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How to spark a global movement: Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’ welcomes 1m visitors

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Tourism is big business. Globally, it accounts for more than 10% of GDP. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, 1 out of 5 of all jobs created in the last 5 years was in tourism.

But on the African continent, it accounts for only 3.6% of GDP. With its massive growth and job creating potential, it’s no wonder why African governments are trying to increase tourism to their nations. None has done it as well as Ghana. The “Year of Return” has hit a chord.

In January of 2019, the Ghana Tourism Authority projected that “Year of Return” programming would bring 500,000 diasporans to visit the country over the course of the year. The actual number has well exceeded expectations. The Ghana Tourism Authority reports that there have already been 750,000 foreign visitors in 2019 and that number is expected to top 1M before the year ends.

Koshie Mills has played a part in this success. Born in Ghana, raised in the UK, and living in America, Mills can understand the perspective of Africans living at home and abroad. Her children are American on paper but grew up Ghanaian in spirit. The food in their home was Ghanaian. They were raised with Ghanaian values. And even though they had never been to Ghana, if you asked them where they were from, they would respond “Ghana”.

In 2016, Mills decided that it was time for them to actually see where they came from. The family spent a month in Ghana. They met their grandparents. They sparked a movement. “Their reaction when they came galvanized me. More American youth need to come to visit Africa. It sparked such a life in my sons’ eyes,” said Mills.

A trip to Ghana can change a person, but how did this trip help spark a movement? Mills’ sons are all successful Hollywood actors. Kofi Siriboe stars in the hit Queen Sugar, Kwesi Boakye is most well-known for his role in Tyler Perry’s film I Can Do Bad All Myself and Kwame Boateng, the eldest brother, has been seen on countless TV shows and films such as Not Easily Broken. Their trip to Ghana was covered in Essence magazine and ever since their first trip, the family has come back every December bringing more and more friends each time.

This can potentially explain hundreds of visitors, but not hundreds-of-thousands. It cannot just be a trio of famous brothers visiting their home that fueled this movement.

“We have to figure out way for them to come back to the soil. There is something healing about it.”

Mills, the Ghanaian Ambassador for Film, Art, and Culture has an idea of why traveling to Ghana has resonated so deeply with so many people around the world. Traveling to Ghana is not just about visiting the beaches and tasting the food. It is about healing. Ghana was the point-of-no-return for many kidnapped Africans. According to UNESCO, there are 4 slave castles and 23 slave forts still visible along Ghana’s coast. Mills believes that is it important for their descendants to visit the literal or symbolic place where their ancestors entered slavery. “We have to figure out way for them to come back to the soil. There is something healing about it. You don’t even know it’s there, just because you never touched down,” said Mills.

Mills knows the healing power of connection and dialogue. Her family’s visit to Ghana also inspired her turn her dream for The Diaspora Dialogues into reality. The Diaspora Dialogues are a forum where people from the diaspora and the continent can have space to “share our trauma and heal it.” They were aired on The Africa Channel in 2018 but have received such positive feedback that they will be more widely distributed through digital platforms in North America, Africa, and Europe in 2020.

Three famous sons of Ghana visited their home. This brought Ghana into the media spotlight, inspiring members of the global African diaspora to return to the continent. As more people visited, more people were inspired to come. But Ghana isn’t the first African country to be visited by influential celebrities with African roots. Akon, for example, has visited his native Senegal many times in recent years. The impact on tourism has not been the same.

“What changed it was the welcome,” said Mills. The UN Declaration is what was needed to inspire people to come now. “Sometimes people just need to hear I’m welcome,” added Mills. While she and her sons were an inspiration for many people to visit, “it was a crescendo of so many voices that put Ghana on the map.” She hopes that the success of Ghana’s “Year of Return” can help many other African governments to come up with similar initiatives. She is just wrapping up a trip to Uganda at invitation of their Ministry of Tourism. So, while hundreds of thousands of people from around the world will be ringing in the new decade with millions of Ghanaians, maybe 2020 will be the year of Uganda.

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