Tourism has, over the past six decades, experienced continued expansion and diversification, becoming one of the largest and fastest-growing economic sectors in the world, turning it into a key driver of socio-economic progress through export revenues, the creation of jobs and enterprises, and infrastructure development.
The increasing importance of this sector cannot be overstated. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals worldwide will reach 1.8 billion by 2030, indicating an increase of 3.3 per cent a year from 2010. Between 2010 and 2030 arrivals in emerging destinations such as Ghana are expected to increase at double the pace of that in advanced economies by 4.4 per cent a year.
However, these forecasts do not necessarily mean that tourists will descend on Ghana like the biblical manna from heaven. The competition to attract tourist traffic is fierce. Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania – already popular holiday destinations – have, over the years, embarked on relentless marketing strategies to woo even more tourists. Some like Kenya and Zimbabwe have dedicated tourist offices in parts of Europe, North America and Asia. These strategies have focused on their natural resource of game parks and safaris in which they have a comparative advantage.
I have had the good fortune to travel to many of Africa’s tourism hotspots and experienced their breath-taking beauty and exciting attractions. Ghana cannot compete with them but offers something unique – its cultural heritage. Its major slave forts are Unesco World Heritage Sites.
These slave forts are a ‘must-see’ for every tourist visiting Ghana, especially the African-Americans. President Barack Obama, on his trip to Ghana – his first to Africa as president – in July 2009, visited the Elmina Castle with his family. Earlier this month, US Senate Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as a ‘transformative experience’, the time spent in Ghana’s coastal city of Cape Coast and its slave fort, saying it was revealing not only for her but for the Congressional team she led to the site.
It’s 400 years since the first African slaves were taken from countries like Ghana to mainland America, marking the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade route. This timing is based on the first recorded landing of a ship carrying Africans in Virginia in August 1619. An estimated 75 percent of slave dungeons on the west coast of Africa were in Ghana — millions of people were taken and transported on ships that departed from Ghanaian ports.
To commemorate this Ghana has designated 2019 as the Year of Return. The government has been running a massive marketing campaign targeting African-Americans and the diaspora, and various events have been arranged. The focus has been on memorialising the liberation from slavery. But it has also served as a marketing exercise to popularise Ghana as a tourism destination with Trans-Atlantic trade appeal.
But visiting Ghana is not just about slave forts. Beyond these lie the comparative advantage of an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage.
Ghana is a country whose immense cultural diversity is thrilling and fascinating, particularly the central role played by festivals. Barely a week or month goes by without a festival being celebrated by one of the 100 or so ethnic groups up and down the country.
In addition to this, rites and rituals are performed throughout the year covering key events like harvests, child-birth, puberty, marriage and death. To the majority of people, these celebrations provide the satisfying bond that binds their communities and families together.
Such festivals are also full of colour, pageantry and rhythm, the latter provided by traditional drummers.
By exposing western visitors to Ghana’s vibrant culture, just like the Masai of Kenya, we can also educate them about the country’s history and how democratic structures existed from clan to chiefdom levels long before the advent of colonialism.
Although statistics on cultural tourism are not readily available, various surveys indicate that culture is one of the reasons why people choose to travel. Ghana’s authorities are well aware of their country’s immense cultural wealth. That is why they must effectively market it for the benefit of the nation.
When some of the most well-known faces from the African diaspora arrived for a vacation in Ghana’s capital, Accra last December, it looked like just another gathering of famous people.
Actors including Idris Elba rubbed shoulders with supermodel Naomi Campbell, TV sports presenter Mike Hill, and author Luvvie Ajayi.
Behind this meet-up of box office stars, fashion royalty and top creatives is a focused and ambitious strategy to make Ghana a major tourist destination.
The country recently unveiled a 15-year-long tourism plan that seeks to increase the annual number of tourists to Ghana from one million to eight million per year by 2027. Ghana’s travel industry is projected to raise $8.3 billion a year by 2027, plus associated benefits, according to the plan.
Jon Offei-Ansah is the Founder and Publisher of Africa Briefing, the London-based pan-African newsmagazine (https://africabriefing.org)