There was a time in Ghana when knowledge was valued above all else. Professionalism was the hallmark of every human endeavor from Drivers to Doctors. Any vocation a young person aspired to had a sense of duty and accountability etched in it and these aspirations were twinned with an unshakeable sense of pride.
Drivers, Policemen, Traders and others offered service with meaning and conviction. The people they served were expected to experience a positive and memorable change in their lives. This was when public servants told you their names not because they expected gifts or undeserved rewards but so you would associate their names with the good service they had rendered. There was pride in service to the state.
What does all this have to do with tourism? Everything.
The debate, data and dialogue about tourism has had the wrong focus for quite some time. A sustainable and successful tourism industry is rooted in excellent and boundless service. Unfortunately, both excellence and service are scarce commodities in Ghana right now. To compound this cultural purgatory, we are hoping to generate a 21st century income on an infrastructure from the 1950s. By infrastructure, I mean basic amenities like clean functioning public conveniences in our major cities and along major roadways across the country. These should exist at 50 km intervals along all major travel routes across the nation.
Tourists travel the world over to relax and enjoy themselves. Most are not wealthy but scrape their pennies for years to visit a chosen destination. The constant begging of visitors for money, the shirts on their backs and other items does not result in Ghana being recommended as a choice destination to others. The national discussion on tourism completely disregards the reality that we are competing with other destinations for a finite amount of worldwide disposable income devoted to leisure and business travel every year. When visitors are inconvenienced by the lack of basic amenities, are confronted often by uniformed beggars and harassed by ferocious child beggars at tourist sites this industry will not contribute to the national economy to the degree that it should.
Though this is national phenomenon, this activity is particularly troublesome at Bonwire, the Kente weaving capital of Ghana near Kumasi and at Assin Manso at the “Last bath” river on the Slave Trade route. At these sites, armies of child beggars cause tourists to freak out. At Assin Manso children storm out of the nearby school, at the sight of tourists, and come a’ begging. All of this is allowed by adults in the communities. It is simply put, quite disgraceful and represents a national embarrassment.
Many tourists travel by STC Intercity services. The washrooms at the main terminal in Accra are horribly filthy and the stench is overpowering. Welcome to Ghana! After that welcome, the buses never leave on time and if you dare ask for the cause of the delay you are treated with derision or hostility. Here again, our own culture of indiscipline and mediocrity completely undermines the fledgling tourism industry. Travelers both local and foreign are often on a schedule and do not have the luxury of hours to spare for an inefficiently run bus service. A bus that is supposed to depart at 9:00am can depart at 3:00pm without any compensation to passengers. Why should we reasonably expect tourists to leave the comforts of their countries to sit in a filthy bus terminal for hours? Does this make any sense? No Ghanaian should have to endure that either, after 54 years of self-government. By providing an adequate standard of services for our own citizens, we benefit from tourists becoming boosters for our country as a destination of choice. If not, they spread the word about the inconveniences we dish out regularly. Visitors learn very quickly to disrespect the citizenry because of what they see them endure daily without complaint.
The service in our restaurants is no better. Menus often have non-existent items listed and sometimes you are served whatever is available without your input. Many of the servers are often sultry, slow and often plain rude. Alternatively, they may be obsequious to no end, in search of rewards before good service is provided. Tips are earned with good service. They are not an entitlement. A great deal of training and re-orientation is urgently required in this sector as well. Again, it was not always like this.
There is pervasive Ghanaian on Ghanaian disrespect in the service sector. Obvious foreigners are shamelessly allowed to jump queues at airports and other places of service as if locals count for nothing. Tourism is an industry based on inviting others to see how we live, showing them various aspects of our national culture and character that are valued and treasured. If the greatest exhibition is one of devaluing our own citizens, we should not be surprised that with the growth of this industry, will come all manner of abuses against our citizens. Some of these are already evident. Wanton lack of self-respect and self-loathing on constant display will make tourism a social burden rather than an income earner for the nation.
