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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Ghana’s Heritage Tourism

Media & Culture

Peter Burdin

Wed, 09 Oct 2019 17:49 GMT

2019 marks 400 years since the first slave from Africa set foot in America. In recognition of this anniversary, Ghana’s President Nana Akufu-Addo launched the ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019”, at an event in Washington DC last September.  

Akufo-Addo’s initiative is intended for Africans in the Diaspora to unite with Africans on the continent, to explore their ancestral roots. As the president said in his speech in Washington, “We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions they [Africans in the diaspora] made to the lives of the Americas, and it is important that this symbolic year—400 years later—we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.”

Akufo-Addo’s idea is well-timed as it taps into the growing international interest in heritage travel. Heritage tourism, as defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, means ‘traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present’. This form of tourism is showing considerable growth worldwide, with the Heritage Tourism Market Research Report for 2019-2024 predicting massive growth by 2024.

Although Ghana has previously made use of its rich and tragic history of slave trade to promote tourism, 2019 has seen a huge growth in this area, with the country aggressively promoting the ‘Year of Return’. For instance, Ghana has launched a new programme that allows citizens of Barbados and Guyana to enter the country for 90 days without a visa. The country has also hosted various events, such as the Full Circle Festival last December, which played host to dozens of Hollywood celebrities.

Among the high profile guests to the country’s ‘Year of Return’ festivities were American actor Danny Glover, who was interviewed on his arrival in Ghana and spoke passionately about the responsibility that African-Americans have to reinforce their relationship with the [African] continent.

According to Ghana’s tourism authorities, the country expects to see half a million visitors during 2019, up from 350,000 in 2018. The tourism authorities expect the country to rake in $925m in 2019.

While many African countries are searching for new ways to grow their economies, Ghana looks set to rake in nearly a billion dollars from its tourism sector this year alone.

The era of DNA testing is also encouraging a surge in heritage travel as ancestral links to the continent are explored. Companies such as African Ancestry, a black-owned company, uses a database containing 33,000 African lineages across 40 countries, to determine your country and ethnic group of origin, with a simple swab of your cheek.

The internet has been awash with headlines about Ghana leading the way in slave heritage tourism and there is no disputing that the country is a regional leader in this sector. However, there is also concern on social media about whether the country is using its painful history to gain money from the diaspora and to use the historical sites of slavery and colonialism as opportunities to sell stories for profit.

Although Ghana is benefitting financially from its heritage tourism, neighbouring West African countries, including Senegal, Cameroon, Gambia and Benin, who also have a history of slave trade, have not benefited as much.

However, their stories of slave trade are no less disturbing. For instance, a short ferry ride from Dakar, in Senegal, lies a tiny island called Goree Island, which preserves a charming ambiance. However, beneath its charm, it hides a brutal history as a strategic trading post for transatlantic slave trade 400 years ago. Cameroon also served as an important supply zone for the export of African slaves to the New World, after the Portuguese explored the Cameroon coastline.

It remains to be seen if the 2019 surge in heritage tourism to Ghana is sustainable and continues to benefit the country and its neighbours.

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