COVID-19 pandemic wrecks Tourism and Creative Arts in Central Region

Without doubt, Central Region is the fortress of tourism in Ghana and remains the favourite of holidaymakers craving for enjoyment on the pristine coastal frontline and disturbance-free time around in its forests area.

From the coastal plains in the south, to the rolling forested hills of the north, is the visual delight of tourists’ attractions and beautiful artistic sceneries of the Region, which has two of UNESCO acclaimed World Heritage sites.

Approximately three hours drive, west of Accra, Cape Coast, the regional capital is strategically positioned and well prepared for tourist arrivals with classified accommodation and excellent catering services, established tour operators, efficient transportation and a host of activities.

Some of the beachfront facilities are fitted with golf courses, sauna and spa, excellent views of the sea under the shade of palm and coconut trees for a romantic dinner and relaxation. At night, the true beauty of the beaches is revealed in the splendidly decorated beachfront with thatch roofs. They have scented oil lamps, summer huts and a beautiful bonfire whilst enjoying fresh tilapia, oysters and other sea-foods.

Unfortunately, the outbreak of the flu-like global pandemic – COVID-19 has dealt a big blow to tourist arrivals at these splendid facilities. The tourism, culture and creative arts sectors of the Region have been badly hit.

The government, last month announced the re-imposition of some restrictions on some social activities – funerals, weddings, concerts, theatrical performances and parties, in the wake of the second wave of the infection.

The beaches, night clubs, cinemas and pubs continue to be shut and the land and sea borders closed.

The Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, Africa’s-renowned UNESCO heritage sites were temporary shut to tourists until the restrictions were eased.

The Central Regional Head of the Ghana Museums and Monument Board (GMMB), Mr. Ato Ashun, said their expectations were high following the huge success of the “Year of Return” in 2019 – the management of the castles were expecting loads of visitors in the year 2020 only for the pandemic to strike.

“Many of those who came to Ghana and visited the Castles had advertised the facility well for us and this we anticipated would have brought in many more visitors. From all indications, this year would have been a really good year until COVID-19 smashed our hopes,” he added.

Even at the peak of the pandemic and closure, Mr Ashun said many people still called to inquire whether the facility was opened.

No visitors, no revenue

The closure of the facilities for months dried up their revenue stream.

They kept only a skeletal staff to keep the place in shape and they included artisans to carry out normal routine maintenance.

To help salvage the situation, Mr Ashun said the GMMB was working on virtual tourism, where virtual visitors would be given a presentation on the facility and a virtual tour to sustain interest in the castles.

The pandemic struck at a time when the castles had begun to reap the fruits of the “Year of Return”, which was launched to mark the 400 years of the first enslaved African arriving in Jamestown, Virginia.

“Our visits in 2019 were huge. We saw visits we had not seen in the past 20 years and we were anticipating even greater numbers but the pandemic dealt us a big blow. We had about 20,000 visitors in December alone. We were expecting many more this year,” he stated.

Not only the castle and its staff had been economically hit, businesses such as restaurants and artefacts shops at the castle have also suffered.

Mr Kobina Manu, a father of four, who owns an artifact shop at the castle premises, said things were bad. “I am hungry and so is my family because we have been out of business for more many months. This is not a joke; the impact on our lives and families are too much”.

During my visit to the castle somewhere last year, it was noticed that the artifact shops were closed and some of the objects were gathering mildew. Patrons of the shops are mostly visitors to the castle and so now that no one is going to the place, there obviously cannot be many buyers.

Mr Manu said he was struggling with his family and other dependents. “Every seller here is worse off. It is a worrying situation and we hope COVID-19 goes away soon and we get support to restart our businesses,” he stated.

At the time of the visit, the Akwaaba Spot, an eatery at the castle also remained closed; its chairs rested on the dusty tables.

The castle remains a major tourist site in the country and its closure is adversely affecting many people and enterprises in different ways.

There is however, optimism that after the pandemic – when people get back their normal way of life, all would be done to recover the time and revenue lost through aggressive and effective marketing strategies to attract visitors.

“The economic impact of the closure is huge. I believe we would get back. It would take time but certainly the Cape Coast Castle would bounce back,” Mr Manu stated.

The Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust (GHCT), managers of the Kakum National Park says, it lost in excess of GH¢400,000.00 in revenue due to the pandemic which culminated in its closure.

The Park is made up of mostly undisturbed virgin rainforest and is one of the famous national parks in Ghana with canopy walkways, situated about 33km north of Cape Coast.

According to Mr Michael Amonoo, the Marketing Officer for the GHCT, the situation has affected the organization’s liquidity and they have also been struggling with the rising cost of maintenance.

Mr Amonoo said the GHCT had been forced to cancel all its scheduled visits largely by foreigners – their main source of revenue. At peak and off-peak seasons, the facility could record not less than 11,000 local and 4,000 foreign visitors per month.

