ELMINA, Ghana – Each evening the fishermen set out in their hand-carved wooden boats. By nightfall, the horizon is dotted by a long row of small lights, their own constellation. Fish are caught, the haul is sold in markets and life continues. But one group is noticeably absent from Elmina and other towns along Ghana’s coast – tourists.
Thousands of college students embark on a trip to see the world and do a bit of learning through the Semester at Sea program. The West African countries of Senegal and Ghana are usually on the itinerary, bringing a steady flow of tourism to the two countries. But the countries are not destinations for three consecutive semesters due to concerns about Ebola.
“As the health and safety of our participants remains the top priority of Semester at Sea, the Fall 2014, Spring 2015, and Fall 2015 voyages will not visit Senegal or Ghana as originally planned,” said a statement from Lauren Judge, director of public affairs for Semester at Sea, published in August 2014 and updated in October.
Two days after the update, the WHO congratulated Senegal for stopping the transmission of Ebola after a single case made it to the country. To date there have been no new cases in Senegal and there is yet to be a case in Ghana. But the fear of it spreading is enough to divert the ships from ports in West Africa.
“Though Ghana has not reported a confirmed case of Ebola, the rapid spread of the virus and state of affairs in West Africa raises concerns about a potential future risk in Ghana, as well as our ability to easily vacate the area in a potential emergency situation,” wrote Judge.
Despite the fact that Ghana does not share borders with the three Ebola-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the outbreak is taking its toll on the country’s tourism industry. The number of international tourists who visited the Cape Coast Castle in 2014 fell from 21,325 visitors in 2013 to 16,092 visitors in 2014.
The lack of tourists is visibly evident in the Ghanaian coastal town of Elmina. Tourists visit the town and neighboring Cape Coast to relax alongside the ocean and see historical sights, like Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. The latter is best know as a former slave trading post. Its “door of no return” is the passage where slaves passed leaving Ghana and boarding ships to the United States.
Nearby, the Elmina Bay Resort is nearly empty. Owner Ben Idun says tourism from the United States is down by 80 percent and from Europe are down by roughly half. The Semester at Sea participants are his best clients and he cannot expect to see students returning until 2016 at the earliest. Other groups also canceled travel plans in the past six months due to Ebola concerns.
“Ebola is the single biggest factor leading to declined visitors,” he said in an interview with Humanosphere. “We had slow but satisfactory growth until the Ebola news broke.”
Idun said that nearby hotels have been forced to let go staff with the decline in tourists. He has yet to make any cuts himself, but he anticipates not taking on the extra staff as usually needed during the high season. The resort is well rated on travel sites like TripAdvisor. Idun and his wife started construction on it in 2006 and opened in 2009.
“I wanted to do something of value in the country,” he said.
Hailing from the city of Takaradi, located about an hour from Elmina, Idun worked for years as a general manager for companies in the United States and Europe before returning to Ghana. He is optimistic that things will eventually get better.
“I am confident we will rebound, but not in the near term,” said Idun. “People book travel in advance, so it will take awhile to see things turn around.”
In the meantime, the Elmina Bay Resort is looking to market itself to the individual travelers who are still going to Ghana. But that will hardly replace the dozens of people who come at a time when traveling together. Idun recognizes that part of the answer is waiting for the Ebola outbreak to finally come to an end.
To keep Ebola out of Ghana, the country has taken a series of steps to prevent its transmission. Large signs throughout the country provide information about the virus. It is also a topic discussed on radio. Travelers entering Ghana must also complete a health form and stand before a heat sensor (to determine whether someone has a fever) before passing through immigration.
So far, the efforts have been successful. Unfortunately it’s not enough to allay tourists’ fears.
Tom Murphy reported from Ghana on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).