new tourist map will find directions to the city’s historic highlights, including the Masonic lodge – one of the oldest in Africa – and remnants of the old city built by freed American slaves who settled there in the early 1800s.
But they may be surprised to see that it also features the location of the local sewer commission, an apocalyptic-looking advert for four-wheel-drives, and a handful of streets with no names.
Despite these incongruent recommendations, the map is being hailed as a major step towards normality in a city better known for its burnt-out buildings than for its historic sites and cocktail bars. Thousands of copies of the six-page map have been distributed throughout the city, highlighting restaurants, gyms, bakeries and casinos.
“Monrovia is a beautiful city in a very dramatic natural setting – with a rocky peninsula and the ocean on one side, and a mangrove marsh on the other. There are beaches outside of town that are excellent this time of year – there is absolutely no reason why Monrovia couldn’t have some tourist potential,” said John Sheehy, founder of Emerging Business Lab, which created the map. “This is not just about showing expats where to go to for a coffee or wine, but a tool for other countries and cities to show we are open for business. I am very proud of what it is doing for the city and the country,” said Sheehy.
The map is the latest evidence of a tourism industry that is slowly but steadily blossoming. One tour group advertises the country as “a land of rich, unexplored rainforest, longer-than-the-eye-can-see deserted beaches, and a kind hospitable people” and says “few have visited its magical jungles and breathtaking beaches”.
The arrival of cruise ships since 2010, attracted to the west African coast in part due to its relative safety compared with pirate-ridden east Africa, saw a group of 150 mostly American tourists visit Monrovia this year. They were reportedly the largest group to visit since the 1970s and enjoyed a welcome from a local dance troupe and government officials, as well as a dinner with the vice-president, Joseph Boikai.
But even the tourism industry reminds clients that the country was “lost to the world for two decades”. The map’s creators say that although there is a large divide between rich and poor – with only a minority of the city’s inhabitants able to enjoy many of the map’s attractions – a growth in tourism will be of wider benefit.
“There is absolutely a big divide … we have tried to confront that gently on the map,” said Matthew Jones, co-founder of the Emerging Business Lab. “We include and list all the local markets in the same way we list a supermarket, as well as police stations, churches, mosques so that there are landmarks for all the communities too. It is not just the fancy hotels and main boulevards.”
“The community of people who actually go to those sushi bars and nightclubs is small,” said Jones. “But the middle class is growing here, and they all use the banks, and a lot of the restaurants.”
Despite the increase in tourists, the main beneficiary of the growing number of foreigner-friendly goods and services is likely to be the large but tight-knit expatriate community, with UN officials presiding over 8,000 peacekeepers, and a growing number of foreign investors.
“This is a positive development for Monrovia,” said the city’s mayor, Mary Broh. “It has hotels and restaurants and all that but it also encourages investors to come in by helping them to navigate through the city, just like a regular map in the west.”