OP-ED: Liberia Not Yet Ready to Replicate Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’

Across social media, Liberians are salivating at what Ghana was able to accomplish with its Year of Return tourism push. The Ghana Tourism Authority branded its campaign as a “major landmark spiritual and birth-right journey inviting the Global African family, home and abroad, to mark 400 years of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia.”

The country’s tourism minister has said the initiative helped Ghana attract US$1.9 billion in tourism spending in 2019. More importantly, the campaign positioned Ghana as a viable tourism destination for African Americans and others from the diaspora, attracting high profile celebrities such as rappers Cardi B, T.I., Ludacris, and Rick Ross, in addition to actors Anthony Anderson, Boris Kodjoe, and Idris Elba.

Naturally, Liberians were jealous and wondered when Africa’s first republic could host an event that could also captivate the world. On social media, sarcastic comments abounded, including comments such as this: “Whilst Diasporan Ghanaians are lobbying in the US, to bring billionaires and millionaires to their country for the Year of return, Some Liberians living in the US and other parts of the world are raising money for war and protest.”

Other comments challenged the Liberian government to initiate its own campaign to attract members of the African diaspora, especially ahead of the anniversary of settlers from the U.S. arriving on Providence Island.

Liberians wishing for their country to take the center stage in attracting the global black population is not unreasonable. After all, Liberia once attracted giants such as Nina Simone – who lived in Liberia for a few years – and Bill Russell, who owned a rubber plantation here.

However, despite all our wishes, Liberia is not ready for mass tourism. Making such a push now would result in spectacular failure and setback for the tourism sector because we simply lack the necessary policies and infrastructure in place to support typical tourists.

For one, our high visa fees could dissuade a potential tourist from the U.S. The visa costs for an American a single entry visit to Liberia is US$160 versus Ghana’s US$60 or Morocco’s US$23.85. Additionally, tourists will find air ticket prices significantly higher than other African countries because of our higher tax on tickets, in a region where limited options already push air travel to be among the most expensive in the world.

Even if a tourist makes their way to Liberia, the roads may not be accommodating. Amazing tourism highlights such as the Sapo National Park, Mt. Nimba, and Harper remain unavailable for most of the year due to bad roads. If tourists do make their way around the country, however, they’ll find a severe lack of basic amenities that will make their stay in the country unbearable.

Outside Ganta and Monrovia, cities with more than one proper restaurant are nonexistent. Additionally, if those exist, they likely have extremely limited hours and a menu with one or two items. Moreover, across the country, only Ganta provides several hotels that offer air conditioning and decent facilities for US$50 or less. Everywhere else charges obscene amounts for conditions that can be unsettling for most tourists.

In addition, cities brimming with potential, like Robertsport – a scenic oasis wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Piso – lack any real activities for tourists. There’s no visitor’s center and a tourist arriving in Robertsport will not find any organized activities presented. They might have found out that this is a major African surfing town, but would not know if there were any safe places for beginners to learn to surf. If there are regular boat rides going out to sea for fishing or dolphin watching, this is not apparent to a tourist.

Even in Monrovia, there are very few things to do that don’t involve clubbing or going to bars. Dance classes, chocolate making classes, guided tours through Firestone, festivals, street fairs, live bands performing original music that’s not just gospel music, and other recreational activities are scarce, if even available. What is obtainable is simply not organized and presented in a way that tourists can easily access.

To be fair, one of the few parts of Liberia that does have activities is Marshall, which offers a tour of ‘Monkey Island’, the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection center, the Libassa Ecolodge Resort, the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary, and many other activities arranged by the resort, including birdwatching and sea turtle beach patrol. This, however, is the exception in Liberia.

Liberia is too inconvenient for the ordinary visitor, with ATMs always running out of cash, a lack of parks and places to hang out for free, and very few places that accept credit cards (I should not be going to resorts such as Libassa and Nana’s Lodge and be expected to carry US$300-500 in cash).

Liberians can definitely learn from Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’ to learn how to prepare for the future, but with the current tourism infrastructure we have, that time is far from now. If we rush to promote our tourism sector when it’s not ready, tourists might leave Liberia out the door of never to return.

Featured photo by Rami Balagh

Jefferson is a co-founder of The Bush Chicken. He has a Masters in Transportation Infrastructure and Systems Engineering and previously worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, DC.

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