Ghanaian officials are basking in glory and ecstasy following a very successful marketing and branding campaign for the “Year of Return”, an initiative of the President of Ghana marking a major timeline in the sordid history of black slavery.
So far, impressive feats of national showcasing are there for all to see: tons of positive international press, great mentions and fabulous celebrity endorsements, most of it at no cost whatsoever to Ghana.
So why is Ghanaian officialdom so keen on selling the success of the initiative on the tabletop of incoherent statistics and woolly numbers instead of better cataloguing these clear achievements? It is a very strange sight to behold. Is this sad spate of fuzzy arithmetic just another example of how as a country Ghana struggles to master data-driven policymaking or is this an isolated case of mere overexuberance?
I know that no malice is intended, but before I am pummeled to pulp for being a killjoy, let me hasten to point out that sound data is important for drawing accurate inferences.
Unfortunately, various government agencies and supporters of the Year of Return program have bandied figures such as “200,000” extra arrivals, “1.5 million” total visitors and “$1.9 billion” extra tourist spending as measurements of outcomes related to the Year of Return with zero commitment to using actual, widely available, statistical data.
This means that instead of focusing on what so spectacularly went well – the brilliant coopting of African American celebrities like Steve Harvey as informal brand ambassadors – we shall soon be luxuriating in fictitious numbers bearing no resemblance to reality.
Here is the data we do have. As at last count, 750,000 international visitors had made their way to Ghana in 2019. (https://mobile.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Year-of-Return-Ghana-Tourism-Authority-reveals-the-number-of-diasporan-visitors-815566) The Authorities are projecting total arrivals for the year to hit 1 million. This is however doubtful considering the proximity to year-end.
But even if the numbers do hit 1 million, that would only mean a tiny fraction more than the 984,250 visitors who showed up in 2018, in fact a mere 15,000 more.
According to Ministry of Finance computations, average spending per tourist was $1512 in 2014, rising to roughly $1800 in 2018. Let’s pad this to $2000; though with Cedi exchange rate depreciation outstripping inflation, foreigners should actually find Ghana about 5% cheaper than last year and might spend less. Be that as it may, the “extra spending” that could conceivably be attributed to an increase in arrivals due to the Year of Return (if the projected 1 million visitors estimate holds up) would amount to about $30 million in this scenario.
By what conceivable mechanism can a $30 million optimistic projection mutate into $1.9 billion?
As already hinted, growth in tourist numbers in 2019 may well be below the average 3% per year rate seen over the last couple of years (and certainly below the 5.1% annual growth rate trend experts have projected between 2017 and 2027). There is further grounding for such speculation in the author’s estimate of a rise in hotel and short-stay apartment rooms inventory and a fall in average room rates based on an analysis of several weeks of Booking.com (a major travel site) data.
But all this should really be beside the point since no data-conscious person would insist that every successful marketing exercise must necessarily bear fruit even whilst it was still underway. There is almost always a timelag before results materialise. The danger in elevating phantom figures to the level of truth is in the complacency they can breed. So that instead of girding our loins to build on this successful marketing exercise and translate the increased awareness about Ghana and its enduring international goodwill into tangible tourism gains, we would instead declare victory on all fronts, relying on shaky, unchallenged, numbers and then promptly relapse into business as usual.
The only reason, therefore, for sounding the alarm about these widely publicized and widely believed numbers is the wish to forestall such a bad outcome and to motivate the authorities to see their successful marketing and communications strategies as merely the foundation on which to erect a truly effective sales plan for Ghana’s tourism and investment climate potential.
And we absolutely have their back.