Ghana’s push to attract more African Americans to visit and invest makes sense, but using celebrities to drive the campaign is problematic. Not least, two years of pandemic means residents will increasingly scrutinize the tourism sector and demand a transparent, long-term plan to benefit host communities.
In December 2020, the Ghanaian government launched the “Beyond the Return” campaign as a follow-up to its record-breaking Year of Return initiative, which brought 1.1 million visitors and $3.3 billion in tourism revenues in 2019.
Covid predictably stifled the start of this next phase, designed as a ten-year strategy to attract African Americans to visit as well as invest in Ghana. That didn’t stop the Ghanaian government and its tourism board, however, from continuing to market to affluent African Americans as the recovery continues. And they’re doing it by tapping into the power of African American celebrities.
Superstar buzz combined with a strong heritage narrative to sell a destination isn’t a new marketing tactic. But in a pandemic world in which Ghanaian communities have been hit hard, African American celebrities touting their lavish vacations online — including photos with the president of Ghana — has sparked controversy, first reported in OkayAfrica. It’s also launched an important conversation about the inequity that this marketing approach may be driving.
Therein lies the conundrum: how will African American stars driving tourism and repatriation numbers translate into economic empowerment and an improved quality of life for host communities? And what is the long-term impact of a tourism campaign that encourages the mass exodus of privileged African Americans to Ghana?
“We definitely talk about it and I think there’s tension around it right now because people are not seeing what the benefits could be in the future for the average Ghanaian citizen,” said Kristin Quaye, African-American co-founder of Certified Africa, a lifestyle and tour company that recently partnered with United Airlines to offer Africa travel packages.
Locals feel the celebrities who are coming to Ghana are painting their country in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality on ground, Quaye said.
“They’re utilizing the celebrities to attract the average African American citizen; which I might point out, the average African American visitor is not taking pictures with the president and doing all those things that celebrities do. But when they come, they spend money in the country and it trickles down.”
Skift reached out to the Ghana Tourism Authority and the Ghana Hotels Association, but did not hear back in time for publication.
For Kwame Gasu, a native resident of Accra, the government’s use of African American celebrities is a great strategy. “It has paid off; Ghana is the number one tourism hub in Africa when it comes to Christmas, everybody talks about it,” said Gasu, co-founder of advertising and digital marketing startup Detalon Africa, while recognizing the city gets overcrowded and costly.
Ghanaians want African Americans to return, Gasu added, but they want African Americans who will contribute positively to the country’s economic comeback.
”My mission is to bridge these gaps and to tackle the difficult questions,” said Rashad McCrorey, African American founder of tour company Ghana Cross Culture.
McCrorey was enstooled in May as a tourism chief for the town of Iture, the first such designation in the country. “People think Ghana is all about tourism and an alternative lifestyle for an American income at a discounted value, when there’s more interpersonal dynamics and relationship ironing that needs to happen.”
For all the African American celebrities touting Ghana as paradise, the lack of a transparent government plan to set up locals for success through this heritage and repatriation bonanza is now as evident as the country’s weakened economy post-pandemic.
“What I think a lot of people can’t see now are the long term effects of what could happen,” said Iliah Grant Aloro, a travel expert and writer at Negra Bohemian, citing to Liberia as a great example.
Freed black Americans who were sent by ship to Liberia created their own elite societies, lived better than the native Africans and dominated politics. That created tensions that continue today, including civil wars, Grant Aloro said.
“If you think in the context of what does Ghana look like in 20 years, in 30 years, and could the same tensions be created? And is this really settler colonialism, but in different skin tones?”
A Pre-Pandemic Tourism Ascent
Tourism in Ghana was on a steady growth pre-pandemic, representing the country’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, according to Visit Ghana.
In the last decade, the government has claimed to prioritize tourism growth, with pre-pandemic projections of eight million tourist arrivals by 2027 and $8.3 billion in revenue, per the National Tourism Development Plan.
Covid stunted those plans, but its hospitality sector is now close to recovering 2019 levels, according to the Ghana Hotels Association.
An estimated 5,000 African Americans have also relocated to Ghana since the summer of 2020. While waiting for the “Beyond the Return” campaign to pick up steam, however, Ghana Tourism Authority has turned its attention to wooing back tourists from the rest of the world, with a goal of one million visitors per year and $3.2 billion in revenue in 2022. Domestic tourism is also receiving more attention.
But there is criticism that tourism in Ghana lacks a clear policy to drive the long-term success and growth of the sector. “Everything that has been done seems to be a knee-jerk approach to dealing with something that demands constant and deliberate actions,” said Samuel Appah, content editor at VoyagesAfriq.
A Curated View of Ghana
Sources who spoke to Skift agreed that most tourists judge Ghana based on Accra and their upscale experiences there, which the celebrity-led campaign reinforces.
“It felt a bit more organic initially when we had celebrities coming into the country by virtue of their lineage, said Rich Hackman, a content producer and founder of The Bored Brand, a marketing consultancy in reference to the Year of Return. The government then seemingly decided to piggyback off of that natural celebrity pull, Hackman added.
Hackman, who is Ghanaian-born and based in New York City, said African Americans’ conversation about Ghana needs to be more nuanced beyond a focus on their heritage connection, albeit the latter is important for them to have and share.
“Most of their experience is very curated — you connect with an organization on the ground in the country that shepherds you around from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, and the harsher realities on the ground may be briefly touched on, but you’re not getting the real experience.”
When you have severe poverty and you hear African Americans talking about their luxurious life there, it starts to become an issue, Hackman said.
