The centrality of Ghana in the history of the transatlantic slave trade is key to its attractiveness as a tourist centre. The castles and forts that are reminders of the brutal past serves as an attraction to many of the more than 1 million people who visited Ghana in 2014.
The country’s past is indeed worthy of interest. Its many ethnicities have rich traditions and colourful festivals. Its struggle with colonialists has produced celebrated people like Yaa Asantewaa. It was the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from a colonial power. It adopted the name of an old powerful African empire. Kwame Nkrumah was voted the African of the Millennium. It was the place WEB duBois chose to live the final years of his life.
All of these are things to be proud of but the country is more than a graveyard of fondly-held glories. It is a land of a dynamic people who have learnt to thrive in spite of their challenges. People, who out of little, create cultural phenomena whose impact on the world outweighs Ghana’s political or economic clout. Think highlife, hiplife, azonto and alkayida.
Tourism and travel contributed about GH¢3.3 billion to the economy in 2014, equivalent to 2.9% of GDP, and directly contributed to 122,000 jobs. It is big business. And the potential for it to become even bigger is huge.
But for the potential to be reached, the focus of investment in tourism should move beyond renovating historical sites and improving the hospitality industry. The budding urban youth culture has the potential to attract several people to the country and investment in artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, dancers, spoken word artists, poets and other performers could make Accra (especially) a contemporary cultural centre which many would want to experience.
The best example of the potential that lies in Ghana’s contemporary culture is the Chale Wote Street Art Festival which started in 2011 and has grown to attract about 20,000 visitors to Jamestown, Accra to view art installations, watch films, hear spoken word artists and musicians, try Ghanaian food and drinks and enjoy performances by street boxers, acrobats and many more. The festival has been featured on the BBC, Quartz and Africa is a Country.
I have been to the last three versions and the biggest challenge I can see for the festival is how they are going to make space for all the thousands which keep adding to the numbers each year.
Nigeria has a rich history with several landmarks and yet still it is the literary and film centre of the sub-region. Their literary festivals bring people from all over the world who are fascinated by the rich talent of both old and new Nigerian writers. In fact, I would be more interested in attending a Nigerian literary festival than to go see one of their historical sites. And I’m sure there are many who feel as I do.
It is time for policymakers to look at tapping into the talented but underfunded field of Ghanaian contemporary culture and creatives. I was happy to learn that the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts was involved in this year’s Chale Wote. They must know there are many people who would as much want to come experience Chale Wote as they would want to come see the Cape Coast castle. And while as at now Chale Wote may be the festival to be at, nothing stops better funded challengers in other countries from taking over. Let’s not let that happen.
Update: Fiifi Baidoo was kind enough to share some of the awesome shots he took with me and I have added them below. See all of them here.