Slavery’s 400-year anniversary brings tourist boom to Ghana

In a clearing at the turnoff to Assin Manso, a billboard depicts two African slaves in loincloths, their arms and legs in chains. Beside them are the words, “Never Again!”

This is “slave river,” where captured Ghanaians submitted to a final bath before being shipped across the Atlantic into slavery centuries ago, never to return to the land of their birth. Today, it is a place of somber homecoming for the descendants of those who spent their lives as someone else’s property.

The popularity of the site has swelled this year, 400 years after the trade in Africans to the English colonies of America began. This month’s anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in Virginia has caused a rush of interest in ancestral tourism, with people from the United States, the Caribbean and Europe seeking out their roots in West Africa.

“Ten years ago, no one went to the slave river, but this year has been massive,” said Awuracy Butler, who runs a company called Butler Tours.

She said business has nearly doubled this year, which has been touted as the Year of Return for the African diaspora tracing their family history. The number of tourists has forced her to hire more vehicles, she said.

“Everyone wants to add the slave river to their tour,” she said. The coastal forts where they spent their last days in Ghana in suffocating conditions are also increasingly popular, she said.

The increase in tourism has been an economic boon for Ghana, which unlike other West African countries has aggressively marketed its “heritage” offerings for the anniversary.

Officials see it as an opportunity to entice some much-needed foreign investment into the economy, dogged in recent years by high inflation and public debt that has needed an International Monetary Fund lending program to fix.

The Ghana Tourism Authority expects 500,000 visitors this year, up from 350,000 in 2018. Of those, 45,000 are estimated to be seeking their ancestral roots, a 42% increase from last year.

On a recent day in the capital, Accra, a delegation of tribal elders and a representative of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre welcomed a tour group at a hotel in the city.

At an event in a low-ceilinged hotel conference room, the tour guide encouraged the visitors to sing a hymn in a local language, gently chiding them for not yet knowing the tune. “You are Ghanaians now,” he said.

Members of the group, who were mostly African American, went up to the front one by one to pose with a smiling tourism ministry official or one of the robe-clad elders as they received an official certificate of participation. The investment representative launched into a lengthy power-point presentation focused on the need for investment in Ghana’s cocoa sector and the minimum capital requirements for joint ventures.

With an average spend of $1,850 per tourist, the tourism authority expects this year’s revenues to top $925 million, a 50% increase from 2018, which it hopes to sustain over the next three years at least.

The amount is dwarfed by Ghana’s $2-billion cocoa industry but is considered essential in a country of 28 million people who mostly live in poverty.

Anthony Bouadi, a tour guide at Cape Coast Castle, a fortress where the captives were kept until they were sent on ships over the Atlantic, said he believes the site will change the lives of those who visit.

“The moment you get to know your history, it is going to change you,” he said. “We are encouraging our brothers and sisters from the U.S., from the Caribbean from Europe to come back to their Motherland Africa to get to know the culture … and whatever the ancestors went through.”

The surge of visitors is part of a global phenomenon: Airbnb data shows a five-fold increase in people traveling to places connected to their ancestry worldwide since 2014.

U.S. genetics company African Ancestry says its sales of DNA tests tripled after last year’s release of the superhero film “Black Panther,” an Afro-centric blockbuster with a predominantly black cast. The company is launching an ancestry-based travel service later this year.

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