Thursday, April 08, 2010

The $1 million craze called paragliding

I went over to the Kwahu Ridge to see what the entire rave about paragliding is about and feel that the hype is justified.

Four years ago, a series of meetings were held to discuss the potential of Ghana’s hilly and mountainous areas to be harnessed for profit. The idea was to join government and corporate muscle to make a new sport on the Ghanaian scene grow.

The sport was paragliding and the Special Assistant to the Minister for Tourism at the time was Mr. Ferdinand Ayim.

Talks were swiftly transformed into action and the Easter of 2006 was penciled as the time for the first ever officially-recognized paragliding event in Ghana to be held. On his way to the place where the event was scheduled to take off, Ferdinand Ayim drove his car into a tanker at Osino, near the Kwahu Ridge area.

It was a heartbreaking death that stunned the nation. But by his death, Ferdinand Ayim became a different kind of savior to be remembered at Easter because his passing on made sure that the living could not forget the reason why it happened. And so, a year later, the ‘Ferdinand Ayim Atibie Paragliding Festival’ was held in his honour.

A fabulous activity
Nowadays when you say paragliding in Ghana, the next thing that springs to the minds of many is ‘Kwahu Easter’. I saw this year’s edition myself. I felt the euphoria. So this piece is not based on hearsay. As I saw it, hang-gliding/paragliding is an air sport powered by light aircraft that allowed participants to fly like birds. It is a bit different from parachuting but I do not think the over two hundred people who took part in this year’s event would mind at all.

A glider resembles a large kite and the rider hangs from it while descending from a height. With this year being the fifth edition in the series, the organizers have had a lot of experience with putting it together. Sabrina Krewin is an American who coordinates the activities and marketing for the festival: “This is not the first time that this is taking place so we were quite comfortable with putting it together. Being the first time the Ghana Tourist Board coordinated the event, as opposed to the Ministry of Tourism who we have been working with previously, we had a few challenges but it has been a resounding success.”

In just a few short years, the Paragliding Festival has become an integral part of the annual Easter celebrations in the Kwahu area, which is the most popular holiday season there. The festival attracts both Ghanaians and foreigners alike for days of spectacular aerial fun, ceremony and music. This year’s four days were busy for all involved and I must rate the success of the event highly.

The difference corporate muscle makes
Adom FM, an Accra-based radio station that is part of the Multimedia Group radio and TV empire, climaxed its tenth anniversary by partnering the Paragliding Festival. The result was a clear demonstration of the power of the media. Conservative informal estimates show that the media blitz increased the overall festival patronage by about 12 percent. Publicity in the print and electronic media for this year’s edition is the biggest seen in the series.

In past years, other notable sponsors of the event have included Kasapa. This time it was the red of Vodafone that took the mantle of sponsorship, while Pepsi continued its association with the event.

The companies would not disclose how much they pumped into the festival, yet the bottom line is that the amounts were clearly not enough. Don’t get me wrong, any money is good money but the companies could have done better for such a fantastic money-making machine.

Sources say that 1 million dollars per annum is not an overblown assessment of how much paragliding can bring into the nation’s coffers.

After sorting out the accommodation, transportation and miscellaneous bills of the pilots who came from more than ten countries to fly the participants, as well as the usual petty cash that goes round in events of this magnitude, much of the rest of the revenue is profit.

Now consider that access to the paragliding area costs 5 cedis while a 10 cedi charge is on each vehicle. The real flight itself would set you back 50 cedis. When you multiply that by the number of people from around the world who would troop in to take part should this be made a weekend sport, you get a feel of what the nation can make. On its own, the Paragliding Festival has the potential to make about thirty thousand dollars annually if turned into a weekend sport at Kwahu alone. Add that to the revenue to be accrued from activity-based events that would revolve around the festival in the area and, if well done, corporate involvement as well. The conclusion is clear that 1 million dollars is easily achievable.

This is especially so as other sites have been seen to have similar weather conditions suitable for the growth of the sport. Hohoe in the Volta Region and Gambaga in the north are known to be future destinations for Paragliding.

Paragliding is perhaps often viewed as a higher-risk sport than it actually is. Nonetheless, there is great potential for injury for the reckless or ill-prepared. The safety of the sport is directly influenced by the skill and sense of the pilot. I am told that almost all paragliding accidents are the result of pilot error. Paragliding equipment is very well built and, if properly cared for, will almost never fail and that is why training is necessary.

Getting there
The potential earning power I mentioned earlier would not just drop into the national coffers, no; investments have to be made. According to Sabrina Krewin, proposals would soon be sent to all stakeholders involved to discuss their plans for a smooth take off of paragliding in the country.

Meanwhile back at the festival grounds in Kwahu, certain things were visible. All the people involved in the real work of paragliding were white. Not a single Ghanaian was part of the putting things together. The organizers strongly believe that this has to change.

“We have proposed a 4- to 6-week Flying School training programme to train indigenous pilots in the art of flying. We’d like to have this in October this year, preferably in Tema in the Greater Accra region,” said Krewin.

Already this seems like an idea many are keen on.

When I spoke to some Ghanaians who took part in the flying as passengers, they expressed their delight in partaking in the Flying School programme. That would be awesome because then it would mean that Ghana can soon join the elite community of paragliding nations.

I have assured that it is not difficult and is actually rewarding as the organizers claim the experience of flying ‘changes ones whole outlook to life.’

International attention
The goal is to get Ghana’s paragliding events as part of the calendar of internationally known paragliding ‘places to be’. Some of the well-known ones are the X’Alps Red Bull Challenge, Wagas Festival (France), Flypa Festival (Spain) and so on.

It is estimated that of the tourists who visited Ghana last year, most of them are engaged in sight-seeing only and it is widely accepted that an increase in tourist figures can be achieved with an equal increase in the number of activity-based events. This means that having a place like Cape Coast Castle, for example, is not enough.

The theory is that to make more money out of a place like the Cape Coast Castle, live cannons (for example) should be made available to tourists for them to have a feel of what colonial life was like. Of course, it will not be free.

The same idea drives the Atibie Paragliding Festival. Hundreds of people have made the Kwahu area their focal point for the yearly Easter festivities. Yet, with the sport of paragliding available to augment the spectacular landscape of the area, it means that the many local and foreign tourists would not leave Kwahu with only large helpings of fufu and ‘akrantie’ in their bellies. The food would last for a few days but the memory of competing with birds in the thermals above would last for a lifetime. And that is not an exaggeration.

More information on potential deals and sponsorship opportunities can be had from the Ministry of Tourism, the Ghana Tourist Board or the website for the Ghana paragliding fraternity which is