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Lessons From Ghana’s Year of Return for the Rest of the Continent

Ghana’s Year of Return in 2019 was a bold attempt to revisit history so as to make meaning in this contemporary age for the African diaspora who traced their ancestry to Africa.

Last year, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo launched an ambitious program aimed at wooing back the diaspora to their roots in Africa.

Dubbed the “Year of Return,” this program focused on the African diaspora to return to Africa as they were displaced from their ancestral lands by the transatlantic slave trade. In commemorating 400 years since the arrival of African slaves in America, the Year of Return was just the apt way to do so.

The Year of Return was mainly premised on African-Americans returning to Ghana to relive the history of the slave trade and to connect with their heritage. It was an exercise that boosted Ghana’s global image and sizeably improved the country’s tourism industry. The campaign is hinged on placing Ghana ” as a key travel destination for African Americans and the African diaspora.” Ghana was the central transit point for the brutal, callous and gravely inhumane transportation of slaves. Ghana’s president made it clear that the country has to embrace all, with open arms. who can trace their ancestry to Africa.  

Tourist numbers in Ghana grew significantly with the Year of Return. While the extent of the program cannot fully be ascertained because tourists were not asked about their reasons for travel, it cannot be said that the Year of Return played a little role in the improvement of these numbers.  

At the start of 2019, the Ghana Tourism Authority projected the number of visitors to the country at 500,000 extra visitors. Official numbers from January to September 2019 signal an additional 237,000 visitors (which is a rise of 45% compared with the same period the previous year). The largest constituents of these visitors are from the US and the UK. 

According to the Ghana Immigration Service, Americans arriving in Ghana increased by 26% to their highest ever rate between January and September 2019. The number of visitors from the UK (24%), Germany (22%), South Africa (10%) and Liberia (14%) also grew. In total, the country issued 800,000 visas in 2019.  

How history is captured so that it makes meaning for those in the contemporary age is what many African countries should aspire towards. When people are given the splendid opportunity to fully explore and navigate through the trenches of history, images are changed and narratives are properly understood. History is something that must be fully told, and people should be afforded the chance to explore their history. It is a history that shapes the way we live in today’s world. And today’s events are going to shape and influence what will happen a century later from today.  

But while still on the issue of history, Ghana failed to fully capture the whole story of slavery and the slave trade. For instance, there was no emphasis on the trans-Saharan slave trade in which an estimated 6-7 million people, including from the Sokoto Caliphate and Born, were savagely and viciously transported to North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. This slave trade presented itself between the rise of Islam and the 20th century. That story should have been captured too. With the focus on the US only, how then did they appeal to the African descendants in Jamaica, Cuba or Brazil? These were excluded and more should be done to ensure the full historical scope of the slave trade is pictured. Important stories of resistance are missed when these groups are excluded.  

The commemorations of the Year of Return were confined to the south and particularly in Accra. But the north has also much to remember. For the Builsas and Kassena-Nankanas, the epoch of slavery was horrific. They first suffered raids at the hands of the Mossi and Arab enslavement traders in the trans-Saharan slave trade. Then they also suffered from the transatlantic slave trade. These stories should have been incorporated into the main narrative as regards the Year of Return. In colonial times, these ethnicities were conscripted into the World Wars.  

On failing to critically engage history, the Year of Return fell short. But in boosting tourism and the country’s image, and for just having that thought of reaching out to the African diaspora, it did remarkably well. It injected about $1.9 billion into the economy. In public relations and advertising, it was a success. 

Header image credit – Voice of America


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