In case you haven’t heard, 2019 has been dubbed the ‘Year of Return’ in Ghana; an open invitation to African-Americans and Africans in the Diaspora to ‘return home’ to Ghana. Since the call went out in late 2018, Ghana’s tourism sector has been buzzing. The country has played host to hundreds, if not thousands, of Diasporans, including Ghanaian-Americans Bozoma Saint John and Boris Kodjo who escorted a high-profile group of African-Americans to Ghana for the Full Circle Festival in December 2018. More recently, singer Deborah Cox, US Senator Ilhan Omar, actor Samuel L Jackson and TV Host Steve Harvey have retraced their ancestors’ steps with visits to Accra and Cape Coast. Ghanaians are primed to find out who will follow next – Beyoncé, maybe? With these and other celebrity endorsements, Ghana has quickly climbed the ranks of go-to travel destinations with many heralding the country as the preferred Christmas destination: “December in Ghana” they call it. And yes, there’s a hashtag.

As many Diasporans plan for an epic slew of events, parties and concerts in the Ghanaian capital Accra, questions remain about the Year of Return initiative: What is the Year of Return about? What does it seek to achieve? How prepared is Ghana’s tourism sector for the 500,000 tourists expected? How feasible is it for Diasporans looking to relocate? What role(s) do locals, average Ghanaians, play in the Year of Return, if at all? How is the initiative being financed? What happens beyond 2019? We have put together this three-part Circumspecte guide to offer some insights on the Year of Return initiative, highlight some of the debates and conversations it has given rise to, and share some tips to help you plan and make your visit to Ghana a memorable experience. This first article provides some context on the Year of Return, its aims, prospects, and ensuing conversations and debates.

"First impressions count, and as it stands, Ghana's tourism challenges are many…Whether 2019 will be a Year of Return for Ghana's Tourism is yet to be seen." – @jabdulai #YearOfReturn Click To Tweet

Year of Return, Ghana 2019: Commemorating History & Building Tourism

About 400 years ago, in late August 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed on the shores of James River, in Virgina, the United States. There, about 20-something Africans were exchanged for food, before being sold into slavery by English traders. Over the next four centuries, an estimated 12.5 million Africans would be chained to a similar fate; stolen and shipped from the many forts dotting the West African coast to destinations in the Americas and Europe: the African Diaspora. The Elmina Castle in Ghana and The House of Slaves in Senegal are of particular significance as they served as major slave trading posts; the point of no return for millions of enslaved Africans.

In commemoration of that arrival in Virginia 400 years ago, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 “the Year of Return”. As highlighted on the Year of Return, Ghana 2019 website, the initiative “celebrates the cumulative resilience of all the victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave Trade”. Another aim of the Year of Return initiative is “to position Ghana as a key travel destination for African Americans and the African Diaspora,” with 2019 activities serving as “a launch pad for a consistent boost in tourism for Ghana in the near and distant years”. Both goals are equally important and relevant to the creation of mutually-beneficial Ghana-Diaspora linkages, and help contribute to Ghana’s overall development “beyond aid”. 

Elmina Castle, One of Ghana's Tourism & Year of Return Sites
Elmina Castle, Ghana – where millions lost all hope of return // Credit: Jemila Abdulai

The Ghanaian government anticipates half a million visitors to Ghana in 2019. With a public call for proposals, a calendar of Year of Return events has been curated. Fixtures on the year-long line-up include the Heritage Paragliding Festival, Wax Print Festival, Black Star International Film Festival, and the long-standing Pan-African Historical Theatre Project (PANAFEST) which was established in 1992. Most events on the calendar are not organised by the Year of Return secretariat; they are simply endorsed and some promoted. The secretariat provides the platform and guidance, with independent event organisers footing their own bill and/or finding sponsors. Alongside cultural events, the Year of Return calendar features industry events focused on encouraging business and investment in Ghana. According to the Year of Return Secretariat’s Ivy Prosper, success for the initiative goes beyond the numbers. Instead it is about promoting “positive images that Africa has instead of the negative narrative we have seen for far too long…providing that ‘light-bulb’ moment to people abroad that traveling to Ghana, Africa is an option.” 

