With a strong media, marketing and public relations background, Akwasi Agyeman, who until recently Managing Director of Global Media Alliance Broadcasting [GMA] of Ghana and now the Chief Executive Officer of Ghana Tourism Authority [GTA], knows what to do.
With his great understanding of Media, Marketing and Public Relations [MMPR], his task unlike most heads of African national tourism agency has a smooth starting point.
Recently in Accra, Ghana, African Travel Times, Publisher/Editor, Lucky Onoriode George engaged him in a frank interview where he bares his mind on the way forward for Ghana and West Africa tourism industry. Excerpts:
What is the level of the sector in Ghana at the moment?
I will say tourism in Ghana have shown some resilience given all the global challenges in the last few years. With that in mind, one will think that our numbers will be going down, but fortunately for us, that has not been the case.
The only worry however is that we anticipated a very robust growth which unfortunately we have not achieved yet. Personally, I am an optimist and I am looking forward to growing the figures whilst this period is used to really prepare ourselves for the eventual anticipated traffic.
Currently, we will continue to work with the operators to improve the standard of customer service experience of visitors, just as efforts are being made by government to give facelift to some of the public attractions and roads leading to them for easy accessibility.
Ghana as a country needs more quality four or five star hotels so that we can even attract more big conferences and business meetings. While doing everything possible to attract investments that can yield the aforementioned.
We are also working out programmes where training assistance can be provided to workers in the industry, especially in the hospitality sub-sector to improve standard and capacity building of operators to guarantee quality assurance among others.
Besides, we are also going to harmonise all activities in the industry which will eventually form the basis for our new marketing approach. By and large, with the figures that we are churning out despites the challenges in recent past, we have done well.
For marketing and promotion shenanigans, countries pick on products that they believe they have competitive advantage over, what is Ghana ‘cash cow’ in this regards?
From our point of view at GTA, Ghana is not a mono product destination. As a nation, we have well several heritage sites that are appealing to a particular section of the industry which fits into the interest of the African Americans as well as the Caribbean countries because of the slavery history attached to them.
However, when it comes to products like adventure, eco-tourism among others that appeals to several sections of the tourist traffic from Europe, Asia or even Africa. To us, the mixed pot is the most important elements of our tourism product lines because of the dynamics of the sector.
Besides the aforementioned, another attributes is the friendliness of the Ghanaian people and tranquility that prevails. Here, tourists can stroll our streets without being molested, something that also very near impossible in some major western cities.
As for the beaches, I can confirm to you that we have more than even the Gambian that is today hailed as the haven for such in West Africa, but they have been able to market and promote theirs more efficiently.
Again, culture is also part of what this country has to offer. As you are aware, the Ashanti culture is legendary around the world, especially the history of their several wars with the British is fascinating.
Even without the big five, the Mole Park which is one of the biggest on the continent and several locations for bird watching are bonus for any visitor to this country.
Oxford Report recorded that over 98, 000 Americans, most African Americans visited Ghana in 2013/14 without Ghana even embarking on any considerable road shows in America like Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania do, don’t you think that your country will miss out when this generation of mostly elderly visitors are no more?
The American market is so huge and so also is the country itself. Taking that into account, what we have done is to segment the country, especially the Southern part of America where slavery activities was very high.
In this regards, we are also looking at parts with large African Americans populations like Washington DC and New York that we are targeting for now.
To further strengthen our products, government is also working seriously to makePan African Historical Theatre Festival, [PANAFEST], a yearly event because it seems to us from the efforts of the past, we have not given it our best.
The annual black history month holds every February which is a good platform for anyone to make inroad into the consciousness of those that would be interested in visiting Ghana by partnering with planners and tour operators that can carry us along.
Between now and November when we do the launching of the back to Africa event, we will be able to do some road shows. We were at the Ghana Festival in Chicago and our representative that went had meetings with tour operators and we are looking forward to activating those efforts robustly.
