The Power of Ecotourism in National Development: An Eco-Park in Ghana

In the middle of the traffic-jammed concrete city of Accra sits a solitary forest of dense shrubbery and dirt roads. Between the dangling branches is a labyrinth of narrow pathways and foliaged nooks.

But it’s far from serene; clapping and howling echo loudly, and it’s not all from the wildlife.

“Are you here for the zoo or to pray?” The park attendant at the entrance asks, hand open and waiting for the 50 Ghanaian pesewas, or 17 U.S. cents, fee. Before him stands a billboard featuring a slew of classic safari animals. Above the elephant reads “Accra Eco-Park Coming Soon”.

Jerry Arkutu, 37, pastor of the Joy Cathedral Ministry International, and who preaches in one of those hidden groves, smiled, “We are very much happy when we see you people and we always want to welcome them. Because if a nation does not have a tourist center and tourists cannot visit a nation, then I think that nation is not improving.”

Led by the government, the Forestry Commission’s Wildlife Division plans to convert the last greenbelt in Accra — Achimota Forest, into a state of the art recreational Eco-Park in hopes to make Ghana West Africa’s premier ecotourism destination.

To catalyze national improvement through ecotourism, two branching efforts are being made simultaneously. The Ghanaian government has turned to protecting the environment through large-scale revenue-producing projects. Meanwhile, smaller, non-governmental organizations are focused on using the concept as a social responsibility vehicle.

But with the country’s difficulties in producing and maintaining proper infrastructure, both groups struggle to obtain their optimal goals.

Defined by the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people.”

Sitting on the western curve of Africa, the rectangular-shaped Ghana boasts a diverse environment that ranges from beaches to savannahs and rainforests and is inhabited by wildlife like hippos and monkeys.

But Ghana’s once 8.2 million hectares of forest has been slashed to just 1.6 million, making deforestation one of the top environmental problems faced by the government. Forests are encroached upon for poaching, bush burning and other poor agricultural practices, and cut for timber.

“In those days you’d need firewood to cook and now they have to walk long distances to fetch firewood. You don’t need to tell them that deforestation is causing a problem, but the changing of attitude is hard,” said Joseph Osiakwan, 45, of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.

Remaining greenery has been put into 288 forest reserves and 16 protected areas for wildlife, all chosen to represent a unique part of Ghana’s ecosystem.

But even as a reserve, Achimota has been reduced from 490 hectares to 360 due to infringing praying settlements and government directed road and housing developments.

The lack of conservation comes from seeing quick returns in industries like timber, which has been declining over the past decade due to a depletion of the resource itself. This has resulted in a need for the government to search for alternative sources of revenue.

But the Ghanaian tourism industry is still budding. Listing out the touristic draws of Ghana to be business, friends and family, culture, history, and a good amount of nature, Gameli Dzordzorme, 50, of the Ghana Tourism Authority added, “So you see that I have not really mentioned as much of leisure.”

Apollo Panou, 40, founder of Jolinaiko Eco Tours, a Ghana-based travel company agreed, “People come here with a second intention. They come here because their daughter studies here or is a volunteer with a church or an NGO.”

According to the GTA, Ghana faces many challenges in strengthening its tourism industry, and even the public sector itself. None of which can be improved without proper funding.

“In a developing country like ours, there are roads to be built, health centers, schools, education, energy and so forth. Putting the money into a road that is needed to bring cocoa from some village to the city will take three months to build and the cocoa will come,” Dzordzorme said.

Compare this timespan to a gestation period of what the GTA estimates as four years for quality hospitality training and construction before tourists begin to steadily filter in.

So to quickly complete an attraction as grand as the Eco-Park, which will take an estimated $30 million U.S. dollars, the government seeks a private investor.

According to the official proposal, the estimated annual revenue is $5 million U.S. dollars, which is expected to reduce threats and pressure towards using the land otherwise. Similarly is the creation of about 1,700 jobs.

“If we convert it we are adding value to the place, we are protecting it for sustainability to remain there forever. It will not just be a piece of land lying there, but a piece of land that will generate revenue,” Osiakwan said about Achimota’s current state.

Inspiration came from the Forestry Commission’s CEO Samuel Afari-Dartey’s visits to Kenya, which means animals like giraffes and zebras could be introduced and fenced into the Eco-Park.

Alongside that are plans to build attractions like an amusement park, aviary, faux cultural village, safari walks, and eco-lodge accommodations complete with hammocks and pavilions made using local and energy-efficient products.

The Eco-Park is not the first large ecotourism sites built by the government. Starting in the 1970’s with Mole National Park, which is home to wandering mammals like elephants, and brings in visitors up to the tens of thousands.

Like other parks, such as the most visited Kakum National Park with its famous canopy walk that sways visitors back and forth through the treetops, time has caused road networks and maintenance to start deteriorating, prompting difficulties for potential visitors.

“They have to improve the place. The standards of environment are supposed to be high as far as making sure the place is secure for visitors,” Emmanuel Nkansah, 44, said about a past trip to Mole.

Overshadowed by the large national parks are the similar infrastructural struggles of smaller, non-governmental organizational projects that use ecotourism to promote community development.

An example of this is the Pikworo Slave Camp in the northern village of Paga Nania, where the flat land extends for miles under the hot sun. Residents of the community perform traditional songs, banging rocks rhythmically atop a boulder, to reflect the history of Ghana’s slave trade to guests.

Local tour guide Daniel Achegiwe, 24, said they still face many developmental challenges such as a lack of fencing, not enough advertising signs and no on-site accommodations. He mentioned a time when it got so late that he had to house tourists in his own home.

Martin Yelibora, 36, of the Nature Conservation Research Centre, a civil society group working in Ghana’s ecotourism for the past 20 years with a focus on collective action, said, “Communities are virtually left on their own to look for opportunities for tourists to visit. They have not fully developed the potential, even though the government has realized that ecotourism is beneficial to the economy.”

One of the pioneering works of the NCRC is the Wechiau Community Sanctuary, where both protected hippos and the local Walla and Birifor tribes have welcomed visitors since 1999 to enhance their economy and minimize harmful farming practices.

By integrating the locals into practicing sustainable efforts, rural communities can become more inviting and accessible, better showcasing their vibrant culture to foreigners while improving their own livelihood.

Without a lucrative opportunity, just telling local communities to start conserving their resources is not enough, explained Yelibora.

Panou, whose company has been working with the Ghanaian village Atsiekpoe since 2005 by building them better facilities and offering suitable training for receiving guests, said “Ecotourism and sustainable and tourism, its all combined. If the people that you visit, you feel are poor, then how can they be better. That would be the ideology. We build a relationship and we try to enrich the destination because there’s so much more than just waterfalls and mountains.”

Atsiekpoe has received over 800 guests since working with the company.

Contrasted to places such as the United States or Europe, Ghana’s lack of accessibility to sustainable products like car filters and waste management make it difficult for companies like Panou’s to operate as eco-friendly as they wish.

Yelibora suggested for regional districts to carry out ecotourism agendas rather than the centralized government in what some call overly complex projects such as the Eco-Park, and to focus more on untouched villages such as those along the beach.

But for now, the Eco-Park remains a concept, still malleable by flashy potentials and stalled by economic woes.

Practically speaking on behalf of all ecotourism projects, Dzordzorme remarked, “We will be living in a fool’s paradise if we say we can compete for the government’s resources for the industry. Not in Ghana, it’s not going to be easy.”

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