In September 2018 President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 the Year of Return, in acknowledgement of the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Jamestown, Virginia. The campaign aims to encourage tourism while also reconnecting members of the African diaspora with the continent, creating a tradition of homecoming for both international visitors and returning Ghanaians.
President Akufo-Addo’s announcement highlighted Ghana’s legacy as a reason for descendants to return and learn about this chapter of history. “The initiative recognises Ghana’s strategic position as the location for 75% of the slave forts built in West Africa, as well as the president’s strategy to make tourism a national priority and position Ghana as a gateway to the West African market,” Sajid Khan, general manager of Tang Palace Hotel in Accra, told OBG.
According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, approximately 500,000 Africans in the diaspora were expected to visit the country during 2019. Of this total, 350,000 tourists were projected to come from North America, with the rest coming from South America, the Caribbean and Europe.
Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonial rule, has a long history of pursuing alliances with the African diaspora. The country has also sought to attract descendants of the diaspora through legislation. The Right of Abode law introduced in 2000 allows members of the African diaspora to apply for the right to stay in the country permanently. This was followed by the Joseph Project in 2007, incentivising people of African descent living elsewhere to return. It is estimated that approximately 3000 African Americans were living in Ghana as of 2015.
A number of events were held in 2019 to mark the Year of Return, including Ghana’s Independence Day in March, Black History Month in February, the Ghana-Jamaica Homecoming Festival between April and May, the Heritage Paragliding Festival in April, the Pan-African Festival of Arts and Culture from July to August, Emancipation Day in August and the Afrocella festival in December.
Other events in 2019 include World Tourism Day in September, which raised awareness of the sector’s potential to address critical challenges in the job market. Full Circle Festival, chaired by President Akufo-Addo in January 2019, aimed to build closer ties between Ghana, the African continent and the diaspora community overseas. Additionally, the government introduced the Right to Return initiative in 2019, encouraging African-Americans to apply for Ghanaian citizenship. According to regional media reports from May 2019, around 200 members of the African-American and Caribbean diaspora will be granted citizenship as part of the scheme.
Ghana is positioning itself to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the Year of Return initiative. The year-long celebration is being marked by various promotional and branding initiatives. Efforts include engaging with traditional authorities as well as local and international celebrities. As the Year of Return aims to solidify the shared identity and history of the African diaspora, the government is committed to introducing measures to stimulate economic growth and job creation by tapping into a diverse pool of talents and skills.
However, while the initiative can serve as an engine for future development, questions remain about whether the renewed interest in Ghana will be sustained after the anniversary. “In order to achieve long-lasting change, all sectors of the economy need to work in tandem,” John Mason, founder of Ghana EcoLodge Company, told OBG. To maintain positive momentum in the years ahead, Ghana will need to improve social infrastructure, ease visa requirements, encourage investment in the service industry and facilitate foreign capital inflows (see overview).
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