In a nut shell, the US market is very important one to our marketing strategy in the coming months and years. The figures are good and we even hope to do better with South Africa Airways and Delta flying directly to the US.
Ghana has a very large Diasporas community, what is Ghana tourism Authority doing to attract this foreign born to visit?
We just returned from one of Ghana’s Diasporas biggest gathering in the United Kingdom. The reason we attended the event is to give us insight into how we can encourage this second generation of Ghanaians to visit.
It’s not just in the UK as you rightly noted, but in Germany, Holland and other countries across Europe. We were at the event and we set up a stand where we were able to interact with the various leaders or the gate keepers with the intention of eventually pulling them to visit.
In fact, we are working on what we call G-Escape, to allow them visit during the yuletide period. It’s also being considered as a launch of a special package for the second generation of Ghanaians that will consider visiting on their own.
Aside from the aforementioned, we are also strongly considering linking up with top Ghanaians musicians/actors/actresses in the UK to serve as our tourism ambassadors because they appeal to this second generations and their European friends to visit Ghana and so also is the consideration to also use some Ghanaians that were noticeable footballers in Germany for same purpose as well.
The road shows will enable us connect our local tour operators with those countries we are visiting to have one-on-one interactions.
Again, funding is always a factor, but we will not abandon our traditional participation in some fairs that we have been involved over the years, but, scale down to enable us redeploy some of those resources to accommodate the new efforts.
We will continue to do the fairs, the exhibitions, but we are also coming in with direct marketing approach.
Recently, we worked with Ghana Institute of Surveyors when they were bidding for the hosting right of that body’s annual gathering which we helped with the packaging their presentation that they won. Give or take, not fewer than robust figures will be attending the programme here.
Ghana has participating in so many fairs and exhibitions mostly in Europe, but had also ignored the low handing fruits of intra Africa market, especially Nigeria. Even when it does even participate in the Annual Akwaaba Fair in Nigeria, it’s always low key, what are you doing to penetrate the market?
I can assure you that all that will change soon. In fact, we will be doing just that with this years’ Akwaaba. We will be combining Togo, Benin and eventually Nigeria as we come for the event because the new trend in the industry is a multi-destinations package.
We will take the lead of the multi-destinations conversation where people visiting Ghana, can take advantage of the proximity to visit, Togo, Benin and even Nigeria without stress and when you see us at Akwaaba, it would be a different approach.
You are not the ministry, but a public tourism marketing agency of the sector, what is the policy trust of the government because in most of my conversations with some private sector’s operators, it seems you are not on same page, especially the hospitality subsector?
I will not call it a policy trust, but objectives. The objectives really are to move the sector from where it is now to at least number two in terms of its contribution to our Gross Domestic Product [GDP]. The president has expressed desire to use tourism as a job creation tools and the industry one of the few where people don’t necessary need a phd to work in the sector.
With as little as Secondary School Certificate, you can find job in the sector, such as caterers, house-keeping among others. I am not saying someone with a higher degree cannot work as caterer.
Now, what is the way out; the thinking is investment and putting in place policies that will attract investments and provide incentives for operators. Again, how can ICT be deployed to ensure best practices in the sector.
The world has gone digital and how do we deploy them, now that we are promoting the “See Ghana, Eat Ghana, Wear Ghana and Feel Ghana” campaign. This is to also encourage Ghanaians to occasionally travel within the country, rather than flying out of the country at every opportunity.
See what we have, eat our meals and wear Ghana which will also create jobs.
Like I said earlier on, I am aware years back when the hotel association agreed with government to charge certain levy so that such could use for effective marketing and promotion of Ghana, however, the gist now is that, GTA and the ministry of tourism started spending this money without getting their opinions on how best to utilise the funds they agreed to generates, using their hotels?
I think is a miscommunications or I don’t know how to put it.To the best of our ability,we have started quarterly meeting with Ghana Tourism Federation [GATOP] and we have had one and we are looking forward to having hospitality breakfast very soon.