As for our beaches, they are “bombed” with organic IEDs because the necessary public conveniences are not available to many local coastal communities. The residents are also not educated on the value of these beaches because their activities, such as fishing have not been integrated into the tourist industry. There are many who would pay to go out to sea in a canoe with local fishermen or help pull in the daily catch.
Many tourist sites are poorly preserved. The Slave Trade Route is not marked and not commemorated on the highways leading south from the Northern and Upper Regions. Many historically important sites are not even marked. Visitors find them by rumor and hearsay. Many guides are poorly informed and provide information that is a fine blend of fact and fancy. Local resources of oral history do not have their contributions recorded. One day they are there and at the next turn, they are dead and gone. An example in Elmina was one Mr. Quayson who conducted elaborate walking tours of the town for years.
At the major castles and forts, the story is no different. Guides vary their accounts depending on whether the audience is white, black or mixed. There is no consistent account of the history. Many factual errors are imparted to visitors. There is no consistency in the information delivered to visitors. One of the continued inaccuracies of fact often repeated is that Ghanaians with European names are descended from slave women who were impregnated by the governors and staff and freed into the coastal towns as a result.
Historical research and common sense do not support this. Sadly, slaves were viewed as articles of commerce and a pregnant woman was worth more transferred safely across the Atlantic, hopefully with a live birth in the Americas. Also, slaves were not kept long enough at the Castles for these pregnancies to advance to the degree suggested by the version sold to visitors. Most of the captured in the dungeons did not come from the local communities. They were usually transported on foot from many points north of the coastal towns and would not be released into the towns since it would represent a financial loss. This version projects our humanity onto arguably the greatest act of inhumanity in history. Many historians such as Doortmont, Everts and others report on a very extensive history for centuries of marriages between Europeans and African women of both aristocratic and ordinary backgrounds in coastal communities from Keta to Axim from the 15th century onwards. Many of the Christian European men of course had wives in Europe. Governor Woortmont was a good example. He named all the children by his African wife Plange, which was his mother’s maiden name. Many of these women managed businesses for their European consorts. There were traditional marriages, common-law marriages and legal unions.
In a related incident, on a visit to Fort Appollonia in Beyin, I was shocked to hear an untrained guide telling a group of tourists that cannons pointing out to sea were used to defeat Ashantis. The Ashanti Navy? This obviously made no sense but some of the tourists were taking notes. He did not have an elementary understanding of the history he was supposed to be sharing.
We need to invest in training of all involved in the tourism sector; guides, restaurant servers, hotel staff, drivers, the police and all those who deal with the public regularly. A full scale preservation program driven by local districts and funded by the Ministry of Tourism is central to the development of this sector. Roads to important revenue generating major tourist sites such as Nzulezo in the Nzema and Mole Game Reserve in Upper West should be passable. What is the point of a tourist site, if getting there is a masochist’s dream?
There are many Slave Trade sites in Upper West, Upper East and Northern Regions which need to be properly identified, preserved and promoted. Guides must receive training based on sound historical evidence which should be delivered by our historians in translating their research into the main stream to support revenue generation for the nation.
Like many aspects of our national life, we want earnings without appropriate investment to maximize our earnings. We have no international marketing campaigns in the US, Canada, Europe etc. to promote our country as a worthwhile tourist destination. Giving the forgoing it may be truly premature. We say we have a visa on arrival policy yet airlines still demand visas from visitors on embarkation for Ghana and flights are delayed for this purpose. To get a visa at Kotoka International Airport, an immigration officer might do you this favor for $50.00, $100.00 or $150.00 depending on his mood. Corruption colors everything and we have had nothing but platitudes from our leaders about it. The $1.6 bn we earned last year from tourism is driven passively by word of mouth. Imagine what we are capable of earning with a sustainable plan for this sector which is now our 4th leading foreign exchange earner.