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African Tourism projects: great potential or white elephants?

Not too many people are aware that Ghana has a very good game park, called Mole National Park, about two hours drive from Tamale in the north, which is in turn a short flight from Accra.

Like many other African governments, Ghana’s government has high hopes for earnings from tourism. Will it happen?

You can sign me up as a zealous booster of Ghana tourism. Mole National Park alone is amazing, as I hope some of these amateur photos convey.The scene from the ridge on which the hotel sits was breathtaking and full of game.

And we haven’t even gotten to Ghana’s more famous attractions, like Elmina Castle, or even its famously welcoming and courteous citizenry, or just traveling about anywhere in Ghana. My message is unambiguous: come to Ghana!

Unfortunately, not all tourists base their choice of destinations on my recommendations. The prima donnas among the tourist set are going to complain about the not-quite-luxury-class hotel at Mole, or the teeth-chattering ride over an unpaved road from Tamale. Or maybe they will still be whining about the hassles of getting a visa. Some of them might have been a little put off by the welcome sign at the airport, whose principle message seems to be that pedophiles should surrender to the police immediately. (I of course sympathize with whatever problem led to this sign, but calling the visitors perverts is not the conventional way to attract tourists.)

This is the problem with trying to make tourism a major source of revenue. You have to keep the spoiled brats happy from the moment they enter to the day they depart. This chain is only as strong as its weakest link: one bad experience and it scares off the tourist masses. It seems that a lot of tourism projects do not appreciate these realities. The successful large scale tourist earners create at least a welcoming airtight enclave like Cancun. This is asking a lot of a poor country, to make everything fully functional for visitors when even making the basic health system work is a (higher priority) struggle.

Plan B is to attract at least the true  travelers, to whom a hitch in the road is material for an entertaining story to tell their friends, not something to ruin your vacation. Ghana is already doing this with some success and could conceivably do more (the hotel at Mole, while not large, was at least full to capacity in mid-July). I don’t know how large the traveler market is compared with the mass tourism market, but a rigorous survey of my family, friends, and acquaintances suggests it’s non-trivial. Perhaps somebody has already done a study of these various tourist market segments (anybody know?) Bottom line is that I think Ghana does have considerable upside potential, but not at Cancun scale. And maybe they should take down the pedophile sign.

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  1. Odd blog post.

    Second item that comes up when you google ‘Ghana tourism revenues’ is this article: Tourism revenues in 2009 were an estimated USD1.6bn, up from USD1.4bn the year before. Not all visitors to Ghana go there with the expectation of immaculate services and facilities – in fact, not all of them go there for holidays. South Africa, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania (and probably a couple of other countries) are doing very well from tourism, thankyouverymuch, not a white elephant in sight. It’s one of Kenya’s main forex earners. East Africa has stunning wildlife and nature that people would even come to visit without five-star facilities – but you find those here, too.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  2. Saira Qureshi wrote:

    Even though I love Mole and had tons of fun in Elmina and Cape Coast, I can’t see any of the people I know in Toronto being able to live in the same conditions and deal with roads etc. Sad really because it’s prettier, less crowded and much more interesting than most tourist spots.

    Most of the people I met at the Ghanian attractions were folks in the humanitarian sector or the odd individual who decided to motorbike/bus it across West Africa.

    In addition to the places you’ve mentioned, no trip would be complete without a visit to the Green Turtle Resort. It’s an eco resort so compost toilets, solar powered lights and set meal times. But awesome food and pristine beach. A bit of trek from Takoradi but so worth it. Again though I can’t see any of my N American friends ending up there primarily because you don’t get even cellphone reception. :)

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Conor Godfrey wrote:

    Rather than catering to the luxe crowd and leaving them somewhat disapointed, why not advertise W. African destinations to the adventure-tourism clientele?

    This is being already being done on some level, but my two years in W. Africa (Guinea-Conakry) convinced me that there was sig. scope for companies offering “safe adventure”. Rafting, climbing, hiking, etc… combined with genuine cultural tourism that did did not rely on ‘tourist villages’ and faux-craft markets such as those found on the East and Southern Africa safari circuits.

    Are there people out there doing/exploring this type of pitch?

    (Or any hope that airfare into W. Africa drops in price….)

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    Andrea, the bigger East African successes DO create a luxury cocoon for visitors. For Ghana, my experience affirms Saira’s comment more than yours, much as I wish it were otherwise.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:

    Conor, I agree with you, I was using the word “traveler” to include adventure tourism.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Cees wrote:

    Dear Bill, I can assure you that indeed there is a market for this type of tourism initiatives. People increasingly go for the authentic and though it is not necesarry to equal the top segment, one cannot ignore the quality issue. From my experience, especially in South America and to a lesser extent in Africa, I found that the biggest challenge is to develop and maintain quality services (it can be basic, but at least a room needs to be clean and food needs to be decent) in combination with professional management and good marketing. But it is possible!! Take this example in Tanzania or another one in Ecuador Both are succesful already for years now

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    My big problem with travel to that part of Africa is the malaria risk. I’m not enthusiastic about picking up a lifetime parasite to slow me down.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  8. jon wrote:

    It’s not as though there needs to be a choice between luxury tourism and ‘adventure’ or ‘nature’ tourism: savvy operators would find a way to cater to both markets if there’s money to be made.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  9. terence wrote:

    @Mr. Econotarian

    My understanding (and I’m not a doctor so reader beware) is that Vivax is the only common strain of Malaria that is liable to recur. And that even Vivax can be prevented from recurrence if cleared from a sufferer’s liver, which it can be with treatment.

    Malaria: really nasty disease, but not a chronic one if you can afford the meds.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  10. Huw Owen wrote:

    Hi Bill,

    I work in tourism development and have seen what some projects are capable of achieving (as well as some real cowpats – but that’s another story).

