Everything feels different here in Ghana.
That is part of the lure for a growing number of travelers to this West African nation.
Dawn breaks with faint strains of drums, singing and traditional worship. The tropical air carries the perfume of palm leaves, a scent that soaks clothing, papers and every home.
The beaches are vast, and the warm ocean feels like bath water. The pace is slow, and people seem incapable of worry.
It is this otherworldly feel, coupled with Ghana's rich history, that draws an increasing number of vacationers each year. If they haven't come for the beaches, they've come to see the slave castles, hulking structures along Ghana's coast where captured Africans were kept for shipment to Europe and America. They also come to visit Kumasi, the seat of the Ashanti Kingdom and the birthplace of yellow and green kente cloth.
The Ghana Tourist Board was taken off-guard by the tourism boom. Now, it is hustling to publish maps, attract new hotels and print glossy brochures.
Group tours have been on the rise for the last two years, said Dorothy Prempeh, who manages the front office of the Hotel Shangri-La in Accra, the capital. "They've been flocking in," she said. In 1985, Ghana played host to 85,000 foreign tourists. Each year since, tourism has grown steadily, with 286,000 tourists coming in 1995, an increase of 235 percent over the course of a decade. Tourism brings in $160 million a year, which can have a huge effect on a developing country, said Edward Komla, deputy director of the tourist board.
"What has come to Ghana is political stability and improvement in the economy and the actions the public sector is taking to market tourism abroad," Komla said.
Lamar Richardson of Detroit's Lifestyles Tours, which specializes Ghana, said: "When we started doing tours in the 1970s, there was virtually no tourism going into Ghana. There were years when we were the only visitors that brought foreigners into the country."
Richardson approached the tourist board and suggested the agency begin seeing Ghana in a new light -- as a hot tourism commodity.
"African-Americans are coming to Africa for the history more than the sightseeing," said Richardson, whose wife, Lydia, co-owns the agency and is from Accra.
Things aren't perfect -- about a third of the nation's people live in poverty, and illiteracy affects more than half the population -- but they are getting better.
In 1992, the country converted to constitutional rule and held its first democratic presidential and parliamentary elections. Since 1983, when the government entered into a recovery program, the economy has grown by about 5 percent each year. Government rules have been eased to attractforeign investment. And government leaders have traveled to the United States and Europe to sell Ghana as a vacation destination.
Ghana has the third-fastest tourism growth rate in all of Africa, behind Namibia and South Africa, the tourist board says.
Tourists come chiefly from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Asia and west Africa. African-Americans seeking to learn about their heritage make up the majority of American tourists, Komla said.
Known as the Gold Coast when it was a British colony, Ghana originally drew the attention of Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries for its storehouses of gold and ivory. In time, the Europeans found slaves more lucrative. They built dozens of stone forts that still stand along West Africa's coast, the majority in Ghana, to hold their human cargoes.
At Cape Coast and Elmina, coastal fishing towns about 60 and 75 miles, respectively, west of Accra, guides will walk you through dark dungeons where slaves were held in chains.
Although no records exist, it is believed that the ancestors of most African-Americans passed through Ghana as slaves.
Serene, pretty beaches
Many of Ghana's beaches are serene and picturesque, lorded over by towering palm trees. Others, like Coco Beach or Labadi Pleasure Beach, both in greater Accra, bustle with live music and dancing, food and swarms of bathers. In fact, Labadi on a weekend will remind you of any mall in America -- a place where people go to relax and teens go through their mating rituals.
Ghana's history includes strong connections to African-Americans and black people around the globe.
The late Kwame Nkrumah opened his arms to African-Americans after winning his country's independence and becoming Ghana's first president in 1957.
Many came, including African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who died in 1963 and whose home in Accra's bucolic Cantonments section is a museum.
Although the Ghanaian government removed many of Du Bois' belongings after Nkrumah's overthrow in 1966, visitors can see the robes from Du Bois' numerous honorary degrees or read penciled pages from a boyhood diary. Du Bois is buried on the site. Stevie Wonder fans will get a charge out of the floral donation he left.
Ghanaian food strongly resembles Caribbean fare. Rice and shellfish are widely available. Try the yams, which are a different plant species from the sweet potatoes that Americans often call yams. Fried plantains are also popular, as is ground-nut stew, a nutty sauce sometimes served with chicken.
Fufu, a staple, is a paste made from ground cassava that is eaten with ground-nut stew and other sauces.
Ghanaians take pride in two beers bottled at the Accra brewery: Club and Star. Both are strong, flavorful and widely available.
Getting around can be difficult.
RTC You can rent a car in Accra, and many rental agencies include drivers in the cost. Taxis are widely available, but be ready to negotiate price. You can also get around by tro-tro, vans that serve as public transportation, but the ride is pretty bumpy.
The greater Accra area has a range of hotels and guest houses. The luxury Labadi Beach Hotel is the tourist board's pride and joy. The oceanfront resort is Accra's only five-star hotel.
The Golden Tulip is another spot favored by the luxury crowd, while the Novotel, in the heart of downtown, is air-conditioned, pleasant, comfortable and cheaper. Local tour guides like to recommend the Shangri-La because it is well-maintained and African-owned.
If you go
Sources of information on traveling to Ghana include:
The Ghana Embassy, Washington, (202) 686-4520, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays
Mission to Ghana, New York, (212) 832-1300, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays
Tourist Board, Accra, Ghana, 011-233-21-222-153, 4: 30 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays
Pub Date: 8/04/96