BLACK STAR RISING

Ghana has so far struggled to reach the top of visitors' bucket lists as a holiday destination, but hosting the World Tourism Forum in 2017 went some way to kickstarting its tourism industry.

French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a welcoming ceremony at the Independence square upon his arrival in Accra, Ghana, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/PoolFrench President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a welcoming ceremony at the Independence square upon his arrival in Accra, Ghana, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool


Traveling to Africa has never been so popular. The continent's leading destinations were among the most in-vogue in the world last year, with the continent witnessing 6% YoY growth in the tourism industry.

This growth is well above that of the more visited continents of Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

According to a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, around half of the 20 million international visitors coming to Africa each year stay in North Africa.

The other half is spread across Sub-Saharan Africa.

But though the tourism industries of the usual suspects have been growing steadily, certain newcomers have made major gains in popularity in recent years.

In a little less than six years, Ghana has jumped from 35th position to 8th on the list of preferred destinations in Africa.

With this in mind, it comes as less of a surprise that the Committee of the World Tourism Forum picked Accra as the official host for its 2017 event.

In addition to the prestige that accompanies such an event, being chosen represented an unprecedented opportunity for Ghana to showcase its efforts to follow trends in local and global tourism.

Crucially it has also been rolling out initiatives to generate more sustainable industry growth.

By hosting the event, Ghana is finally starting to see the first results of a long struggle to attract visitors from all over the world.

The Black Star, as Ghana is sometimes referred to, has historically struggled to be seen as an attractive leisure destination. Business has often gained the upper hand as the reason to visit the West African country. After all, its central location and political stability are two crucial considerations for entrepreneurs.

These favorable conditions have made Ghana the perfect market to establish business operations in Africa before moving into neighboring countries.

But today it seems that people are finally visiting for other reasons.

Ghana's hidden gems are just now being discovered by the broader tourism world: long, white beaches; castles once used as slave-trade hubs; pristine natural parks. With so much to offer different kinds of tourists, how has the country remained overlooked for so long?

One reason is the drastic improvements being made to the industry thanks to the Ministry of Tourism's new strategy.

A key element of this is the development of air traffic and airport infrastructure in-country.

The Ghanaian aviation sector has been going through something of a revolution, leading to international airlines such as Air France and Kenya Airways expanding routes to the country. Moreover, the national airline AWA seems to have achieved some degree of financial stability after a period of uncertainty.

On top of this, the construction of new airport terminals in Tamale and Accra are hoped to lead not only to a reduction in air traffic congestion, but also to prolonged stays within the country. The capital city is increasingly being used as a transfer hub for regional airports within Ghana. With more companies interested in favoring local transport, competition should drive down prices, good news for both tourists and the Ghanaian tourism industry.

The second reason for Ghana's increasing popularity is its embracing of "experience-focused" tourism. Rather than concentrating on specific landmarks, the Ministry of Tourism has promoted the country as an experience.

If any notable sight is singled out, it could hardly stand out as a must-see.

Ghana of course has beautiful beaches, but so does Kenya; it offers charming national parks, but cannot compete with the Serengeti in Tanzania or Chobe in Botswana; it offers entertaining festivals, but still looks up to its big Nigerian brother on the musical scene.

Yet, if put all together, these ingredients form an impressively unique, irresistible mixture.

Rather than a destination, Ghana is selling itself as an experience.

Does it live up to the hype? Only one way to find out.