Ghana: Did the ‘Year of Return’ manage to import the capital, skills and diaspora it promised?

By 'Tofe Ayeni

Posted on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 11:46
Members of a heritage tour group stand near a statue of Kwame Nkrumah in Accra
Members of a heritage tour group, traveling to Ghana to explore their ancestral roots, stand near a statue of Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah in Accra, August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

The ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ was a kickstart campaign to bring foreigners, particularly from the black diaspora, to Ghana, as visitors or as tourists. This would bring in fresh skills and capital, and place Ghana more firmly on the global map as a key destination spot.  

It has been three years since Ghana hosted ‘The Year of Return, Ghana 2019’, a year-long programme of activities marking the 400th anniversary of the first recorded enslaved Africans to the US.

The goal was to make the country a key travel destination for African Americans and the African diaspora, whether they decided to settle or not. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo granted citizenship to members of the diaspora.

Mariah Greenstreet, a Ghanaian 24-year-old professional based in Accra recalls that the campaign, which dates back to before the coronavirus pandemic, “was a very good initiative because fundamentally it’s bringing money into Ghana in a good way.”

She adds that it was “quite successful” in 2019, being the first year of the huge music festival Afro Nation.

We have this reputation of being very welcoming people. The Ghanaian makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel safe.

Isi Okojie, a consultant currently based in New York, has one African-American parent and one Nigerian one. She had not been to Nigeria since she was a young child, until she went in December 2021. She had originally planned to also include Ghana on this trip, but cancelled at the last minute due to coronavirus concerns

“The Year of Return definitely had a strong influence on me wanting to go to Ghana. I saw how much fun people were having in 2019 and figured I would have a good time if I went in 2021. If the Year of Return hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to go to Ghana,” she tells The Africa Report. 

In 2020, Ghana’s ambassador to the US, H.E. Barfuor Adjei-Barwuaj said to African Renewal: “We have this reputation of being very welcoming people. The Ghanaian makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel safe.”

‘Influx of people’

With the number of people visiting or settling in Ghana increasing, this seems to ring true. Although the further campaigns by the Ghanaian government could not be as big due to Covid-19, Greenstreet can see that: “Every year, it gets bigger and bigger, especially in December. The Year of Return cascaded into continuous tourism development.”

However, although Ghanaians do have the reputation of being very welcoming, she believes that it is getting a bit too hectic.

Greenstreet says: “We don’t have some of the infrastructure needed to support this influx of people. It is becoming very overwhelming for the hospitality and logistic sectors. There are suddenly a lot more demands than we can accommodate.”

But while locals may be feeling the crush, those from the region are often are keen to stay.

Tife Akeju, a 24-year-old Nigerian professional previously based in Accra says: “Accra is small but it never seemed like too many people. They were prepared for it. ”

This is a country that is going somewhere. The government is trying to be progressive, the people are progressive, and they are willing to embark on that journey together.

Akeju moved to Accra from Lagos in June 2021. She originally went to visit a friend for five days, and ended up staying for three and a half weeks.

“You can’t go to Accra and come back when you’re meant to,”, she says. “I immediately wanted to move there. I went back pretty much monthly after that.”

In getting her job as a marketing manager for a top rated restaurant there, she simply heard about the opportunity, applied, and moved within a week.

“This is a country that is going somewhere. The government is trying to be progressive, the people are progressive, and they are willing to embark on that journey together,” says Akeju.

She found “a huge expatriate community that allowed me to feel so at home.” She notes that, apart from Nigerians, there was a large number of “people from Francophone African countries. Togolese, Ivoiriens, and more. Celebrities from other African countries moved there – I used to see Elsa Majimbo out on weekends. A lot of African-Americans, black British people, and white people too.”

More visitors, and more settlers?

At the beginning of 2019, the Ghana Tourism Authority predicted that the ‘Year of Return’ would attract an extra 500,000 visitors.

  • Official data from January to September 2019 show an extra 237,000 visitors, marking a 45% increase from the same period in 2019. Visitors from the US and the UK in particular increased significantly.
  • In 2016, the number of international travellers to Ghana was 932,579. This rose in 2017 to 969,156 people, and although there was a slight drop in 2018 to just under 960,000, it rose to a peak of 1.13 million in 2019.

However, some, like Bright Simons, president of mPedigree, believes that we cannot simply look at initial numbers and come to a conclusion. In a published opinion piece, he said: “…no data-conscious person would insist that every successful marketing exercise must bear immediate fruit. There is almost always a time lag before results materialise.”

Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 pandemic began the year after the Year of Return campaign was launched, tourism numbers worldwide are anomalies, and do not show regular trends.

Some diaspora celebrities have long been known to invest in their home countries – they have frequented or built homes in Ghana and South Africa, and Nigeria – (Lagos in particular) is a popular holiday destination, especially during the Christmas season.

  • Prominent examples include Akon, who is planning to create a futuristic city in his home country of Senegal, Boris Kodjoe, the half-Ghanaian actor who has recently started taking frequent trips there, and Naomi Campbell, who visits various hotspots on the continent.

In recent years, Ghana has also become increasing popular with tourists from across Africa. For example, Nigerians have began to go to Accra in December. Although the events in Lagos and Accra during that period are similar (same artistes holding concerts, etc.), the latter has a somewhat slower pace, with earlier nights, which can be a good change of pace for Lagosians.

Covid-19 brings more settlers

Although more people are also relocating to Ghana, Greenstreet says: “Settlers are increasing but not at an alarming rate. I have met a number of diasporans that come for December, then start extending their stay, before just deciding to settle.”

Covid-19 and European travel restrictions, also have played a role.

Greenstreet has “met some people who aren’t Ghanaians at all who last year stayed for like five months because of Covid-19 in Europe. The next thing, they are buying land and then transitioning into staying.”

African-Americans, and Black Lives Matter

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and black people globally feeling like their lives were not getting any safer, African governments began to call people back.

Akwasi Agyeman, chief executive of the Ghana Tourism Authority, encouraged African-Americans to come back home: “We want to remind our kin over there that there is a place you can escape to. That is Africa.”

Barbara Oteng Gyasi, Ghana’s tourism minister emphasises that: “We continue to open our arms and invite all our brothers and sisters home. Build a life in Ghana. You do not have to stay where you are not wanted forever.”

‘100% succesful’

‘The Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ was a success. Although it does seem that Ghana was attracting more tourists before the campaign, the targeted message encouraged even more people to visit Accra.

Akeju believes that the campaign was: “100% successful.” From living there, she was aware that “many, many visas were being issued. A lot of festivals were happening. President Akufo-Addo has put 500 acres of discounted land aside for diaspora members moving there.”

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