Ghana made international headlines in 2019 when the government launched the ‘Year of Return’ to mark 400 years after the first slaves from West and Central Africa landed in the Americas. Spiritually, the Year of Return was designed to entice Africans and Africans in the Diaspora to reconnect to their roots. Economically, the Year of Return was meant to brand and market Ghana as a preferred investment destination.
Ghana was a major transit point for transporting slaves to the New World, for which Ghana felt a responsibility to welcome all those who could trace their ancestry to Africa. In 2019, the Ghana Tourism Authority forecast the Year of Return to attract 500,000 extra visitors. Data from January to September 2019 indicated an additional 237,000 visitors from the US and UK, a rise of 45% compared with the same period in 2018.
The apparent increase in arrivals during 2019 was within the context of overall annual total tourist arrivals of between 900,000 and one million to Ghana. During its celebration of the era, Ghana was reported to be the most favoured tourist destination in the world.
Economically it was projected that the Year of Return would inject about US$1.9bn into the economy. Susequently, the Year of Return’s success compelled government to plan the launch of ‘Beyond the Year of Return’ in 2020. Unfortunately, the onset of COVID-19 disrupted the initiative as major economies around the shut down, and tourism and its associated sectors suffered a major setback.
On April 3, 2022, President Akufo-Addo embarked on another global campaign to reenact the Year of Return and brand Ghana as the best destination for tourists. Like 2019, the 2022 initiative is projected to attract additional tourists as the global economy is gradually opening after adjusting to COVID.
As a country that is saddled with debt and interest payments, rapid depreciation of the currency, high inflation and low revenue mobilisation, ‘Destination Ghana is a prudent COVID-era economic recovery strategy. Moreover, due to the aversion of many Ghanaians to taxation, government is seeking several avenues to increase revenue – and tourism is seen as a major foreign exchange earner that has largely been untapped.
At the launching of ‘Destination Ghana’, President Akufo-Addo noted that interest in nature-based adventure and leisure tourism is offering new opportunities to tourists. “Ghana has an abundance of these offerings, and that is what we are here to present to the world – using our historical connection with the United Kingdom as a launch-pad,” the president said.
He believes that the tourism industry offers a great avenue to deepen Ghana-Britain relations for mutual benefit of the two countries, adding that: “We can turn the tourism and hospitality industry into a major tool for positive transformation of the Ghanaian economy, and into a win-win situation for investors”.
According to President Akufo-Addo: “Ghana is not only gifted with a rich culture, but is also the best place for doing business in West Africa, as well as being the safest and most stable country in the region”. President Akufo-Addo indicated that over the last few years Ghana has embarked on a product improvement plan, with several tourist sites in the country undergoing site renovations to attract more tourists. The sites include the Aburi Botanical Gardens, modelled after the famous Kew Botanical Gardens in London; the Yaa Asantewaa Memorial Museum at Ejisu; and the Kente Museum at Bonwire, both in the Ashanti Region.
President Akufo-Addo further disclosed that a GH¢100billion COVID-era economic recovery initiative targetting skills development is ongoing. This initiative is under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and the Ghana Tourism Authority.
According to him, in 2022 an about-US$25million World Bank facility will be expended to upgrade iconic monuments like the famous Elmina and Cape Coast Castles; the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park; the Mole and Kakum Parks; and Cultural Museums at Yendi in the Northern Region, Ejisu in the Ashanti Region, Akropong in the Eastern Region and Ho in the Volta Region.
An additional US$40million World Bank facility will be used to support SMEs in the hospitality and beverages sector. This intervention is expected to position the tourism and hospitality sectors as key drivers of social and economic development. While President Akufo-Addo appealed for support from business partners across the world, he challenged the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and its agencies to ride on the back of the ‘Destination Ghana’ project to help attract one million tourists annually from Britain and Europe by 2024.
“I want to invite you, here in London and Britain, Europe and rest of the world to the centre of the world, where longitude zero degrees crosses latitude zero degrees; where the bright sunshine enriches the quality of the skin and bodies of all; where music, dance and culture not only create fun, but also excite the body, soul and mind for spiritual growth. Indeed, I welcome you to Ghana, the centre of the world, to enjoy our famed hospitality and take advantage of our favourable investment climate,” the president told his audience.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave-trade transported more than 12 million African slaves from their homes in Central and West Africa to European colonies in the Americas. The inhuman trade changed the social and economic make-up of communities on both sides of the Atlantic forever – and remains one of the most shameful and damaging episodes in human history. Today, sites associated with the slave trade have become places of pilgrimage for visitors from all over the world, many of whom are descendants from ancestors that were displaced by slavery.
