The record-breaking Swiss balloonist, Bertrand Piccard, embarked this week on his first trip to Latin America. But he is not travelling in his role as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, rather he will be promoting Switzerland.This content was published on June 1, 2001 - 17:12
Piccard's trip, which over the next fortnight will take him to seven countries, has been organised by Presence Switzerland, the government organisation which promotes Switzerland abroad. It clearly sees the psychiatrist and adventurer as the face of a modern and innovative country.
"I'm going to promote Switzerland's creative and pioneering spirit. I want to show that Switzerland is not just about chocolate, cows and banks. It's also a country of high-tech and entrepreneurship," Piccard told swissinfo before setting off.
This is not the first time Piccard has assumed this ambassadorial role for Presence Switzerland. He has already made similar trips to the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Germany.
Along with his British co-pilot, Brian Jones, Piccard became the first person to fly non-stop around the world in a hot-air balloon, when their Breitling Orbiter 3 touched down in the Egyptian desert in March 1999, almost 20 days after they had taken off from the Swiss resort of Chateau d'Oex.
"Breitling Orbiter is an example of the kind of spirit we're trying to promote. Switzerland is a country where there is money, so if you have big dreams, you can realise them," Piccard said.
Nine months after his epic journey, Piccard was appointed goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and a spokesman in Switzerland for the Face to Face campaign, which aims to promote women's rights around the world.
While he is ostensibly touring South America as an unofficial ambassador of Switzerland, he is aware that the countries he will be visiting are precisely the kind that stand to benefit from the UNFPA's activities. These are nations with rapidly growing populations which suffer from the health and social problems that such growth entails.
Piccard says he will take the opportunity on the trip to meet UNFPA officials and inspect their projects on the ground. He is enthusiastic about his role as goodwill ambassador for the UN Population Fund, and he will be travelling to Pakistan and Bhutan in this capacity later this year.
"Being a goodwill ambassador is a win-win situation," Piccard says.
"I was always very receptive to the problems of the world, but before I went around the world in a balloon, I had absolutely no power. Now people ask for my help, and listen to what I have to say. I can promote my ideas," he adds.
He and Brian Jones have used their celebrity to create the Winds of Hope Foundation, which they are using to raise awareness about "forgotten sufferings". The first they have directed their attention and funds at is Noma, a gangrenous condition that literally eats away the faces of children in developing countries.
Piccard makes no secret of the fact that he is hoping to use the political and business contacts he makes on his Latin American trip for the benefit of Winds of Hope.
The official part of Piccard's tour starts on Thursday with his arrival in Buenos Aires. As well as Argentina, he will also visit Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.
He will meet a number of presidents and prime ministers, as well as giving talks to political and business leaders. One of the highlights, of course, will be flying in a balloon over Inca ruins in the Peruvian Andes. His stay in Lima coincides with a Swiss week in the Peruvian capital.
Piccard, a psychiatrist by profession, has become a much sought-after speaker at conferences and seminars. He estimates that he gives around 200 speeches a year, his specialist topics being life management and how to cope with stress and crises.
Yet he is aware that the kind of ordeal he and Jones had to confront was very different to the daily problems of millions of people who live in the developing world: "We chose to take on that stress we had in the balloon. People in the poorest countries have no choice about the stress they suffer from," he says.
by Roy Probert
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