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South Sudan turns to tourism in bid to draw line under past unrest

Travel firms adopt wait-and-see approach as government seeks to entice visitors with safaris, Nile rafting and climbing trips.

When Carsten Lillelund Pedersen visited South Sudan in November he was almost turned back at the airport.

The immigration official had never seen a tourist visa before.

“They told me the country doesn’t have tourists,” said the Dane, 49, who travelled on a whim after visiting a friend in Uganda.

While South Sudan has six national parks, 13 game reserves and is rich in biodiversity and resources, safaris are not uppermost in the mind when thinking about the war-torn nation. Five years of fighting killed almost 400 000 people, displaced millions and plunged pockets of the country into famine. Government and opposition forces alike have been accused of committing human rights atrocities, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

As the country slowly emerges from conflict, with a fragile peace deal signed last September, it is looking to diversify revenues instead of relying almost entirely on oil.

In February, for the first time since gaining independence in 2011, the ministry of wildlife and tourism hosted a three-day marketing workshop with the East African Community, a regional body comprised of six countries. South Sudan is working with Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, all of which have established tourism industries to make it easier for people to travel across borders.

The government is banking on the country’s geographical and cultural diversity — it has 64 tribes — as well as Nile rafting tours, mountain climbing and conservation tourism to entice visitors, said Joseph Oroto, director general for tourism. A total of 16 travel agencies operate within the country, and there are more than 180 hotels in the capital, Juba.

Not since the 1970s, when there was a lull between civil wars in Sudan, have tourists poured in. Less than 6% of the national budget is put towards the wildlife ministry, and last year no money was allocated towards tourism development. Visitors like Pedersen are rare.

Humanitarians working in the country are reluctant to invite guests to a place that’s strictly censored by the National Security Service and notorious for being more dangerous for carrying a camera than a gun.

The government knows that, without investors, the industry will take decades to develop. Companies reluctant to do business in South Sudan are waiting to see what happens in November, when opposition leader Riek Machar is expected to return and once again serve as President Salva Kiir’s deputy. When the two leaders last attempted to work together, it ended in failure as fighting broke out in Juba in July 2016. Machar fled the country on foot.

But some communities are eagerly getting started. Situated on the edge of the Bire Kpatous game reserve, along the Congolese border in Western Equatoria state, villagers from Ndoromo are trying to shed a brutal past. Terrorised by the Lord’s Resistance Army and crippled by own civil war, locals have been increasing efforts to preserve the park and stave off poachers. The aim: enticing holidaymakers.

“It would be the best thing for tourism to come here,” said Masimino Pasquale, a community volunteer who patrols the reserve.

Becoming a tourism hub will take some time — Ndoromo lacks basic infrastructure such as easy access to water, paved roads and buildings that could accommodate visitors.

Conservation experts warn against viewing tourism in Africa, especially in volatile countries like South Sudan, as a “silver bullet solution”, said Alison Mollon, director of the Africa programme for Fauna & Flora International, a wildlife organisation. It can work, she says, but it needs to make sense for the context and be resilient to shocks such as war.

This is an edited version of a feature originally published as part of the Guardian’s Global Development project.