In this interview with The Worldfolio, Catherine Abelema Afeku, Ghana´s Minister for Tourism, Arts & Culture, discusses the government’s efforts to improve the travel and tourism sector
Despite the economic slowdown of recent years, tourism has positioned itself as one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the country. What are the main priorities of the new government towards this sector? How are you planning to boost tourism development especially in terms of infrastructure development and connectivity?
The main priority and the ultimate goal is job creation through sustainable development in tourism. We campaigned with the president of the republic on the promise of jobs. The growth and prosperity of every nation is through sustainable jobs and tourism is an easy avenue to create jobs – both formal and informal.
The priority is to achieve this through infrastructure development, building skills and training programs. The emphasis is on growing foods within the economy; to feed the hotel industry. So, planting for food and jobs, in the agriculture sector will boost tourism because of the cuisines that will be showcased. Also, manufacturing textiles. The fashion of Ghana, the arts, the industry will also by extension boost tourism. These are the factors that will support the tourism industry.
How is the ministry conducting training programs and initiatives to upgrade the capabilities and skills? How are you ensuring human capital development?
The people are our first major asset. And as part of our mandate, we are seeking private partnership to establish a hotel management school; a state-of-the-art hospitality industry. One of the gaping holes in the industry is not having an established training institute as exemplified in the tourist nations. You go to East Africa, they have the Utalii concept. You go a bit farther to Switzerland, France, they all have hotel schools. So, we are learning from and adopting the best practices.
And we believe as a government, that the private sector has to lead these initiatives. The ministry supports with policy guidelines to encourage private sector investment in the training of the human resources to feed into the industry. And it’s undeniable that we have the fastest growing sector in this economy. Tourism is the fourth foreign exchange earner after gold, cocoa, and oil & gas. So, if you invest in the human resources, you will not lose. You train them. You build a human base in the country and you will also make money as an investor.
Many UK travellers are not looking for just the “sun and beach” destinations but experiences, and many UK tourists are yet to discover what Ghana has to offer, especially regarding eco-tourism. How is the ministry working on promoting for example the eco-tourism? And what are the sectors of tourism that you are focusing on?
We’re doing both leisure and business. We are starting in 2017 the marine drive investment project. For the first time in the history of this nation, 240 acres of land in the capital of Accra will be cleared and we will build tourism infrastructure to meet the needs of the sector. The UK is actually the top visiting nation according to our data, followed by the U.S., then France and it trickles down to Asian countries.
So, after 50 years of drawing boards, discussions, we are going to start putting the building blocks to build the marina like in Cape Town in South Africa. We’re getting the Accra Marine Investment Project. It will be the biggest tourism enclave ever to be constructed along the west coast.
You recently also discovered a coral reef.
Yes, we do have that. And this one is actually going to be whether the people of Ghana will not have their back facing the sea but we will turn it like they do in Spain. So, you will have leisure, but not only leisure. There’ll be conference business, MICE - something that we’re missing in Ghana.
Rwanda is taking the business for East Africa. We want to position Ghana as the conference hub for West Africa. So as part of that development, there will be conference facilities, amphitheaters and also an opportunity to show what Ghana has to offer in arts and culture.
We have a selling point. Ghana is the safest and friendliest country in West Africa. It’s warm. So, once we add the infrastructure tourism, traffic will increase. We need infrastructure. That is the gap that was identified by the research. So tomorrow starts the journey of fulfilling that gap.
Taking into account that UK is one of Ghana’s longest-standing and strongest partners, what investment opportunities would you highlight in the tourist sector for UK investors?
The immediate low-hanging fruit is medium-scale SME investors to do 20-room bed and breakfasts for adventure tourists. One of the biggest drawbacks for the industry is the cost of hotels. It’s a demand and supply effect so it’s very difficult to regulate the price. There is no incentive to reduce your rate. So, the average backpacker will have trouble paying the high-end rate.
We need 20-room bed and breakfasts or 25-room hotels by the beach or around our tourist attractions like the ecotourist sites, Paga, where you can play with crocodiles; Wechiau, where we have the hippos or you at the western sites. You have a lot of tourist sites where it’s not too expensive for the average family of five from the UK coming down to pay $50 to stay.
So that is the immediate investment opportunity for the middle-level business. You don’t need a huge amount of money to develop a 20-bedroom hotel. But it will have a niche market. The segment is adventure, the backpacker. That is the gap we’re trying to fill.
Say I was a UK citizen and I was invited to Ghana to spend my holidays here, why would you encourage me to come to Ghana? How would you describe Ghana’s culture and natural resources?
I would first say, it’s the friendliest nation in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s safe. But what we have as a selling point is our culture. The painting culture, the food culture, the music culture. These are our selling points.
We have an initiative that we are about to launch and it’s called “Wear Ghana, Eat Ghana and See Ghana”. You gave me a very nice compliment when you saw me in my African fabrics. This is made in Ghana. And you have a chance to taste some Jollof or kelewele. That’s a Ghanaian cuisine. And in the evening, you get to see a castle or you just watch the sunrise at Kokrobite Beach.
So “Wear Ghana, Eat Ghana and See Ghana.” You can’t beat that.