While the call and its objectives may be grand, the team manning the Year of Return presidential initiative is actually quite modest and works with “limited resources”. Contrary to public speculation, the Year of Return secretariat does not pay for celebrity visits to Ghana, says Prosper. African-American celebrities like Steve Harvey, Danny Glover and Samuel L. Jackson visited Ghana on their own account, or were invited and hosted by organisers of independent, Year of Return endorsed events: 

“Year of Return does not pay for celebrities to come to Ghana.  For example, Kofi Kingston announced he was coming to Ghana because he heard it was the ‘Year of Return’ and he said, what better time to come back? He said it on his own. We didn’t ask him to do that. When some of these celebrities come to Ghana and say it’s for Year of Return, we are happy that is their reason, because it validates the value of the initiative of encouraging people to consider an African country as a travel destination.”

Ivy Prosper, Year of Return Secretariat

And an option it is quickly becoming. A quick look at tweets with the Year of Return hashtag suggests that many Diasporans considering a trip are focused on the ‘homecoming’ element, with some taking going a step further to organise tours and plan events. Airline tickets to Ghana are already soaring. Although the phrase “Year of Return” has found itself beyond Ghana, most locals seem largely uninformed about the initiative or removed from its focus on the legacy of slavery. Indeed, those who do know, seem more focused on its prospects for tourism and business in Ghana. The present and the future, not the past. Of these, a small – relatively privileged – segment is gearing up to make bank on “Year of Return fuor” by offering goods, services and experiences, with Diaspora-targeted prices to match. Whether their hopes and investments will come to fruition, depends largely on Ghana’s tourism and travel sector and the experiences it offers.

Year of Return for Ghana’s Tourism? 

The Ghana Tourism Authority expects 500,000 tourists in 2019, and projects that 45,000 of those will visit Ghana primarily for its slave heritage tourism. For that segment, the Year of Return constitutes a home-coming: a spiritual and edifying experience rooted in reflection, self-awareness, and discovery of historic and ancestral links. Contrast that with Ghanaians living in Ghana, or more specifically, Accra – most know nothing about the Year of Return’s key focus on commemorating four centuries of slavery and resilience. At best, conscientious Ghanaians regard the Year of Return for its second purported aim: growing tourism. An even smaller segment sees it as an opening for honest conversation on slavery legacies and tourism in Ghana beyond the headlines and “country to visit” lists. Altogether, Year of Return offers an opportunity to take a good, hard look at Ghana’s tourism industry – its strengths, weaknesses, and potential. It will also serve as a litmus test for just how prepared Ghana is to accommodate the throngs of tourists we claim to want. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Ghana’s tourism sector, beyond Accra, beyond the country’s slavery heritage sites and beyond the Year of Return, 2019. 

Beyond its slavery heritage sites, Ghana has a lot to offer in areas like food tourism // Credit: Jemila Abdulai

Research by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) indicates that Ghana’s tourism and travel sector constituted 6.2% of the country’s GDP, contributing an estimated 682,000 jobs in 2017. Of these, 307,500 jobs were directly created through accommodation, transport, entertainment, attractions, shopping, food and beverage and hospitality services. Tourism may be Ghana’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, but per WTTC estimates, it is domestic travel spending – not foreign – which accounted for over 60% of tourism revenue in 2017. The government plans to increase Ghana’s tourism revenue to US$ 8.3 billion by 2027. Consequently, Ghana has a lot of work to do if it hopes to rival the tourism offerings of countries like Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Kenya, Tunisia, Tanzania and Senegal. If Ghana intends to stay in the tourism game beyond the Year of Return, strategic investments need to be made. To foster a sustainable tourism and travel sector, investments in tourism infrastructure beyond the capital Accra, will be especially crucial. Taking a critical look at opportunities and making the needed investments will help open up up pathways to diverse cultural, environmental, and leisure experiences across Ghana. Without such investments, the buck will likely stop at boosting tourism to Accra and maybe Cape Coast.

First impressions count, and as it stands, Ghana’s tourism challenges are many: lack of affordable accommodation; poor road networks; power outages; poor toilet facilities; dilapidating tourism sites, and so on. Indeed, much of the country’s tourism infrastructure outside the capital Accra requires a much-needed facelift to match up to global standards. Beyond infrastructure, the country which is touted as being one of the most hospitable in Africa, may need to brush up on not only offering professionalism and great customer experiences, but also in diversifying it’s tourism offerings, positioning and narratives. Countries like Rwanda and Senegal have already taken the lead in establishing themselves as prime conference and arts and culture destinations in Africa respectively. What else does Ghana have to offer beyond past glories or painful histories? Does the West African favourite have what it takes to truly welcome and accommodate Diasporans looking to relocate?

