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Goodlet Ansah Writes …‘Beyond The Return’: A shuttered dream in the clutches of a global pandemic?

Prior to the declaration of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19 as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, Ghana’s economy and the tourism industry, in particular, were reaping from the dividends after a successful implementation of the Year of Return in 2019. The success of the project led to the launch of ‘Beyond the Return’, a 10 year (2020-2030) initiative as part of the government’s efforts to project its ‘Ghana Beyond Aid’ agenda. However, as global institutional giants and governments across the globe contend with the Covid-19 disease outbreak, does it spell the doom and an end in the short term, and a possible underachievement in the long-run for a project that carried prodigious promise?

The Year of Return (YoR) 2019, officially launched in September 2018 in Washington, D.C was an initiative of the Government of Ghana in partnership with the U.S based Adinkra Group intended to encourage African Diasporas to come to Africa, particularly Ghana to settle and invest in the continent. It was a program for Africans in the diaspora to unite with Africans, in commemoration of 400 years since the first enslaved Africans touched down in Jamestown, Virginia in the United States of America. The objectives as outlined were; a) to make Ghana a key travel destination for African Americans and the rest of the African diaspora, b) to rebuild the lost past of these 400 years, and c) to promote investment in Ghana and foster relationships with African Americans and the African diaspora.

Assessing the aftermath dividends reveal that the Year of Return celebration in 2019 indubitably yielded mammoth returns for the tourism industry and its interconnected hospitality businesses, at least based on reports from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. These earnings occasioned by steady flows in visitor numbers skyrocketed to a crescendo in December, causing businesses across the industry value chain (airlines, hotels, restaurants, car rentals and other ancillary services) to record good-sized growth to stimulate economic progression.

These dividends, translated in terms of employment, foreign exchange and revenue generation from taxation, engendered expected growth of the tourism industry in excess as returns of $2.2 billion outstripped the $1.9 billion pre-celebration figures envisioned. This tremendous development bore an 18% growth in international arrivals from the Americas, Britain, Caribbean and other key source markets, 45% upscale of total airport arrivals for the year and 39% increase in spending per tourist compared to 2017 figures. These figures are expected to double by 2027 from its current based on pronouncements by the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mrs. Barbara Oteng-Gyasi.

The success of this initiative birthed ‘Beyond the Return’, a 10-year project under the theme, ‘‘A decade of African Renaissance, 2020-2030’’ was launched in December 2019 by the President Nana Akufo-Addo. With its objective pillars supposed to have been launched in February 2020, the aim according to the government is not only to promote tourism and homecoming of Africans and Ghanaians in the diaspora but to foster economic relations and investment from the diaspora in Africa and Ghana. However, 5 months after its launch, the dreams, hopes and exuberance that accompanied its launch have been greatly curtailed by a global pandemic, Covid-19. An unprecedented public health crisis that has taken world economies by storm, with Ghana not spared the economic exigencies and prevalence it exudes.

In the words of the United Nations World Tourism Organization’ (UNWTO) Secretary-General, Zurab Pololikashvili “this (Covid-19) unprecedented public health emergency has already become an economic crisis which will come at a social cost”. He adds that tourism “is the hardest hit sector and all our best estimates have been overtaken by the changing reality”. Also, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva has warned that ‘‘the coronavirus pandemic will turn global economic growth “sharply negative” this year.

What we have seen so far: Lessons learnt

Ghana, a sub-Saharan country is recognized among the only 8 out of the 47 countries categorized under the ‘consolidating’ typology in terms of tourism development performance in the sub-region based on a classification developed by the African Finance and Private Sector Development. This means that the tourism industry in Ghana characteristically has a deepening and sustaining tourism success, relatively mature sectors, a high level of commitment to tourism development coupled with the management quality and capability of private sector participation.

Consequently, the tourism industry and its yearly dividend contribution to the Ghanaian economy stands highly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic all round. This development, unfortunately, has affected every sector of the economy with the tourism industry highly vulnerable. Therefore, future plans for the industry in the foreseeable future hangs in the balance and ‘Beyond the Return’ program is not spared the gruesomeness of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to an account by Rashad McCrorey, (an African American Entrepreneur and travel influencer) the brain behind a number of trips to Africa to help Black Americans connect with their culture especially during the celebrations in 2019, his arrival in Ghana since 27th February, 2020 has been one he never anticipated.

‘‘Just 3 months after the conclusion of the Year of Return festivities, who would have thought on the 15th of March, Ghana President, Nana Akufo-Addo would announce that at least temporarily, no one could return’’.

As part of his promotional visit to Ghana, his itinerary included 6th March events, Accra Fashion Week, the Kwahu Festival, networking events, meeting with Ghanaian influencers, inter alia as reported by ghananewsoline.com

Rashad’s account typifies the realities and times we are facing now (definitely not normal). In times of disease outbreaks, mass cancellations dominate the industry with critical downturns on demand for attractions (tourist sites), accommodation (hotels), amenities, accessibility (air travel and other forms), and activities (5A’s that define successful tourism) in the short run.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council report in 2018, travel and tourism in Sierra Leone following the Ebola disease outbreak in 2014 experienced a 50% decline and to date, pre-epidemic numbers for tourism and expenditures have yet to be achieved. Instances from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015, the first two recorded coronavirus outbreaks resulted in an estimated US$4.83-7.24 billion tourism income reduction and $2.1 million losses in visitor arrivals and corresponding $2.6 billion tourism revenue losses respectively.

Beginning of the end

Evidence from these instances demonstrates that it takes a considerable time for trade and tourism businesses to recover after infectious disease outbreaks. However, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to blow the wind of unpredictability in the global landscape, coupled with high incidence of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States of America, The United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, China etc., (Ghana’s primary source of international tourists) plans for the tourism industry in whatever form and wherever it may be standing on the brink of failure, at least in the foreseeable future.

More specifically, with ‘Beyond the Return’ program aiming to attract African Americans (generally from the USA) and the rest of the African diaspora, and the United States of America being the leading nation in terms of confirmed cases of Covid-19 (1.26 million with over 74,665 recorded deaths) as of 7th May 2020, the implementation of and or success of the program looks implausible. This, however, cannot be the end of this worthwhile initiative (Beyond the Return), even in the midst of a bleak, unpredictable, and dream-crushing era of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As such, ‘Ghanaian officials who basked in glory and ecstasy following a very successful marketing and branding’ campaign for the ‘Year of Return’, would need to consider aggressive approaches to marketing and promotion, at least in the early years of this decade long project, if half of the projected returns or anything at all could be accrued from the project. Otherwise, a revision of the project’s implementation is recommended after travel fears have been allayed and tourist confidence in destinations such as Ghana has been built. This can be built against the backdrop of the successes and network dividends the ‘Year of Return’ effectuated. Thus, Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the project will surely Return!

About the author

Mr. Goodlet Owusu Ansah is an Executive Master’s programme in International Business student at the KNUST School of Business. He has over 7 year’s career experience in research, consultancy and management in Hospitality and Tourism businesses. He is also a G20 Research Analyst with the G20 Research Group of Munk Institute of Global Affairs, University of Toronto-Canada. He is also the National Research Committee Director.

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