I was recently in Ecuador for the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) 2015 as a Speaker and member of the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). Before I left Ghana, I visited the website of the Ecuadorian tourism ministry, ECUADOR.TRAVEL. My breath caught as graphic images of a true adventure destination was displayed, and the sense of a unique ecotourism identity screamed at me from the site, inviting me to come explore the country’s lush environmental and adventure resources.
And it did not disappoint. When I arrived at the airport, the banner, ALL YOU NEED IS ECUADOR, was everywhere in a brilliant kaleidoscope of colours. Everything about the airport, and later on from the taxi drive to the entrance to my hotel room, was the story of a country that is serious about tourism and makes no apologies for it.
I went biking in the Cotopaxi National Park while some of my colleague TIES members visited hot springs and toured the nation’s many national monuments including the Centre of the World monument. Taxi drivers were polite and friendly in spite of my Spanish language deficiency, and the taxis were all metered.
Not so my beloved country, Ghana. Our GHANA.TRAVEL website looks like an online news portal, and the video that runs is anything but Ghanaian. And the least said about our airport the better, although I’m holding on to a tiny bit of optimism that expansion works on the nation’s only international airport would change the current miserable status.
In today’s competitive global economy, nations are selling themselves to potential visitors with ever-more-sophisticated branding campaigns, and Ecuador does a far better job at it than Ghana. The sad fact is that we are not serious when it comes to the all-important business of tourism. Our tourist destinations are in some of the most rural and deprived communities in Ghana, and I hope it is not too late for us to realize that the best way to safeguard Mole National Park, for instance, is to provide economic incentives to its neighbouring communities in ways that makes the elephants and all others more beneficial to rural folks alive than dead. That means the provision of good roads, access to potable drinking water and educational scholarships. And our local communities never ask for too much, do they?
Ghana’s attempt at nation-branding has not only been laughable; it has also been mediocre. Less than four years after the rolling out of some not-well-thought-out “Brand Ghana” initiative, Mr. Mathias Akotia, CEO of the initiative, blamed the palpable performance of his office on “poor customer services, congestions at the country’s entry and exit points and the negative habits of some people towards visitors”.
Mr. Akotia behaves exactly like most failing practitioners of nation branding. Eager to construct a positive image and, at the same time, constrained by the adage that one cannot put lipstick on a pig, they find themselves urging citizens to engage in significant reforms as a prerequisite to seeing tourism flourish. But he forgets that nation branding is about using strategic marketing to promote a country’s image, products, and attractiveness for tourism and foreign direct investment. Nation branding implies that countries “behave, in many ways like brands do, and be perceived in certain ways by large groups of people both at home and abroad; and be associated with certain qualities and characteristics.”
And these characteristics must be espoused, promoted and advanced over a period of many years. Four years is nothing to write home about as the cause of abysmal failure, and every serious nation-marketer knows that effective state branding not only serves to reinforce positive images but also helps to fight negative ones by shaping new images and associations. Therefore, Ghana can only be well-branded by real and serious branding like Ecuador does, and when a good job is done at it, the rest of the nation – taxi drivers, airport officials, bribe-taking policemen, hotels and ecotourism destination areas – will begin to reflect that brand.
Needless to say (yet I say it), the fundamental assumption in country branding is that country names amount to brands and as a result convey images and help everyone evaluate products and services in order to make purchasing decisions. Therefore, a powerful country brand translates into a better perception of the country, increased exports and inward tourism, and foreign investment. Simon Anholt, in his foreword to The Journal of Brand Management (p. 229, vol 9. no 4-5, April 2002), rightly points out that country brands still stand for a limited number of qualities (power, wealth, sophistication) and therefore allows for plenty of space for countries to brand themselves with qualities such as ‘creativity, music, philosophy, trust, innocence, wisdom, hospitality, challenge, safety and so on.
So, if we say as a country that we have failed at the Ghana brand because of poor customer services and attitude of Ghanaians to foreigners among other more mediocre excuses, then the message we send out there is that we are not a serious country. And Ecuador proves to me that we are not.
The only excuse I can accept is if we are a case of putting lipstick on a pig. Which can be true, giving the mediocre government now in power and the endless dumsor plaguing the economy. In that case – and to that extent only – I could agree to why Ecuador is well-marketed and branded and we’re not. And even in that case, whose fault is it? Otherwise, there’s absolutely no excuse at how abysmally we have done our Nation-branding.