Wednesday, 31 August 2011

From my Archives 1 - The Big Tree Could be a Bigger Draw (29/07/2008)

Everyone has something they have always wanted to do but never found the right moment or the time to do it. For me, visiting the Big Tree on the Oda road in the Eastern Region has been one such unfulfilled wish. I first heard about the mythical Big Tree reputed to be the biggest in West Africa, several years ago and it has been on my wish list for decades. I had my wish last week Saturday, and what an anti-climax.

My disappointment was not so much with the tree itself, although I must confess that it did not meet my huge expectation. I can’t blame the tree for that; after decades of building up that tree in my mind, the reality was never going to equal the fantasy. But it is a big tree, and definitely very tall. It is the biggest and tallest tree I have ever seen. I will tell you more about the tree but first let us hear it for the disappointment.

Tourism as an income earner is an article of faith with all Ghanaian governments since independence but when the chips are down, we all know that Ghana is not in the premier league of natural wonders of the world. We don’t have the Victoria Falls of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Kilimanjaro of Tanzania, the Nile of Egypt or the Safari parks of Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. Even Afadjato, which every school pupil knows to be the highest mountain in Ghana, is perhaps in Togo.

However, that does not mean that we cannot celebrate the natural attributes that God gave is. I remember trying to entice a British university professor who was in our US State Department Study Tour several years ago to visit Ghana. He threw me a challenge: why should he spend his precious money to visit Ghana instead of Kenya or Tanzania. I had to think quickly, so although my answer was pure chauvinism, I have no regret.

I said that what Ghana uniquely had was the “the people”. It was a vague and even fatuous prescription but it seemed to work. This appeared to impress the professor and he asked me to expand on my idea. I told him about our rich culture and traditions, our hospitality and sense of fairness towards all, especially foreigners.

Then I also told him that although we are not great on the mountains, lakes and rivers side of things, we boast some impressive phenomena such as the biggest tree in West Africa. I had never seen the tree myself so when he asked how big, I was able to draw an imaginary big circle on the San Diego beach and claim that to be the circumference of the tree.

I don’t know if the Prof ever made it to Ghana but he did say that he was definitely going to make the Big Tree one of his “must see” sites in the world. Ever since that that encounter several years ago, I have felt guilty that I recommended a site I had never visited to a potential tourist.
Last Saturday, the opportunity came my way as I was travelling to Oda for a social occasion. As I hinted you, I was disappointed with the whole experience. The first thing you notice is what you don’t see. Let me explain: it is also an article of faith with all Ghanaian governments and tourism experts that internal tourism is the key that will unlock the tourism potential as a whole.

That makes sense: foreigners will want to see what we are flocking to see. But people will only go and see something that they know exists. Unfortunately, apart fro a couple of puny signs advertising a related restaurant there is no big notice board advertising the tree site itself. Now, without a big sign advertising it no-one will notice the signboard at the entrance because drivers will be doing 120 km as they whiz past.

To be fair, during his tenure at the Ministry of Tourism Etc, Mr. Jake Obetsebi Lamptey built a number of reception centres at most tourism sites to serve the needs of tourists. But as far as the Big Tree is concerned he could have saved himself the effort and the money. There is no signpost to the centre apart from the self-same restaurant sign, albeit the restaurant is at the centre. So, on the way to Oda we zipped past both the tree and the reception centre as if they didn’t exist. Thousands of potential visitors must have done the same. Perhaps, it is a good thing they did because the experience at the reception and the entrance to the tree site disappointed deeply.

As we were looking for it on the return journey, it was easier to stop at the reception centre where we hoped to eat lunch at the advertised restaurant. The first thing we noticed was the absence of tyre marks amid the rain ridges that form the car park. Nonetheless, we soldiered on. There were three people sitting at the centre, two of them at a table: we thought someone else ate there – a good sign.
We were wrong. All three either work there or simply hang about the place – in short they were not customers. But there was nothing to show that they worked there either. The first person we saw was a young lady sitting under an umbrella selling phone cards. There was no sign of welcome so we went past her to one of the many vacant tables around.

It was only then that the young lady reluctantly came to stand at our table. She offered no welcome; she just stood until we asked for food. Yes, they had food but what food? Well, plain or fried rice. That was it – you either eat it or beat it. You could tell that she did not really care one way or the other. She made no effort to convince us to eat. It was painfully obvious that she wanted us to leave so she could go and sit under the umbrella selling phone cards.

We decided to leave the reception centre for the tree site. The scene there was hilarious. There were two cars parked on the road so obviously there were other visitors. When we got to the gate an argument was raging between the tourists and the two gatemen over the one Ghana Cedi charge. The two gatemen were as drunk as lords on a Sunday afternoon and smelled as if they had spent their formative years in a distillery. More to the point, these were perhaps the two last persons you would put in charge of receiving visitors. But there you have it; they were in office!

Finally we saw the tree. Majestic, yes but so what? The trouble with our tourism is that it is not properly conceived and there is no addition of value to whatever is there to be seen. There was no guide to explain anything about the tree, no T-shirt, no postcard, not even at the reception centre. The dirt track to the tree was so muddy that we had to hold other people to stay steady.

Meanwhile, with proper planning and marketing of spin-offs, the Big tree could be drawing bigger crowds and providing employment for scores of people. The two drunken guides provide a metaphor for how we treat our heritage assets – bumbling, reckless and incompetent are kind words.

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