However when it comes to marketing and promotion, people confuse its exhibition or fairs alone where people travel abroad and I can confirm that some of the fairs and exhibitions we have participated, we carried the private sector along.
For instance, a both at ITB cost between 27,000 to 30,000 Euros. If you ask a tour operator to pay 500 euros to come along and if you don’t set a standard, who do you chose because we also noticed rivalry among operators, most will still not be able to pay even though when you have ten people paying the rate, it’s nothing to the total amount government is paying for the entire space.
Recently too, we provided some funds for GATOP, for an event on customer service training of which three have been done in Takoradi, Cape Coast and Accra.
Meanwhile, some people in their opinion will rather want us to use such money to take few people abroad for exhibition or fair; whereas the programme in Accra alone benefitted over 250 people.
We have experts from the universities who came and give lecture with the view to improving customer service across the tourism sector. I hear and understand your question very well and we will do more even when I think we have done so much in that regard before to strengthen the relationship and be transparent to let them know reasons for some of our decisions.
Again, this is the only country where people think when they pay taxes or levies, they should also dictate how such is spent.
Even when I have told them of our guidelines; which is monitoring and evaluation, marketing which is not just fairs or exhibitions. Road shows, which we will take some people along, maybe the associations’ executives or their representatives.
We also have capacity building which is one of the major issues facing the sector.
We are looking at strengthening our training institute to run short courses which we need to invest some money on because as I speak, has been run down.
Ghana is one of the most stable and peaceful countries in the sub-region, in the face of recent Islamists attacks in Ivory Coast, Mali and most recently in Burkina Faso, what are you telling operators here?
Again, Ghana as a country is doing a lot, just as nothing is taking for granted. We have been involved in awareness campaign and I am happy that most of the hospitality businesses that are usually populated have also in conjunction with relevant security agencies have done extremely well in this regards.
Jumia, recently release a report that though Ghana is a friendly country, but fall short in efficiency, what are you doing to correctly this?
Before this report by Jumia, we have also began a conscious effort to educate our people that for the mere fact that we are friendly, does not mean efficiency. For instance a guest waiting time to check into a hotel has to be near perfect and waiting time at the restaurant short also be timely.
It’s all about customer service and we will be working on this with the relevant private sector bodies to improve on this.
From our findings, this mostly happened in the hospitality sector. Though, they have always complained of multiplicity of taxes and the last thing they want to invest in is the training of personnel, knowing fully again that the person might be trained now and in few weeks or months, move on.
Knowing this as a major problem in the sector, especially in the one to three star hotels, we are now taking up the responsibility of training people in customer service in the service industry which travel and tourism business is all about.
We will not be training people how to cook jollof because that is not our responsibility. We want to help in basic customer service training. For instance if a customer walked into a restaurant and asked how long will it take to get the meal ready, the waiter will likely say 15 minutes, instead of 45 minutes, but because he or she does not want to draw a reaction form the guest by stating the obvious so that the guest or customer can be doing some other stuff before the meal is ready.
Nigeria rely on Ethiopian Airlines mostly and other western carriers for its international travelling public, is Ghana considering the South Africa approach which says South African Airways sustainability is beyond profit, but for their security and convenience that has also helped their tourism industry to revive its national carrier if tourism is really being considered?
I know a few people have shown interest and I am also aware discussions are ongoing. I am aware that some of this stuff are mainly discussed in the board room and mention of it has also been made in the parliament.
Honestly speaking, it’s not just a question of national or flag carriers alone, but a renowned charter fight service operators. This is very most needed because of the summer rush. For instance in the Gambia, the fights come in and return with different set of passengers, so that the route don’t look unprofitable to the operators.
What is your message to those that want to visit Ghana?
Ghana is something special because there is something for every visitor. From our eco- tourism to adventure; and from culture to beach experience are unmatchable that will give any tourist a pleasant experience.