    The problem with parks like Mole is that the competition (East and Southern Africa, basically) has established market links, an internationally understood image and infrastructure as well. Mole is in competition with these places, not complementary to them, and therefore has a very hard time getting market traction.

    I think there is an opportunity for Mole though, and it lies in differentiation. What does it have that marks it out from everywhere else? I haven’t been, but here’s a guess:

    Location – it’s in West Africa (not East or South) – which means it can be combined with cultural touring in, say, Mali, Burkina Faso or southern parts of Ghana. It’s important not to see countries in isolation – that’s necessarily how tourists perceive them.

    Infrastructure – So it’s not Kenya or South Africa, but neither is it the DRC. A virtue can be made of lack of infrastructure if the right market is tapped.

    For example, how about Mole promoting itself as the “anti-East Africa”? We don’t take you around in jeeps, you walk with experienced rangers. We don’t pamper you, this is the bush and big camps aren’t sustainable. Locals are people, not “staff”, live with us, walk with us, learn about us.

    I’d say that’s pretty different.

    Tourism is a low-margin industry (net profits of 5% are perceived as “good”). This means western tour operators don’t have the means to research destinations properly, and generally take on “risky” destinations reluctantly. But in the market’s Long Tail there are operators who might be interested if the product is right.

    The other key is image vs reality. Everyone along the supply chain needs to manage market expectations. If they don’t, tourists buy the product and come away feeling they’ve paid twice as much for something half as good as they can get elsewhere. If the product in Ghana is differentiated from the market leaders then comparisons will change accordingly – in Ghana’s favour.

    All the best


    Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink
  11. Hi Bill,
    Funny the post about Mole, I used to live in Damango, which is the small town where quite a few local folks get off the bus and you pay a bit extra to go on to Mole. I have been there 5-6 times and love it! When my family visited, I brought them too.

    While I love Mole, there are a few things that I could never quite get my head around. If the Ghanaian Gov’t really wants to promote the tourism there, a paved road would be a big help, but beyond that, the single most striking thing to me was the 4:30am bus. As the only transport (other than private) leaving Mole, it seems quite unfortunate that people are to spend one last night at the park, only to have to leave too early for even the earliest of walking safaris. That and the Bus from tamale is routinely sold out by morning and the only seats left are quite awkward and uncomfortable. Just having an extra regular so that travelers are not discouraged from going the last few miles from Tamale to Mole would make all the difference. Anyway, other than that, by all means, go to Mole! I’ve never before felt like I was so much in the midst of wildlife, though last time I was there a Baboon stole my mango…



    Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  12. Bill, Kenya has a very diverse tourism sector: you can stay in the ‘luxury cocoons’ if you want, or find something mid-range, or a camping site. The point I was trying to make is that tourism isn’t a white elephant nor a ‘project’. It’s not on the same mass tourism level as e.g. Thailand or Spain, but it’s a viable industry driven by the private sector. Could be better – yes. Would benefit from more concerted government efforts – yes. Has lots more scope for growth – yes as well.

    It’s also a lot more diverse than it may seem: there’s domestic tourism, there’s business and conference travel. Many African Americans travel to Ghana to find out about the slavetrading history and trace their ancestry.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  13. William Easterly wrote:

    Andrea, thanks for your contributions to this discussion. You are right that the original post did not acknowledge enough the existence of different degrees of tolerance for “roughing it” among tourists. However if I understand correctly, the Kenyan examples you mention are still package tours which take care of many of the other hassles that individual tourists would face. I see little sign of any such package tourists operating at any significant scale in Ghana, which says something about the difficulties described in the post and by the other commentators.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  14. Conor Godfrey wrote:

    Dear group,

    I am curious what you think of marketing Africa as a single tourist destination vs. launching country specific campaigns. While I realize that promoting Africa as a homogeneous unit is absurd on one level, smart marketing might be able to enlist that stereotype to generate more business. Paul Cohen, the president of a travel marketing firm, makes that case well at

    I am undecided..what do you all think?

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  15. Andrew wrote:

    I think the big problem with Mole is the lack of big cats. If Mole had huge lion prides it would be packed with luxury, high priced lodges.

    I think that the vast majority of people who go to Africa who also go to national parks, want to see a Lion, a Leopard or a Cheetah.

    Not my opinion, but I think that this is pretty common and sometimes its just that simple.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  16. Henning wrote:

    Bill, what do you think about poverty being part of the tourism experience? Many people travelling to SSA will see the poverty as one of the “attractions”.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  17. Sam Gardner wrote:

    Of course, every income counts for a developing country, but what surprises me most with tourism is that it seldom leads to sustainable and diverse development. A large part of the income of the tourism industry goes back to buy for the luxury products tourists crave. Moreover, it creates kind of a poverty trap. Young people can have jobs coming out of primary education (some language is an asset) at a decent salary, that is basically flat for the rest of your life, as productivity rises only marginally in tourism. Studying seems like a waste of time for those youngsters. A lot of tourist destinations are equally long – term underdeveloped regions, even in the North.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Ehui wrote:

    About the pedophiles , I am not sure whether the Ghana Tourist Board expects to deter them with that sign, but there have been several reports of pedophiles (and registered sex offenders in their respective countries) visiting Ghana and taking advantage of children in tourist towns.

    Posted July 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  19. gats wrote:

    earning from tourism is always be a good solution for the country and the citizen because every party can get additional income for their better life with minimum destruction on environment.

    Posted July 31, 2010 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

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  2. By Worth Checkin’ Out « pt in mali on August 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    […] Checkin’ Out At Aid Watch, Bill Easterly writes on the prospects of tourism in West Africa and to what extent it could be a vehicle for regional development in the region. In a […]

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