ASSIN MANSO, GHANA (Reuters) - In a clearing at the turnoff to Assin Manso, a billboard depicts two African slaves in loincloths, their arms and legs in chains. Beside them are the words, "Never Again!"
This is "slave river," where captured Ghanaians submitted to a final bath before being shipped across the Atlantic into slavery centuries ago, never to return to the land of their birth. Today, it is a place of somber homecoming for the descendants of those who spent their lives as someone else's property.
The popularity of the site has swelled this year, 400 years after the trade in Africans to the English colonies of America began. This month's anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in Virginia has caused a rush of interest in ancestral tourism, with people from the United States, the Caribbean and Europe seeking out their roots in West Africa.
"Ten years ago, no one went to the slave river, but this year has been massive," said Awuracy Butler, who runs a company called Butler Tours.
She said business has nearly doubled this year, which has been touted as the Year of Return for the African diaspora tracing their family history. The number of tourists has forced her to hire more vehicles, she said.
"Everyone wants to add the slave river to their tour," she said. The coastal forts where they spent their last days in Ghana in suffocating conditions are also increasingly popular, she said.
The increase in tourism has been an economic boon for Ghana, which unlike other West African countries has aggressively marketed its "heritage" offerings for the anniversary.
Officials see it as an opportunity to entice some much-needed foreign investment into the economy, dogged in recent years by high inflation and public debt that has needed an International Monetary Fund lending programme to fix.
The Ghana Tourism Authority expects 500,000 visitors this year, up from 350,000 in 2018. Of those, 45,000 are estimated to be seeking their ancestral roots, a 42% increase from last year.
On a recent day in the capital, Accra, a delegation of tribal elders and a representative of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre welcomed a tour group at a hotel in the city.
At an event in a low-ceilinged hotel conference room, the tour guide encouraged the visitors to sing a hymn in a local language, gently chiding them for not yet knowing the tune. "You are Ghanaians now," he said.
Members of the group, who were mostly African American, went up to the front one by one to pose with a smiling tourism ministry official or one of the robe-clad elders as they received an official certificate of participation. The investment representative launched into a lengthy power-point presentation focussed on the need for investment in Ghana's cocoa sector and the minimum capital requirements for joint ventures.
With an average spend of $1,850 per tourist, the tourism authority expects this year's revenues to top $925 million, a 50% increase from 2018, which it hopes to sustain over the next three years at least.
The amount is dwarfed by Ghana's $2-billion cocoa industry but is considered essential in a country of 28 million people who mostly live in poverty.
Anthony Bouadi, a tour guide at Cape Coast Castle, a fortress where the captives were kept until they were sent on ships over the Atlantic, said he believes the site will change the lives of those who visit.
"The moment you get to know your history, it is going to change you," he said. "We are encouraging our brothers and sisters from the U.S., from the Caribbean from Europe to come back to their Motherland Africa to get to know the culture ... and whatever the ancestors went through."
The surge of visitors is part of a global phenomenon: Airbnb data shows a five-fold increase in people travelling to places connected to their ancestry worldwide since 2014.
U.S. genetics company African Ancestry says its sales of DNA tests tripled after last year's release of the superhero film "Black Panther," an Afro-centric blockbuster with a predominantly black cast. The company is launching an ancestry-based travel service later this year.
To make the most of the moment, Ghana will host a mass "ancestry reveal" on Friday. More than 80 African American participants, including the head of the NAACP, will learn their genetic history, touted as the largest ceremony of its kind in Africa's history.
Ghana has long encouraged its diaspora to return and has strong links with the African American community. Malcolm X visited in the 1960s and spent time with the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who lived there at the time. The prominent black writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois settled and died in Ghana. Since, many other ordinary African American families have returned.
But questions remain about whether the heightened interest in Ghana can be sustained after the anniversary. Bad roads, a cumbersome visa application process and expensive flights could stem the number of visitors in the long term.
"The government has a huge responsibility," said Peter Appiah, head of research and publicity at the Centre for National Culture in Kumasi, Ghana's second-largest city.
"If we want to sustain this tempo," he said, "then we need to do a lot more in terms of social infrastructure."
At Assin Manso, a group of visitors removed their shoes and walked barefoot down a path to the muddy river that runs through a bamboo grove.
Together they placed their hands in the water, then waded in to offer prayers in thanks for the opportunity to return.
"I can't even get my head around people coming from a land like this and being snatched," said Miriam Allen, a 62-year-old retired urban planner from New York, clutching a box of tissues and choking back tears.
"This is a good place and a bad place. A good place to know your ancestors, but to know what those white people did to us. I can't ..." she said, breaking off.
On most tours, Assin Manso marks one of the final stops on a country-wide swing in which groups take part in Ashanti rituals, meet local chiefs and trace the gruelling route captured slaves took from the country's northern hinterland out to the coast.
The forts that still dot Ghana's coast are a reminder of what slaves endured.
At the Cape Coast Castle, rusted old cannons point out to sea from the ramparts, angled skyward, away from locals playing football on the beach below.
The government is committed to its upkeep - on a recent visit, workers were repainting the high white walls.
In forts like this one, slaves experienced their last days on African soil crammed in steaming-hot dungeons without light - and where tourists are now returning in droves.
"I have seen a lot of people - they really are coming," said Bouadi, the guide at the castle, who now does up to six tours a day compared with three last year. Each tour has doubled in size, he said, to around 40 people.
He tries to help his family when he can, using the extra money he earns to pay their water and electricity bills.
"Tourism organisations in Ghana are having to hire more people," he said. "If people earn more, they can pay for school fees; it boosts the local economy and reduces poverty."
Ghana's efforts stand in stark contrast to other West African countries with rich histories of their own that are little known outside the continent.
Despite a collection of slave sites, including the picturesque but haunting Goree Island, where tourists can visit old slave quarters and its "door of no return," Senegal does not appear to have harnessed the potential like Ghana. Neither has Benin or Nigeria.
In Nigeria, the main sites commemorating the slave trade are three small museums along a road in the coastal town of Badagry. Artefacts including chains used to shackle slaves are spread across the museums, two of which are small single-story buildings with corrugated iron roofs.Foreign tourists are rare at the site, and a large proportion of visitors are schoolchildren on tours. The poor state of local roads, dotted with potholes, make it hard to visit Badagry: The 65-kilometer (40-mile) journey from the country's largest city, Lagos, takes around three hours."As far as I know, only Ghana has made such a significant effort in terms of programmes and activities," said Shanelle Haile, a doctoral student at Brown University in Rhode Island who was in Ghana to study diaspora engagement surrounding the anniversary.
"Now that we're here and we've done the events and the activities, it's really moving and it's a powerful experience," she said. "I just hope that more African Americans learn and hear about it."
(Additional reporting by Edward McAllister in Dakar; Christian Akorlie in Accra; and Afolabi Sotunde in Badagry, Nigeria.; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Kari Howard)
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