Ghana is probably the most popular destination for African-Americans hoping to reconnect with their heritage. There are an estimated 40 significant slave monuments in West Africa, with Ghana hosting 24 of them and the rest in Senegal, Gambia, Benin and Nigeria etc. The significant monuments in Ghana include: the Pikworo slave market at Paga-Nania in the Upper East Region (site of the slave trade genesis in the Gold Coast); the Salaga Slave Market at Salaga in the Savannah Region; the Assin Manso Slave Port; the Assin Praso Mass Grave; the Christiansburg Castle in Accra; the Cape Coast Castle, the Elmina Castle and the Anumabo Castle to mention a few.
The Cape Coast and Elmina Castles have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. In addition, the Assin Manso and Assin Praso Slave Ports were designated by UNESCO in 2003 as a ‘Route Projects’. The UNESCO Slave Route Projects have helped to raise public awareness that the slave trade not only affected the coastal areas, but also relied on a network of slave routes that stretched far into the interior.
Pilgrims to the Salaga Slave Market in northern Ghana can see the grounds of the slave market, the water-wells that were used to wash slaves before auction, and a huge cemetery where slaves who had died were laid to rest. The powerful imagery of gangs of slaves being marched down to the coast has for a long time served as a key icon for visual as well as performative representations of the slave trade.
Near the town of Assin Manso is the Donko Nsuo River, where slaves were bathed after long journeys from the interior before being sold. This would be their last bath before they were transported to the slave ships. Currently, at the Slave Port there’s a wall for memorial plaques and a prayer-room for pilgrims. During a visit to Assin Mano Slave Port in 2019, I noticed that the 400-year-old monument was in deplorable condition, similar to the neglect at Cape Coast and Elmina Castles.
Whereas Ghana is home to more than half the slave monuments in West Africa, Senegal and The Gambia together attract more pilgrimage-tourists than Ghana. Two reasons account for this: first, the poor marketing of Ghana’s tourism potentials anchored on pilgrimage. The second is poor maintenance of our slave monuments. Recently, however, the ‘Year of Return’ has changed the dynamics, and it is expected that ‘Destination Ghana’ will boost Ghana’s tourism drive. In fact, tourism remains a largely untapped potential for Ghana’s economy.
During my visit to the Assin Manso Slave Port, I gathered that the World Bank had proposed funding for a museum and hotel facility – to host pilgrims who plan to sleep near the port and bond spiritually with their ancestors. There was also a suggestion for a cemetery near the port, where African-Americans could have their remains buried for a small fee.
Besides its spiritual significance, the cemetery could also become a source of revenue. Therefore, the moves to commit to preserving the Assin Manso Slave Port and the Salaga Slave Market as UNESCO Heritage and Route Projects should be sustained. Government should also commit to upgrading the Mole National Park as a major tourism centre. The construction of an airstrip at Damongo to reduce travelling time for tourists will no doubt boost economic activities of the Savannah Region.
A few years ago, the wife of legendary Reggae Star Bob Marley, Rita Marely, invested in a Bob Marley Museum at Aburi, near Accra. This museum was expected to be a tourist attraction for Africans in the diaspora and other tourists across the globe. Unfortunately, shortly after commissioning the museum armed robbers ransacked and destroyed what could been an eternal tourist monument. Thus, the selfish and misguided act of armed robbers destroyed the grand dream of Rita Marley to eternalise the memory of Bob Marely in Africa through Ghana.
Unsettled by the setback, the Marley family relocated the Bob Marely Museum to Kingston, Jamaica. Recently I watched a video of the Museum’s commissioning with pride and admiration – and wished it had remained in Ghana. As our government is keen on motivating tourists and investors to Ghana, their security should be paramount to the security agencies. Ghana should not allow a few miscreants to destroy ‘Destination Ghana’.
I am also concerned about how road accidents have become a major public health threat to both Ghanaians and tourists. Year-on-year, road accidents are claiming more lives in Ghana than the dreaded HIV/AIDs virus and now COVID. According to the National Road Safety Authority, in 2021 a total of 2,924 people died while 13,048 sustained injuries through 15,972 road crashes. Late last year, four investors returning from an investment trip in Takoradi were crushed to death near Winneba through a wrong parking incident.
Alarmingly, within the first quarter of 2022 Ghana has already recorded 1,271 road crashes, representing an increase of 3.84 percent compared to 1,224 crashes in January 2021. In fact, with road transport as Ghana largest means of transport, the carnage and recklessness on our roads should be a source of concern to all – especially as Ghana is branding itself as the preferred destination for tourists.
The other pressing concern is poor sanitation in and around our tourist sites. Our beaches are some of the dirtiest in West Africa, as some people continue to uphold their unacceptable ‘right’ to dump rubbish on the beaches. In fact, we have collectively failed to take responsibility for keeping our cities and towns clean enough to attract tourists.
Though the Ministry of Sanitation and Water Resources has made inroads in combatting littering/open-defecation, waste management continues to be a huge development challenge to Ghana. Across the country, one will notice the decentralisation of uncollected waste – which in my opinion has become a key feature of our decentralisation process. In short, tourism thrives on security and safety of tourists, as well as the cleanliness of destinations.