Gasu agreed that most people misrepresent and judge the country based on what they see in Accra “From the PR or the videos that visitors see about Ghana, it’s all the good stuff — nobody talks about the negative stuff.”
Tourism’s Inequities Surface
Showing the lavish side of a destination has been the industry’s modus operandi since its creation, but after the last two harrowing years, the flaws of that approach are ultra-visible to locals who don’t see the gains translate into an improved quality of life despite deeper inequalities.
“The income that comes from tourism revenue shouldn’t just go into people’s pockets — reinvest it into the communities where those places are, make those places cleaner,” said Gasu, adding that the country’s main tourism sights have remained in a state of abandonment.
The Ghanaian government announced in April that it would infuse $25 million into refurbishment of major tourism sights.
“I always say that the Kwame Nkrumah museum was nicer when I was a kid than it’s looking now,” said Gasu, adding that neglected spots include Independence Square’s monument. “Sometimes it is even a pain to go out of Accra and visit other sites because the roads are so bad — you don’t believe this is Ghana; it doesn’t depict the Ghana we read in foreign news, that people talk about.”
Ghana Cross Culture’s McCrorey said he didn’t believe that everything is corruption. “I’m not surprised that people will say in 2019 all this money was made, and we haven’t seen any development. It’s probably still going through this Ghanaian bureaucracy that takes things almost forever to get done.”
Meanwhile the consequences of attracting privileged African American travelers keep mounting. Real estate in Ghana is listed in U.S. dollars, sources confirmed, while unemployment tops the conversation list of post-pandemic woes, as non-Ghanaians are blamed for driving up the cost of life in Accra.
But the conversation cuts both ways, McCrorey said, as many Ghanaian businesses from taxis to mom and pop stores tend to push up their prices when they know they’re dealing with African Americans.
“If you’re going to charge Ghanaians one price and Americans another price, understand that eventually it is going to come out and it’s going to build that tension between Ghanians and Americans,” said McCrorey. “These are things that can’t stay secret.”
A New Ecosystem for West Africa
Beyond the celebrity buzz, the Ghanaian government is building an ecosystem that doesn’t yet exist in West Africa in the way it does in East Africa, Certified Africa’s Quaye said about the “Beyond the Return” campaign, and it’s an effort that’s in its infant stages.
Quaye first visited Ghana in 2016 as a law student during which time she clerked at the Supreme Court of Ghana and met her husband. Through Certified Africa, Quaye and her husband connect African American tourists and investors with local Ghanian entrepreneurs to build those relationships so they’ll want to come back and invest.
“We have to look at it in two parts: you don’t sell with the issues that Africa comes with, but when they come, we show them the lavish but then we also tell them, hey, this is the reality,” said Quaye. “We have a service day, we show them what’s happening and how they can help empower people.”
It’s the potential for collaboration born out of this joint heritage that’s promising, Quaye added, while rejecting the notion of “coming and saving Africa.”
There needs to be community organizations and departments in place to tackle the issues, McCrorey said, and it’s an adjustment that will take longer than a couple of years as part of natural community building dynamics.
“As a Black American from Harlem, New York, I’m very privy to the idea of gentrification and in some ways it’s a form of gentrification. However, the two groups of people, the Black American or diaspora and the Ghanaians, they’re not enemies per se, it’s not a purposeful displacement.”
Pulling at the wound of African Americans who don’t have a flag to stand under, in the way Jamaicans or Trinidadians do for instance, made this a perfect marketing scheme, Grant Aloro said, noting the campaigns target those who are North America-based and therefore have the capital.
McCrorey, who first visited the continent in 2015, said there’s a bigger picture unfolding. “I believe we’re only in year three of a 70 to 100 year great migration, and Ghana is the gateway. People are coming here for the first time but they’re not all moving here — now they’re going to Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa. It’s the way that most of us left, so it’s only right that this is the way that most of us are coming back in. It’s like the front door in a way.”
A Call for Transparency and Planning
As the African American celebrity vacation in Accra keeps flashing across screens in upcoming months, there’s hope that this polarizing marketing approach will deepen the conversation on what defines a value visitor, and what the economic promise will be for Ghana’s tourism sector and Ghanaians.
“Tourism is more than just taking people places here and there and let’s have fun,” said McCrorey. “Tourism is planning, strategy, budgeting, financing, infrastructure building, also providing safety — not only safety for your tourists, but safety from tourists. And this is an example of protecting the community from people moving into the community.”
For Hackman, it’s unclear how Ghana will get there from these glitzy marketing campaigns and the current conversation is short-sighted.
Certified Africa’s Quaye agreed that it’s clear the government needs to put in place mechanisms for locals to tap into the influx of African Americans, such as training programs in the various sectors in which African Americans are launching businesses.
“There’s nothing wrong with people feeling a connection and moving there, but there’s a fine line when privileged travelers start moving to a destination in droves,” said Negra Bohemian’s Grant Aloro. “What is the fine line between, I want to move there because of XYZ and even if I have all of those reasons, is this ethical anymore for the people who actually live there?”
As for the Black celebrities who’ve signed on to promote Ghana to their fellow affluent African Americans, they may not be aware of the full consequences of their efforts to lure affluent compatriots into the local ecosystem.
“There is an element of it that does fall heavily on the government,” said Grant Aloro. “What they’re looking to do and what their projects are, and what their vision for the country is and the future.”
Photo credit: Fishermen on Cape Coast, Ghana, in a pre-pandemic image. Hello Lightbulb / Unsplash