Space for Change in Ghana’s Tourism Sector (Part 1)

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There’s a new push to revive the tourism sector and encourage both outsiders and those inside Ghana to visit more of the country’s iconic historical, cultural and eco-friendly landscapes.

At a government level, the Akufo Addo administration has put its weight behind the Year of Return – an initiative being rolled out this year to mark 400 years since the first enslaved Africans stepped foot in the Americas.

Key to this initiative is a drive to encourage more of the diaspora in the Americas, the Caribbean and elsewhere to return to their ancestral homes, and consider doing business in Ghana. Coupled with this, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MoTAC) recently reiterated its commitment to revamping key tourism landmarks, such as the National Museum and the slave castles, in its bid to attract more national and international visitors to Ghana.

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Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum and memorial park in Accra Ghana

Similar initiatives are being rolled out outside of government circles too. One such example is the Bra Ghana (Come to Ghana), a campaign launched by Miss Tourism Ghana UK (MTGUK) in November 2018. MTGUK wants to partner with existing tour companies, guides and tourist sites to put Ghana on the map as a primary travel destination for foreigners and the diaspora.

Tourism Reboot

At the heart of all these initiatives is an implicit acknowledgement that tourism in Ghana has the potential to be better, attract more visitors and generate more revenue for the country. But are these approaches the best at producing the desired results?

As it stands, tourism contributions to Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) remain in single figures. According to the World Travel and Tour Council, tourism in Ghana contributed 3% (Ghc5.9million or $2.1million) towards the country’s GDP in 2017. Comparatively, in the same year, agriculture accounted for around 20% of Ghana’s GDP, according to a document by data portal IndexMundi. Meanwhile, The Gambia, which has a reputation as a holiday destination, received 8.2% GDP (GMD4million or $89million) from tourism in 2017.

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Beach at Senya Beraku a coastal town in Ghana

So, what’s holding Ghana back from generating more revenue from tourism?

Well, Ghana certainly is not short of tourist sites. Even CNN lists the country as one of 19 tourist destination one should consider visiting in 2019. A quick Google search of the top Ghanaian tourist attractions by region, and the usual suspects pop up:

– Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Museum, Greater Accra,
– Laraganba Mosque, Northern Region,
– Mount Afadjato in the Volta Region,
– Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, Central Region,
– Koforidua Beads Market, Eastern Region,
– Lake Bosumtwi, Asante Region,
– Kintampo Waterfalls, Brong Ahafo Region,
– Gbelle Game Reserve, Upper West,
– The Whistling Rocks of Tongo, Upper East,
– Nzuleo Wetlands, Western Region

Financial v Cultural Value

If you’re a newcomer to Ghana, it is more than likely that some of these locations will be on your ‘to-do’ list. And if you are anything like me, visiting museums, national parks, art galleries and the like, are some of the ways to quickly learn about the history and culture, and make sense of your new environment.

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Cape coast castle. Picture courtesy: Cdigitals

These spaces are made all the more accessible to Ghanaians because they have the privilege of paying a lowered gate fee compared to non-Ghanaians. But even with this financial incentive, I tend to find that I am one of a handful of visitors in these venues and other visitors tend to be foreign tourists.

Clearly, reducing the entrance fee or even having a no-fee policy altogether aren’t attractive enough incentives to draw in the crowds. One perspective shared by an Accra Taxify driver seems to explain why.

Despite being born and raised in Aburi – a town famous for its Botanical Gardens – he told me he had never been there in his life. For him, the daily need to make money outweighed the potential value derived from learning about different plant species. “It’s not just a question of having a reduced rate to enter these sights,” he said. “It is the cost of getting there, the food and the lost income that you could have gained if you had been working instead. It all adds up.”

He also felt that some of these landmarks and museums were not spaces that the average Ghanaian would frequent. In his mind, Cape Coast and Elmina Castles were places for outside visitors (namely African-Americans and Caribbeans). And although these spaces were educational, they had little bearing on the contemporary lives of the average Ghanaians, he said.

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Lara-Banga mosque in the Northern region of Ghana

There is some validity in what this Taxify driver was saying. I’ve heard adults, who have visited the castles as children, repeat the same argument. For some of them, they did not feel a connection to the castles or the suffering of the ancestors there, so did not feel there was a reason to return there again.

This begs the question – is our history and our various cultures less relevant in contemporary Ghana, particularly when the priority for so many is to make money? Are they still relevant but is there a need for gatekeepers of these spaces to do more to convey this relevance to the populace? Or do we need to revisit the way we are promoting and packaging this history and culture?

