Ghana's success in attracting members of the African diaspora to visit should drive its neighbors to develop similar strategies. They can see there's enormous amounts of money to be made from a lucrative African American market re-energizing from the pandemic as tourists are eager for travel to the continent.
Ancestry tourism has experienced a significant boom in recent years. Locations, many in Europe, were attracting large numbers of visitors eager to explore places connected to their family history.
But one country outside of Europe, in particular, has especially benefited from this growing popularity. Spurred by the success of the Year of Return, tour operators in Ghana have seen business surge beyond the 2019 initiative by increasingly promoting, not just family ties, but the cultural bounds travelers in the African diaspora have with an entire region so many people were cut off from by slavery. That interest is on the upswing again after the depths of the pandemic.
Tourism businesses in Ghana are heavily targeting members of the diaspora — especially those who are a part of an African American travel market growing in financial clout and increasingly eager to explore their ancestral homelands.
“We feel that given the wealth that African Americans and black Americans have, given that spending power, travel budgets of blacks in America, we felt that it’s about time that we start that conversation that, instead of moving to any other destination, come back to where you came from,” said Akwasi Agyeman, CEO of Ghana’s Tourism Authority. “We also felt that the history was not being taught.”
Thus, Ghana’s government marketed 2019 — the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans arriving in the United States — as the Year of Return, and it invited members of the African diaspora to visit the country where many slave slips departed from. President Nana Akufo-Addo acknowledged his country felt a responsibility to welcome people who could trace their ancestry to Africa due to Ghana’s role in the slave trade.
“(The) Year of Return definitely played a major role in driving interest to Ghana,” said Rashida Mohammed Pangabu, the co-founder of Ghanaian-based tour operator ProTour Africa, about the campaign that contributed significantly to the country attracting more than a million visitors in 2019.
Pangabu credits the pent-up demand for travel to Ghana for leading her company to increase its offerings. ProTour Africa created 12 new itineraries in February 2020 and added four last month, which Pangabu said will enable prospective guests to participate in a wider variety of activities — including visiting various sites connected to Ghana’s culture and history.
Those travelers eager to explore their heritage will continue to be a key market for a country that aims to attract one million visitors by 2024 and eight million by 2027. The Ghanaian government has even launched a campaign titled Beyond the Year of Return that seeks to capitalize on the momentum from its successful initiative.
Other tour operators running trips in the country said they’ve benefited from the campaigns. “We saw an uptick (in interest),” said Marc Sison, the product director for Kensington Tours, which has eight trips to Ghana on the books for 2022 — compared to four last year — that run from roughly $4,500 to $9,000. “You have church groups and community groups that are interested in the West African culture and learning about the slave trade. We would get a lot more group requests specifically for Ghana.”
“Just before the pandemic hit, it was starting to become an emerging destination for us and I think it is already picking up steam again.”
Sison’s company has recorded five times as many bookings for its Ghana offerings in 2022 than it did last year. He added more could be on the horizon as Kensington Tours usually gets a significant jump in inquiries during Black History Month in February.
Since the Year of the Return, ProTour Africa has continued to attract a significant number of African American visitors in large part due to Ghana’s Afrochella Festival, which takes place annually in December. Although Pangabu wouldn’t provide an exact figure for how many guests it welcomed in December of 2019 and 2021 — other than stating it had 30 percent more guests in the former year — she said that the company’s bookings for 2022 look promising thus far.
Pangabu said her company has experienced success by offering prospective guests, especially members of the African diaspora, an opportunity to reconnect with their roots as well as pay homage to their ancestors. Kensington Tours has taken a similar angle, partnering with Ancestry.com to launch a series of trips named Personal Heritage Journeys that enable travelers to visit the destination where they can trace their ancestral roots to.
“Our angle in marketing Ghana in the coming years would be Pan-Africanism to explore your roots,” said Sison, who added his company is facing challenges in Ghana due to the difficulty of finding records but is currently working with Ancestry.com to determine how it can improve their offerings in the country.
“For those who are curious about the West African culture, there’s so much you can actually do (there) apart from the slave history. There are so many things you can do in Ghana from a cultural perspective, so we are going to have that approach of Pan-Africanism.”
Pangabu cited Pan-Africanism, which she defined as a movement that seeks to unify all people of African descent both on the continent and in the diaspora, as a major attraction for many visitors to Ghana in recent years, especially African Americans. Travel to Ghana by U.S. citizens jumped 26 percent from January 2019 to September 2019 compared to the previous year. So what are some ways tour operators are featuring the concept in their offerings?
“We have tours where you’re sitting down with a university professor or someone who can explain the cultural makeup of Ghana,” Sison said, adding that professors will often do lecture-style briefings of the area. “And you can do a naming ceremony in Ghana. We can arrange with a local chief to do (that). It’s something that’s quite popular on some of our tours and very special for a lot of our clients.”
“It is a destination untapped by the North American tourist market,” Sison said. “Ghana can best capitalize on the interest from the Year of Return by showing the year that it has much more to offer.”
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Photo credit: Independence Arch and Independence Square in Accra, Ghana's capital Ben Sutherland / Flickr