That's who Ralph Hammelbacher, VP of Expedition Development, credits for Lindblad Expedition's pioneering visit to Liberia this week:
"In a perverse kind of way, the Somali pirates have done West African tourism a bit of a favor ... A number of ships that would otherwise be in the Indian Ocean are now on the West African coast because of piracy."
And that's why the 148 accomplished travelers aboard National Geographic Explorer found themselves in the historic position of being the largest group of tourists to dock in the Freeport of Monrovia, Liberia since the 1970s.
At the time of their arrival, the guests of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic had been aboard Explorer since departing Capetown on March 20, 2012, as part of our sweeping 37-day expedition along the West African coast. For them Liberia was Day 26 of an epic voyage, part of a kaleidoscopic encounter with West African history and culture. For Liberia, judging from their reception, it was an epic event.
Liberia was riven by civil war from 1989 to 2003. Peace officially began its tenure when Nobel Prize-winner, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first democratically-elected female head of state on the African continent. Since 2003, she and the country have accomplished much; feel it still has a way to go; and clearly were in the mood to celebrate when this encouraging sign of tourism interest arrived.
The ship was greeted by an avid welcoming committee: officials from the Ministries waved from the docks, dancers and drummers, simply costumed in graphic red, white and blue performed against a stage set of stacked, brightly colored shipping containers. As cameras clicked and motor drives whirred, Vice President Joseph Boakai and an entourage including Hon. Elizabeth Hoff, Deputy Minister for Information, Culture and Tourism and Karl Albrecht, Chargé D'Affaires, U.S. Embassy and his wife were welcomed aboard.
Vice President Boakai in turn, warmly welcomed the assembled expedition guests. Speaking to them in the Ship's Lounge, he joked that he had been in the United States a couple of days prior to encourage people to invest, but "little did I know I would have a captive audience right here." He was exceedingly eloquent and well-received, as were the other dignitaries accompanying him. There was ample time for questions and general given-and-take, and everyone, Liberian leaders and American tourists, headed into a companionable dinner.
"There was high excitement aboard the ship, with some thing of a circus atmosphere," Ralph Hammelbacher relayed to us, "it was a great experience for our guests. After all, the purpose of our expeditions is to introduce our guests to people who are making a difference in the places we visit. So, it was an honor for us to meet the Vice President of Liberia, and really interesting to hear about his commitment to rebuilding his beautiful country."
So thank you, Somali pirates. We owe an extraordinary adventure, in part, to you.