Is funeral tourism a bad idea? Maybe call it something else...

Is funeral tourism a bad idea? Maybe call it something else...

On September 26, the myjoynews portal reported that the Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture, Dr Ibrahim Mohammed Awal had proposed the idea of “funeral tourism”.

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 The announcement ignited the proverbial storm in a teacup. The minister had suggested that the country could use funerals as a strategy to boost domestic tourism. 

In no time, negative responses erupted in many parts of Ghana’s large social media and media enclave in a way that shocked this columnist.

I thought that either the Minister had “misspoken” or that those protesting had somehow misunderstood his point. On rechecking the story, I could not see any ambiguity in the minister’s statement, so my conclusion was that those who came out against the idea had misunderstood the concept.

I do not speak for the minister, and I don’t think he requires any assistance in this instance, but I am a fervent believer in the idea of funeral tourism, and as a long-time practitioner, I thought the least I could do was offer an explanation according to how I understood it.

Let us begin with the notion that tourism comes in many forms. There are three broad types of tourism. These are:

  • Domestic tourism – Taking holidays and trips in your own country. 
  • Inbound tourism – Visitors from overseas coming into the country.
  • Outbound tourism –Travelling to a different country for a visit.

In Ghana, we are more familiar with inbound tourism; the one that brings people from abroad to visit and experience our country. We hardly see Ghanaians classifying ourselves as tourists when we go to other countries, or visit other parts of our own country. Does that mean Ghanaians do not engage in tourism? We do, but we don’t describe ourselves as tourists. I am writing this article here at the Delagio Hotel in Wa, the Upper West Regional capital. I did not come as a tourist, but I have visited the Wa Naa’s Palace again. It is tourism!

There are many forms of tourism; more can be added, but the few that come to mind are: Leisure tourism, conference tourism, art tourism, business tourism, religious tourism, festivals tourism and sports tourism. 

Surely, you get the idea. You can build tourism into other activities in which case tourism would not be the primary reason for the travel. So, for example, perhaps more people come to Ghana for conferences and tourism than those who pack their bags to visit our country solely for the sights, sounds and tastes. 

In my own experience, I have been fortunate in my line of work to have visited a very large number of countries without going even once as a tourist.

Yet, in every instance, I have taken some time off to play the tourist. 

This way, I have seen some of the most iconic places of interest around the world. I would classify most of my travel experiences under conference tourism because the primary purpose of my travel has been to attend conferences. 

• The Big Tree at Akyem Aprokumase in the Eastern Region  

Other people travel for different reasons, business being a big one. In recent years, flights to China, Dubai, Singapore, Brazil and South Africa from Ghana have been full. I would not imagine that the people travelling to such places see themselves as tourists, but how many of them resist the urge to see places of interest even if business takes them to those places in the first place?

Now, let us come to domestic tourism, which is the tourism model in which people visit places of interest in their own country. In many countries, especially in those with advanced economies, people travel purposefully to visit places of interest in their own countries or in the countries in which they live.

In the UK, a country with which I am familiar, domestic tourism is a big deal. People travel to many parts of the UK from other parts of that country to visit tourist sites such as museums, parks, art galleries, concerts and the like. They are creating more tourist sites all the time and advertising them heavily. 

Last year alone, people spent 162 million pounds on domestic tourism in the UK, according to the statista website. In several countries abroad, domestic tourism has become part of their culture.

Those countries also deliberately ensure that people who visit their countries for other purposes are enticed somehow to participate in tourism there. 

A good example is China. Whenever one goes to China for a conference or business, the host is likely to take one to visit tourist sites such as the Great Wall or Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 

Now, back to Ghana. Increasingly, people are making time to travel to interesting sites such as our beaches, historical monuments and castles, botanical gardens and the like. However, the number of people going on deliberate tours are still a small percentage of the overall population of the travelling public. 

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I don’t know the number of people who make trips within the country every year, but judging from how busy our roads are, the number must run into millions. These people must be travelling for different reasons, but we can guess that a good portion of that number travelling at weekends are going to funerals. This is where the idea of funeral tourism comes in.

As I understand it, and have practised it, funeral tourism is neither about the dead nor the funeral itself. Therefore, those who have argued that it would amount to a desecration of the dead or of a solemn occasion have imagined something different. 

This kind of tourism is merely taking advantage of being in a location to visit any tourist site in the immediate neighbourhood. So, as an example, a few months ago, I went to a funeral at Akyem Oda. 

On the way back, a group of us stopped to visit the site of the Big Tree, which is reputed currently to be the biggest tree in Africa. It was a most satisfying visit as we learned a lot about its history and the history of the forest in which it has stood for hundreds of years. I cannot imagine that I would have gone all the way from Accra to see the Big Tree. This was funeral tourism in practice.

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On another occasion, I went to a family funeral at Cape Coast and decided to take a group to the Elmina Castle on the Sunday after church. On our way back, we stopped to look at some pusuban shrines along the way. At Elmina Castle we paid to get in; at the pusuban shrines we made voluntary donations to the shrine keepers. So, we improved their economy in a way that made them happy.

Ghana is dotted with thousands of interesting sites with fascinating narratives. Indeed, every settlement has a founding narrative which alone could hold an audience spellbound. 

We have natural and cultural heritage sites that would be preserved if local communities were aware that people would be interested in them. All over the country, people go to funerals all the time, so what is wrong with encouraging people attending such events to visit such places or learn about these narratives?

Perhaps, it is the word “funeral” that makes some people uncomfortable, but as Dr Awal pointed out, funerals in Ghana are hardly solemn occasions. 

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They are loud and boisterous affairs where the life of the departed and the living are celebrated with a lot of hoopla. Still, if the word is disturbing, maybe we can simply describe this kind of tourism as SOCIAL EVENTS TOURISM. 

With time, it will be shortened to social tourism to include people attending weddings, church conventions and festivals. Let us not kill a good idea with one word.

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