The closure also had had rippling effects on the incomes of hotels, restaurants, traders and communities that derive their livelihoods around the facility. “Except the labourers and security guards manning the forest reserve and the facility, all other employees have been sent home.

In July 2020, the GTA launched the 2020 Emancipation Day celebrations to kick-start activities for the year’s programme. The annual celebration for the first time was done virtually via Zoom due to the disease.

The celebration offers the opportunity to travel, enjoy the nightlife and to have an exchange of culture. It establishes new relationships, creates memories and introduces people to business opportunities and entrepreneurs in Ghana and beyond.

Unfortunately, the climax of the celebration at Assin Manso was without the usual pomp and display due to COVID-19. A solemn ceremony was held to climax the event.

The then Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mrs Barbara Oteng-Gyasi, in her address acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on the celebrations.

“We all know that COVID-19 has impacted how we go about our daily lives. Inevitably, our celebrations this year will look different. COVID-19, however, has provided us with the opportunity to be more creative, to have more focus on our local arts and culture, and to make sure our heritage is properly recognised.”

Mr. Stephen Mensah, who had travelled from Accra to witness the event for the first time expressed his disappointment at the low patronage.

Mr John Baidoo, a dealer in Arts and Crafts, could equally not hide his disappointment.

“Year of Return”, and “Beyond Return”

Year 2019 brought large numbers of African-Americans, including many celebrities, as well as others from the diaspora to Ghana to celebrate the “Year of Return”.

They included ace model, Naomi Campbell, actor Idris Elba, comedian Steve Harvey, American rapper Cardi B, TV sports presenter Mike Hill, and author Luvvie Ajayi.

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“Beyond the Return” which was slated from 2029, is a follow-up to the successful Year of Return campaign which commemorated the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in Jamestown Virginia in 1619.

The landmark campaign also celebrated the resilience of the African over the past 400 years and welcomed all people of African origin to return to Africa especially Ghana.

Mrs Oteng-Gyasi announced that the year-long programme provided Ghana with an economic boost of almost US$1.9bn (£1.5bn). The government also said the Year of Return had drawn wider attention to Ghana and positively influenced international media reports.

In March 2020, the Ministry of Information, released travel advisory information and according to the release, the only people permitted to enter Ghana were Ghanaians, people with Ghanaian residency or people from countries with fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases.

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Consequently, airlines suspended or reduced their flights to Ghana. Emirates Airlines, for example, announced it would cease flights to the country until at least May 20. Delta Airlines and KLM also temporarily suspended flights to the country.

At the time of the travel advisory, the Director-General of the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Simon Allotey, estimated that COVID-19 would reduce revenue by 20 percent for the Ghanaian aviation industry.

The new travel restrictions meant that there would be no demand for commercial flights. The previously predicted 20 percent reduction is now likely to be significantly more.

The reduction in flights and visitors means reduced revenue from aero plane landing fees, fees for using Ghana’s airspace, and other charges such as the passenger safety charge.

Musicians in Ghana are feeling the brunt of the outbreak of the disease, forcing them to either cancel or postpone their schedules.

Musicians like rapper Patapa, Sarkodie, Kofi Kinata, Kwame Eugene among others were booked last year to perform in Germany, United Kingdom, USA and other African countries. Unfortunately, their trips had to be cut short following the government’s travel ban.

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The “One Corner” hit-maker, Patapaa, who was initially due for an European tour last year expressed disappointment, saying the COVID-19 had caused a great disservice to musicians not only in Ghana but to others around the world.

Policies to support firms and workers during the pandemic were ill-adapted to the non-traditional business models and forms of employment in the sector.

In addition to short-term support for artists and firms, from both the public and private sector, policies can also leverage the economic and social impacts of culture in their broader recovery packages and efforts to transform the local economy.

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Encouraging news on vaccines has boosted hopes for recovery but challenges remain with the sector expected to be in survival mode until the middle to the end of 2021.

Domestic tourism has restarted and is helping to mitigate the impact on jobs and businesses in some destinations. However, real recovery will only be possible when international tourism returns. This requires global co-operation and evidence-based solutions so that travel restrictions can be safely lifted.

Survival of businesses in the tourism ecosystem would largely depend on government’s continued support.

Although government has acted to give some cushion to the tourism industry, to minimise job losses and recover in 2021 and beyond, more would need to be done, and in a more coordinated way.

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While flexible policy solutions are needed to enable the tourism economy to live alongside the virus in the short to medium term, it is important to look beyond this and take steps to learn from the crisis, which has revealed gaps in government and industry preparedness and response capacity. Co-ordinated action across governments at all levels and the private sector is essential.

The crisis is an opportunity to rethink tourism for the future. Tourism is at a crossroads and the measures put in place today will shape the tourism of tomorrow.

Governments need to consider the longer-term implications of the crisis, while capitalising on digitalisation and promoting structural transformation required to build a stronger, more sustainable and resilient tourism economy.

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