When it comes to travel and tourism, West Africa is sitting on a potential gold mine. Much work needs to be done, but the opportunity is clearly there, waiting.
There once was a British colony in West Africa called the Gold Coast. Built on trade, slavery and dedicated to the proposition that Africa existed solely to make Europe rich.
Look at West Africa today and you see the potential for a different kind of Gold Coast, a new mecca for international travel.
Thousands of miles of coastline. Unspoiled habitats. People with international reputations for welcoming visitors. How much more does one region need to succeed?
Resort tourism. Eco-tourism. Adventure tourism. Cultural tourism. Heritage tourism. Sport fishing. Surfing. Food. Music. Even high fashion. The nations of West Africa contain elements that lend themselves to any or all of this. And the region is perfectly positioned to take advantage.
Start with the geography.
Being close to the Equator gives it a warm tropical climate within an easy flight of Europeans ever eager to escape their brutal winters.
But the real surprise comes when you look to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. West Africa is closer to the United States than any other part of the Mother Continent.
That’s critical, because that geography also plays a key role in creating what may be the most powerful lure for West African travel: heritage tourism from the Americas.
The West African region was Ground Zero for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a triangular route in the northern and mid-Atlantic.
At the height of its 400-year run, Europeans were taking captive Africans from eight principal regions on the Mother Continent; coastal West Africa covers six of them.
If you’re black and were born anywhere on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a good chance that your DNA can be found somewhere here.
The success of Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” and the wildly successful TV series that followed it, showed clearly the interest that black Americans have in learning about and reclaiming their African heritage. In West Africa, you can see that heritage for yourself, hear it, taste it, hold it in your hands.
From New York City or Washington DC, your flight to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, will last a shade over seven and a half hours. From Atlanta, about eight and a half.
If you’ve ever flown from the West Coast of the United States to virtually anywhere in Europe or Asia, you know that any flight under ten hours is a snap.
From South America, where the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is at least as strong — and the memory at least as painful — as it is here in the States, the flight times are even better:
- Rio de Janeiro-DKR: 6 hrs, 14 min.
- Caracas-DKR: 6 hrs, 41 min.
- Montevideo-DKR: 8 hrs, 30 min.
But while Africa may be our heritage,black Americans — indeed, Americans of all races — generally lack the cultural familiarity with Africa that Europeans, with their colonial backgrounds, take for granted.
No part of the Mother Continent is better positioned to introduce Americans to Africa, and introduce black Americans to their African heritage, than West Africa.
Several West African countries are English-speaking while others are francophone. Americans who can culturally navigate London and Paris wouldn’t have much trouble finding their way around Banjul or Accra or Dakar or Abidjan.
Indeed, there already are travel agencies in the United States that sell tour packages to West Africa, many of them focusing on the history of the slave trade. But the possibilities are so much greater.
None of this will happen easily or overnight. Infrastructure is a huge need throughout the region. Some West African countries are still trying to escape the shadow of political violence. And there are health concerns to be conquered, not the least of which is malaria.
And for some, the mere act of trying to build a tourism industry will be a giant leap into unknown territory, for some have never really made a serious attempt to market themselves to travelers.
But if the nations of West Africa can stabilize themselves, attract the investment they need, focus their energies on building a tourism offering that makes use of their best attractions — and most of all, if they can cooperate with one another, West Africa could become one of the world’s greatest travel destinations.
A lot of big “ifs,” I know. But the way I see it, small dreams are a waste of sleep.