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Opinions of Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Columnist: Akpabli, Kofi

Mr. President, This is a Disgrace

STOP PRESS ELMINA!

Mr. President, This is a Disgrace

Your Excellency,
President John Mahama
Flagstaff House
Accra

Dear Mr. President,
I didn’t think I would address you so soon. But it has come to this. You and I have met just a couple of times, one of which was an invitation to your Cantonments home last year January to meet with the publishers of your book. I am grateful for that privilege.
I am going to address you because of a bridge that has gone bad in Elmina. I will try hard to muffle it but if you detect pain and frustration in my tone, do not take it personal. It goes beyond you.
Mr. President, I am a lone ranger. But I carry the voice of thousands. The thousands who cry at the fact that tourism is slowly losing its weight among the league of industries in Ghana.
At this forum in The Mirror, what we do every week is to share with Ghanaians the experience of a visit to a tourist attraction in our lovely country. The aim is to showcase to readers the tourism and cultural resources that that we need to improve and patronise.
Currently, we are running a series on old travel-writing articles found in the Ghanaian press. We intend to get fascinated at how tourism travel has changed over the decades. Today should have been the continuation of the travel adventures of one W.L. Laast in the then Northern Territories, an experience that took place in 1942. But we have suspended that piece on account of the urgency of the issue at stake.
Mr. President, I have just come from a visit to Elmina. Like all the others, this is a trip I sponsored myself and I couldn’t bear to think of what is happening in that important heritage destination.
Because it has become weak the access Bridge to the Elmina Castle has been closed down to vehicular traffic. Needles to say this situation has brought untold hardship to visitors, commuters, traders, commercial drivers, tourism businesses and tourists. And this situation has gone on for more than six months. And Elmina Castle is a World Heritage Monument Site!
Like we do at Going Places, I will take you to the site, and with words, bring you the sights and sounds. But before we hit the road (like we say in this column), let me whisper two quick things in your ears. They may not really matter but please, just take note.
First: since the Ministry of Tourism was set up in1993, No Head of State in the Fourth Republic has ever participated in the World Tourism Day event. Not Rawlings, not Kuffuor, Not Atta-Mills. This September when it happened you were on assignment in America, so we understand. I hope that next year your schedules will allow you to attend. You will be the first president of Ghana to have graced the occasion in 20 years!
Second: another tip. since its inception in 1997, there has been only one head of state who had attended the National Tourism Awards. Rawlings. In 1998. I hear there would be one this November, will you be able to attend?
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Sir, having furnished you with this teasers let me take you to Elmina. It is Sunday morning. I am within the courtyard of the Elmina Castle, one of Ghana’s biggest tourist attractions. It is a vast outer court from which one goes into another very big yard surrounded by the four-sided huge and tall castle. Both courtyards can hold up to a thousand tourist at a time.
But there is not a soul. I mean there are no tourists in sight. Far cross the bridge, on the hill sits St Jago, the much smaller fort which seems to be mocking at the hapless Elmina Castle. Also, across the bridge is a hotel appropriately named the Bridge. It looks desolate as business has trickled to a joke.
The Benya Lagoon runs down across where I stand. The water top is crowded with an armada of boats flying flags of all sorts. On the bridge itself is a crowd of young men waiting for the fishermen to bring in their haul. As boat after boat sail under the bridge with their catch of herring the young men above clap in wild applause.
Women and other fish dealers rush from the other side to meet the fishermen and start their bargain. On the bridge again, and in one moment, I see a thick, tall man in cap, trying to remove a railing from the bridge; the outer lane meant for pedestrians. No one seems to care. They just watch him. It isn’t difficult, to do within minutes, it comes off in his hands.
Sir, because the pedestrian walkway along the two ends of the bridge have become so weak folks prefer to use the main bridge designated for vehicles. This path to the Elmina Castle has thus become strewn with the idleness of humanity. And because vehicles have been banned, anyway, the space has become an open for all. There have been occasions where people’s limbs have entered a hole with the metal scrapping off flesh.
An earlier walk I took showed a very rusty passage. Several portions of the floor have been patched up with holes still showing on other sections. The MTN-branded walls of the bridge are plastered with obituaries.
The activities on the bridge also call for concern. It has become a marketplace, no different from what happens on the Kaneshie overpass in Accra.
I see breadsellers, girls with trays on their head, folks on wheel-chairs begging for alms, push trucks laden with pen drives, cds, etc. It is a bazaar on a broken bridge.
Mr. President, the tourism business dimension is that because the buses that bring visitors cannot use the bridge to the Castle they have to park at the foot and walk through the mayhem. This, many tourists and tour operators will not countenance. One, because there is no guarantee for the parked tourist vehicles.
The Elmina Castle Parking space comes with some security. Another nuisance is the harassment from the ‘Castle boys,’ (No, not Osu). These are local young men who molest tourists with all sorts of offers. The walk on that bridge for a tourist is thus an embarrassing risk.
But that is the headache for tourists who manage to reach the bridge at all. Until the bridge was closed, getting to the Castle Elmina Castle required connecting at the Junction off the Cape Coast - Takoradi Highway. But now tourists arrived at this junction, like I did the night before, only to be told to do the detour. This requires travelling ahead on the highway and eventually branching of at Ataabadze Junction and then continuing to Elmina Castle. Now the road from here is very bad and by this time some tourists just abandon the adventure and go back home.
(When I travelled on the detour the night before, I saw along the route human beings squatting and defecating.) According to Elmina Castle sources, revenue lost so far is huge.
Sir, by extension, hotels and restaurants in the Elmina Castle enclave are also losing out. Because of the trickle-down effect of tourism revenue it would be difficult to list all the commercial interests that have been adversely affected. But permit me to mention these formal establishments who have also become captives of the standstill: Elmina Bay Resort, Coconut Grove Bridge House, Coconut Grove Resort, Stumble Inn, Elmina Beach Resort, Holala and Almond Tree Guesthouse.
When I talked to a cross-section of folks in the community about the saga of the Benya Bridge I detected a familiar dance, a dance of pass-the-buck- which takes no one anywhere.
Mr. President, sometimes the Ghanaian is not interested in whether it is the Engineer, the Roads and Highways, the Feeder Roads, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ghana Tourism Authority, the MCE, the KEEA or the MP that has to solve a problem. They just want it solved.

Thank you.
Yours in the service of the nation.
Kofi Akpabli

kofiakpabli@gmail.com