The Year of Return initiative could potentially offer a much-needed boost to the tourism sector and help government meet the $925 million target it hopes to generate in revenue throughout 2019. Significant investments have already been made in recent years to enhance Ghana’s tourism potential; case in point, the new Kotoka International Airport terminal. There also seems to be a revitalised effort by key government agencies like the Ghana Tourism Authority in positioning and branding Ghana as a top-of-the-mind African tourist destination. All of this ultimately comes down to one final question: can Ghana make the right first impression to not only bring people to Ghana in 2019, but ensure returns both in terms of investments and actual visitors beyond 2019? That, dear friends, is the question.

Year of Return: An Opportunity for Candid Conversation

A tour at the Elmina Castle in Ghana
A tour through Elmina Castle in Ghana’s Central Region // Credit: Jemila Abdulai

While many tourists have found their way to Ghana during the summer months, it seems the majority may be eyeing the “December in Ghana” experience. Concert goers are already hedging bets on which of two concerts will have the biggest acts – Afronation or Afrochella – and buying tickets in advance. As Ghana enjoys the limelight and the PR machine churns out one celebrity visit mention after the other, other questions arise: does Ghana, or rather Accra, have the necessary tourist infrastructure to welcome and accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors? Ask any Accra-resident, and they will tell you how frustrating and time-consuming the city’s traffic gets in December when Ghanaians abroad come home for the holidays. Now, add the celebrity-backed calls to visit in December, and you can imagine what a jam it will likely be. What plans are in place to ensure the upsurge of people in Accra don’t affect every day business? Any measures to curtail security risks? Of the $1,850 the Ghana Tourism Authority anticipates each tourist will spend, what percentage will go to Ghanaian-owned businesses, and by extension, remain within the Ghanaian economy? Who actually owns and benefits the most from tourist patronage of Accra’s five-star hotels and plush restaurants? How – if at all – will those revenues trickle into the purses of the average Ghanaian?

"It is already the last quarter of 2019 and questions remain: where and when will locals and visitors have candid conversations on slavery? How is dialogue between African-Americans and Ghanaians being fostered?" – @jabdulai… Click To Tweet

In many ways, the Year of Return aims to help create avenues for building stronger Africa-Diaspora ties, while jumpstarting a long overdue conversation on shared history, slavery legacy, struggle and promise of Africa and its Diaspora: the good, the bad and the ugly. By speaking truth to power, and taking necessary actions, we have a chance to not only acknowledge our common struggles, but also to rise from those ashes to cultivate empowering and mutually-beneficial linkages between Ghana, Africa and the Diaspora. It is already the last quarter of 2019 and the questions remain: where and when will locals and visitors have candid conversations on slavery? How is dialogue between African-Americans and Ghanaians being fostered? What are some of the tangible ways Africa-Diaspora linkages can be nurtured for mutual benefit?

It goes without saying that a large chunk of the intent behind the Year of Return is lost in the ongoing conversations and narrative, especially where Ghanaian locals are concerned. On the other hand, Ghana is already top of mind for many who probably hitherto wouldn’t have considered a visit to pan-African leader Kwame Nkrumah’s land. If Diasporans would consider relocating to Ghana is another question altogether. One that hinges largely on their tourist experience; how ‘at home’ and connected they feel to Ghana during their ancestral pilgrimage. Whether 2019 will be a Year of Return for Ghana’s tourism, the boost it is intended to be, is yet to be seen.

Planning to visit Ghana soon? Stick around for some travel tips in the second segment of this series. Got some thoughts to share? Leave a comment below.


Written by Jemila Abdulai and originally published on Circumspecte.com. Follow Jemila’s musings and travels on Twitter and Instagram.

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Huda Ibrahim
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Huda Ibrahim

Thank you very much for this insightful piece.

thebellower
Guest

You made some good points there, thanks for this article. One thing I struggle with about Year of Return is that there is such interchangeability when speaking about African-Americans and Ghanaians living abroad (and their offspring). Is the expectation that the former will relocate, or the latter (which is most likely). Do we think that the celebrities have influenced the latter (who were always coming to Ghana for summer or Christmas holidays) or the former and is it just for this year? The latter already have strong ties to the locals but will we have discussions about how that can… Read more »

Afia Kissi
Guest
Afia Kissi

This is an insightful piece, Jemila. I haven’t educated myself on the aims of the year of return initiative and what it hopes to achieve. This article gave me that. Will it patronage of the usual December entertainment shows? Yes. and how prepared are they to get patronage? a question that came to mind when i was reading this.

Thanks!!!

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