Don’t Re-invent the Wheel!

Museums are built as repositories that survive by collecting, labelling and claiming ownership of objects that are removed from their original contexts. These edifices are essentially Western, and while they are culturally understood as spaces to gain cultural enrichment or spend leisure time, it should not be assumed that they work completely in the same way in other parts of the world.

Convincing visitors to frequent tourist hot spots might be an easier sell when there is already an appreciation of consuming culture in this way. According to the Ghana Statistical Service – after international tourism, the second largest generator of revenue in Ghana is internal tourism, which largely comes from cultural events. When the time comes to celebrating the Asante tradition of Akwasidae, the Ga period of Homowo or the Ewe’s Danyiba festival, Ghanaians do not have to be convinced to attend. Clearly, these ancient traditions and religious festivals are still viewed as relevant today, and past and current governments have seen the potential in combining tourism activities with these traditions.

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Ghanaian women dressed in traditional attire at a durbar in Elmina

One such example is the Paragliding Festival in the Kwahu Hills, which the then government introduced in 2005, and has become a fixture during Easter. The Kwahus do not only visit their families during this time but some also try their hand at paragliding. Interest in this sport is growing not just among Ghanaians but also with international tourists and foreigners living in Ghana. As a result, Ghana can now boast her first qualified Ghanaian paragliding instructor (all the others are non-Ghanaian).

According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the introduction of paragliding has “drawn many enthusiasts to Kwahu, and positively impacted the local economy in relation to transport businesses, tour operations, hospitality establishments, souvenir sellers and the entertainment industry among others.”

The interest in adventure activities is visible elsewhere in the country. Private companies, such as BraveHearts Expeditions, are springing up to cater to public demand for activities including hiking, rock-climbing, abseiling, canoeing and paragliding. In Ghana, it is becoming a trend for corporate businesses to hire these adventure companies to provide outdoor activities for staff to participate in during office away days.

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Mole National Park in the Northern region of Ghana

Similarly, non-corporate, informal groups, such as Adventure Ghana, are also emerging and offering activities to outdoor lovers during the weekend. TV is following the trend too with Ghana reportedly featuring the first survival reality TV show to be aired in West Africa. TV3’s ‘Spear of Survival’ (a hybrid of the UK’s Krypton Factor and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here), pits people’s endurance against the natural elements to find an ultimate winner.

Old And New

The Chale Wote Street Art Festival, in the heart of Jamestown, is yet another example of a tourist attraction that seamlessly binds ancient traditions with contemporary youth culture, and attracts both an international and national audience. The event, organised by Accradotalt, has been running since 2011, and for the first time gained government funding in August 2018 through MoTAC.

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Jamestown light house in Accra – Ghana. Picture courtesy: Albgoess

The Festival typically kicks off during the tail end of Homowo – the Ga festival that commemorates a period in history when the Gas suffered but overcame famine. Chale Wote features aspects of Ga traditional culture alongside contemporary street art exhibitions, workshops, performances and discussions. This integration of the old and the new is – for me – what is likely to ensure Ghanaian cultures and histories remain accessible to all in a way that existing museum spaces do not.

Living Museums

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying museums don’t have a place in Ghana. They clearly do and are important. But does the human traffic they attract warrant the investment poured into them or cover their operating costs? And is it beneficial to the country if hallmarks of the various cultures and education on these histories are not being consumed by the general populace? They say knowledge is power, and it is not everything that can be taught in the school, college and university settings – so why not create better access to allow ALL the chance to enrich their knowledge of the country?

Spaces such as Ussher Town and Jamestown, I believe, give Accra an opportunity to do just that by sharing the history and cultures of that area in a contemporary setting. For those who have visited these districts of Accra, you will know that the areas are parts of the oldest settlements of the city. Steeped in the vestiges of colonial architecture, these spaces hold some of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (James and Ussher forts).

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Thatched cottage in Northern Ghana

They also feature other tourist attractions including the Lighthouse in Jamestown, Brazil House, built by the Afro-Brazilian Tabom people when they settled in Accra, and the remains of Franklin’s Lodge, where – I am told – enslaved Africans were traded. Franklin’s Lodge is now an entertainment spot, organisers of the Chale Wote festival operates an office in Brazil House. Brazil House used to be a museum and housed information about the Tabom people. This gallery has been closed to the public for some time now…

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