It’s culturally interesting, politically stable and has a coastline of golden beaches. So why isn’t Ghana on the tourist map—and could it be? Andrew Eames takes a road trip along the West African nation’s Cape Coast to find out.
As winter approaches the northern hemisphere, European minds—as if on auto-pilot—start thinking about where to insert a window of sunlight into the long dark months that separate the holidays from spring.
The options haven’t changed much since last year; once again, the Canary Islands are looking forward to a bumper season, and Egypt will be hoping that a terrorism-free year will revive tourist fortunes.
But there’s a historically interesting, politically stable country with gorgeous beaches—and not much further away from Europe than either the Canaries or Egypt—that somehow never gets a look-in. Even last year, when its near-neighbor Gambia had a huge political wobble which sent sun-seekers packing, Ghana just wasn’t able to pick up the slack. So why not?
After taking a trip along its long, palm-fringed coastline a few months ago, it’s hard to see what’s holding this West African nation back. It has one of the world’s fastest growing economies and some of Africa’s friendliest people. This year is also its 60th anniversary of independence from British rule—and in Ghana’s case, that’s meant 60 years of political stability—prompting then-President Obama, on his visit in 2009, to describe it as “a model of democracy.”
Accessible art was a symptom of a growing middle class, who have the time and the money for such things … But I wanted to know why they didn’t go to the beach.
It has seen big brand hotel openings too, from the likes of Kempinski, Marriott, Movenpick and Holiday Inn, although only in the capital city Accra for now and mainly for business travelers.
So why no leisure travel? It was a question I put to El-Yesha Puplampu, who I came across in Accra’s Gallery 1957 on my first day in town.
Accessible art, she said, along with sushi restaurants, was a symptom of a growing middle class, who have the time and the money for such things. The gallery’s paintings were priced between $6,000-12,000 USD. But I wanted to know why they didn’t go to the beach, these middle classes. El-Yesha protested that they did—and gave me a list of shoreline spots to check out.
But before heading for the coast, I wanted to see the city itself. I booked a tour guide via the Ghana Guides’ Association and negotiated a price, but when Nathaniel turned up, he asked, “What’s the itinerary?” It wasn’t the greatest of starts.
However, after some discussion, we wandered off into the sweaty confines of Makola market, a huge sprawling shanty-town of stalls in a forest of alleys in the heart of Accra, a place of smoked fish, giant snails, yams, fabric and cosmetics. And packets of ‘Sexmen’ pills. So “when duty calls, you are ready,” explained Nathaniel.
We ended up in Jamestown, Accra’s oldest district, a fishing community jammed onto a sandy spit, wedged between a colonial-era British lighthouse and the shell of a Dutch fort once used in the slave trade. The shoreline was thick in rough-hewn fishing boats, daubed with flags and Biblical quotes, and blanketed under a thin film of smoke emitted by fish-smokeries improvised out of old oil barrels.
And that was the city. Not pretty, but culturally fascinating, if you don’t mind heat and dust. Now, finally, the coast beckoned. I hired a car plus driver—it’s not cheap in Ghana, at $220 USD for the day, but it’s pretty much the only option—and so we headed east to Labadi Beach, the closest resort to town.
Labadi turned out to be something of a party place—in fact, it’s better known as La Pleasure Beach. Lined with bars and massage parlors, its heavy-duty sound systems made the sand bounce. And although the beach itself is broad, backed by a couple of decent-looking hotels, it is sullied with scrapings from charcoal barbecues. We turned around and went the other way to see what lay in store.
[The hotel] price was far too high. And that’s the symptom of a lack of competition …
The main road out to Cape Coast, west of Accra, stays inland, well away from the coastline. There were no road signs, so it was a case of guessing where to strike south to reach the shore. We avoided Kokrobite, the closest resort to the city, on the basis that it was probably similar to Labadi, and instead made for the Blue Diamond resort, down a bumpy track near Apam, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) out of town.
The resort was small; around a dozen simple rooms, with an inviting swimming pool in generous grounds fronted by a great piece of sand in a wide bay. But there were no visible guests, and a resort empty of people is a sad place. It was mid-week though, said the staff, and the clients only came at weekends.
My next stop was better. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most exclusive hotels. White Sands Beach Resort and Spa turned out to be a three-part property: the hotel itself, with a selection of villas, each with its own butler and a plunge pool on a promontory of fragrant frangipani trees; the beach part, with its own restaurant; and the wide manicured lawns of the resort area, with a newly built spa, overlooking a lagoon and a fishing village. I particularly liked the latter two parts, with the miles of endless sand stretching east and the cheerful sounds of the fishing community just across the lagoon.
But the price (villas from $550 USD a night, with breakfast and dinner) was far too high. And that’s the symptom of a lack of competition, I told myself as we drove on to Cape Coast itself, a leathery, weathered fishing town, a place that was once the epicenter of the slave trade. Here, at last, I found myself rubbing shoulders with significant numbers of foreign visitors, a mix of backpackers, cultural tourists, and African-origin Americans and Europeans in search of their roots.
These are mouth-watering travel prospects for those with a sense of adventure and who are prepared to be flexible.
On their itineraries were the UNESCO World Heritage slavery forts such as Cape Coast and Elmina, the latter with its Coconut Grove beach resort where the Crown Prince of Holland had just stayed. Some were headed to wildlife spots like Kakum National Park, 12 miles (20 kilometers) inland from Cape Coast, where an aerial walkway winds through a tree canopy that’s rich with 266 bird species. Others were headed to the fertile delta region at Akosombo, to take a boat trip on the huge Lake Volt, combining it with a stay at the Royal Senchi Hotel on the Volta River.
One traveler I spoke to was even planning to head inland to Kumasi, the former capital of the ancient tribal Ashanti empire—the precursor to modern Ghana—where he hoped to attend one of the regular public audiences with the Ashanti king. These are mouth-watering travel prospects for those with a sense of adventure and who are prepared to be flexible.
But until such time as a big tour operator decides to capitalize on unsullied shores—and the clunky visa system changes—this varied cross-section of visitors to Cape Coast will probably remain the bread and butter of Ghana’s tourism.
This is not yet another Gambia or Canary Isles; not yet a place for people who simply want to lie on beaches in the mid-winter sun. And maybe it’s better that it remains that way.
Travel writer, broadcaster and ex-newspaper journalist Andrew Eames writes for UK publications from the Financial Times to the Sunday Mirror. He's also the author of five books and often speaks at travel writing seminars.