ACCRA (Reuters) - While political protests blight Kenya, Ghana will polish its image as a tourism and investment destination when it hosts the 2008 African Nations Cup soccer finals starting on Sunday.
Staging Africa's most prestigious sporting event will cast a positive international spotlight on the small but stable West African state when much of the world's poorest continent is still convulsed by conflict, disease and poverty.
Organizers hope the event will also shower as much as $1 billion on Ghana's fast-growing economy, mostly through the tourism, service and advertising sectors but also trickling down to taxi drivers and street vendors selling food and trinkets.
"Almost everybody, every community is benefiting," Ghana's Finance Minister Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu said in an interview with Reuters in London this week.
He said the country, which has hosted the African Nations Cup finals three times and won four times, would try to use the income to generate more economic activity and prepare to stage even more prestigious international events.
Ghana would bid in coming decades to host the African Games, the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics and the World Cup, he said.
"We are now in the spotlight of the world -- it's a rare image-building opportunity," said Fred Pappoe, vice-chairman of the Ghana Football Association (GFA).
He described the three-week tournament, which will be played in the capital and three other venues, as a "massive feast" for soccer fans and ordinary Ghanaians.
Excited crowds are already filling the streets of Accra, Kumasi, Sekondi and Tamale, many of them youthful souvenir sellers anxious to make a quick buck by hawking an array of soccer jerseys, T-shirts, mugs and key-rings.
Buildings across the country, from government offices to shacks in the shantytowns, have sprouted Ghana's red, gold and green flag with its distinctive black star as Ghanaians hope their "Black Stars" team can win the Cup for a fifth time.
With Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy, gripped by unrest, Ghana in the west is riding a tide of confidence and optimism after celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence last year and hosting an African Union heads of state summit in July.
Prospects for economic growth -- forecast at 7 percent for 2008 -- have been buoyed by an expected strong cocoa harvest in the world's No. 2 grower and high prices for gold in Africa's second biggest producer. Ghana also looks to join the club of African oil producers after an offshore discovery last year.
A highly successful $750 million debut Eurobond issue in 2007, more than four times oversubscribed, put Ghana even more firmly on the radar of emerging market investors.
Ghanaian hoteliers are rubbing their hands at the prospect of windfall earnings from a projected 1 million visitors during the Jan 20-Feb 10 African Nations Cup finals.
"Ghana and her tourist facilities are being well exposed to not only Africa, but the entire world ... we expect there will be follow-up visits," Bridget Katsriku, chief director at the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations, told Reuters.
Taxi drivers were also hoping for a bonanza.
"I see this as my chance to pay off the money (I owe) and own this car at last," said Tsatsu Nyamekeh, a 37-year-old taxi driver, who said he had been struggling to support his family and settle outstanding debts.
"Yes! The cabbie will make a little more money, there'll be brisk business for the prostitute, and so much demand for food, so generally, the economy will receive additional money," said leading Ghanaian economist Nii Moi Thompson.
The Tourism Ministry and the National AIDS Commission said they would collaborate to try to control the spread of HIV during the tournament. Anticipating a local sex trade boom, condoms would be distributed free in hotels in the venue cities.
Thompson questioned how big and far-reaching the expected boost to the economy would be, but he recognized it was an important showcase opportunity. "It's the best thing happening to the country right now," he said.
Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn in London; Editing by Pascal Fletcher