A tragic past and Obama's visit draw tourists to Ghana

The ocean views are stunning, but it's the tragic past of Ghana's rugged coast that is also drawing in visitors, thanks in part to America's first black president.

Perched on the windswept edge of West Africa, the imposing whitewashed former slave trading fort known as Cape Coast Castle has seen a steady increase in visitors since US President Barack Obama and his family toured here in 2009.

The dark dungeons where untold numbers of people were kept before being shipped off as slaves serve as stark reminders of the brutality they endured - a point of view perhaps too often overlooked in the Western world.

An increasing number of descendants of slaves and historically minded tourists have sought out this history, and a number of them have found their way to Cape Coast Castle.

"It's something I want to see once - it's so confronting," Hannah Richardson-Smith, an Australian, said recently outside the castle.

Obama, whose wife Michelle traces her ancestry to slaves, chose Ghana for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president in July 2009, and he and his family made sure to stop at Cape Coast Castle, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A tour of the fort was "a moving moment", Obama said then.

He added that "there is a special sense that on one hand this place was a place of profound sadness, on the other hand it is where the journey of much of African-American experience began."

"Following President Obama's visit we are seeing a consistent increase in international arrivals," deputy Tourism Minister Kobby Akyeampong told AFP.

Current arrivals are averaging 748,000 per year from 587,000 two years before and the aim is to hit a million thanks in part to the so-called "Obama effect".

The World Tourism Organisation listed Ghana among African nations that "far outperformed" the world average in international tourist arrivals in 2009.

Ghana enjoyed a double-digit increase in visitor arrivals in 2009 at 15 percent after Kenya, Angola and Swaziland, which recorded between 20 and 24 percent.

"President Obama's visit in 2009 reiterated the general security level, at the same time emphasising on the rich history of the nation and the important role it played in the history of the United States' rise to prominence," said Yaw Oduro-Frempong, an analyst with New York-based DaMina Advisors.

Built in the 17th century about 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of the capital Accra, Cape Coast Castle was one of the continent's main outposts from where countless slaves were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

Guides at the former fort in western Ghana repeat to tourists some of the most harrowing accounts of how Africans, captured from their villages, were crammed in dark, small underground cells before being shipped.

Cape Coast Castle was the biggest slave-trade post along Ghana's 300-kilometre (180-mile) coastline, which is dotted with 60 forts, most of them now in ruin.

The fort which changed hands five times during the 17th century later became a British administrative centre for what was then known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana.

The castle has become a must-see for foreign tourists.

An African-American tourist, James Clarke, dining in Accra's popular Osu district on the eve of his visit to the former slave post, said previously he knew nothing about Ghana but football, with the nation's team having advanced to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010.

But Obama's visit "made me to believe that there is something interesting about this country which I must see for myself."

Ghana also has the advantage of being one of the most stable countries in a region tainted by a history of political and ethnic violence.

"The peace Ghana is enjoying is one of the factors attracting growing numbers of people," said Nkunu Akyea, a senior member of the tour guides association of Ghana.

It also holds a particular place in the continent's history, having been the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957.

"Ghana has lots of people coming from the USA, especially black Americans, probably because they want to see the slave forts, they want to know how their ancestors were shipped out of Africa," said Mohammed Daramy, head of the tourism sector for West African bloc ECOWAS.

Tourism contributes six percent to Ghana's GDP. The discovery of oil and the resulting new investment, bring an increased focus on Ghana, could also see a further swell in visitors.

"The oil find has boosted tourism in Ghana tremendously with investors visiting the nation to evaluate potential business initiatives," Oduro-Frempong said.

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