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Promoting Tourism As Alternative To Dependence On Oil by Sagewonders(m) : 3:07 pm On Feb 22, 2016
Pat Utomi was the keynote speaker at the recently held national conference on tourism convened by the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators in Calabar. Along with other speakers, he proffered solutions to help resuscitate Nigeria’s ailing tourism industry, reports Demola Ojo
“In the quest for diversification, everybody is talking about agriculture, about mining but nobody is talking about tourism. Diversification is not an electric light switch. You don’t just turn it on and it goes to mining, or press the switch button and it goes to agriculture. Before the mining industry can contribute anything to our economy, it will take at least 15 years. So you have to look towards the low-hanging fruits.”
These are the words of renowned economist, Prof Pat Utomi. The former presidential aspirant was the keynote speaker at a national tourism conference convened recently by the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP) in Calabar on the occasion of NATOP’s AGM.
Other speakers at the event attended by major stakeholders in Nigeria’s tourism industry were the DG of the National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC), Mrs Dayo Keshi and the President of NATOP, Nkewerem Onung. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and Cross River State Governor Ben Ayade also spoke through their respective representatives.
The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better; it was a welcome reminder that practitioners within the industry are trudging on in defiance of the ‘body language’ of the current government which points towards tourism being relegated, or ‘orphaned’ in the words of industry commentators. The hitherto stand-alone ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation created in 1999 is no more.
Calabar was also deliberately chosen as the venue for the conference. Cross River State is unarguably number one in the ranking of states promoting tourism as a means of alternative revenue and employment generation.
It was the appropriate time and place to trump up the import and relevance of the tourism industry to Nigeria’s economy. NATOP President Onung acknowledged as much.
“This conference has come at the right time when it appears that tourism is not a priority on the agenda of the present administration which is demonstrated by the scrapping of the Federal Ministry of Tourism,” Onung said in his opening remarks.
“It is also necessitated by the fact that despite the potential of Nigerian tourism, our policy makers have not seen it as an alternative to oil with an earning capacity of over $7 billion. According to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) records, $1.5 billion was spent on international ticketing in 2013 alone.”
Back to Utomi. The co-founder of the Lagos Business School was brutally blunt when he said, “The collapse of oil prices is a gift from heaven.” He has been an advocate of diversifying the base of the economy for years he asserted.
However, the convergence of two forces - the new change mantra pervasive in the polity and oil prices going south - presents another opportunity to chart the best way forward.
He went down memory lane to the fifties and sixties, describing how Nigeria’s federating units developed through a concept defined by some American scholars as competitive communalism.
All those gains came crashing down when “idealistic soldiers” took over the reins of power, just about the same time of the oil boom.
“We’ve systematically killed off what the country used to be,” he said, lamenting the death of the theatre culture in Nigeria. One of the surest ways back, he posited, is what he refers to as the commercialization of culture.
Prof Utomi has reached the top in several different endeavours, becoming one of Nigeria’s top managers in manufacturing before his 33rd birthday, reaching a presidential advisory position at 27; earning two Master Degrees and a PhD at 26, and professorship and global acknowledgement as a leading scholar in business, political economy and media studies in his forties. He has global leaders and policy makers as friends. He knows a thing or two about mining.
“Kayode Fayemi, the Minister of Solid Minerals is a friend of mine. As we speak, he’s on his way back from the mining Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. I was supposed to be at that conference. Later this month, I will be a guest of the government of Australia.” Top of the agenda is mining.
“The type of work we need to do before we even start to discuss mining; the time, the investment, the infrastructure, is such that to be obsessed with mining, thinking that we want to switch to mining is to misunderstand the concept of diversification.
“Even agriculture that we’ve lived with all our lives, will take a while. Akin Adesina who was minister of Agriculture did a lot. A couple of years ago, we had a marathon discussion of about five hours talking agriculture and the things that need to be done. He only scratched the surface of one part, the corruption in the fertilizer business. Then he began to set targets. Agriculture might move faster than mining, but there are lower hanging fruits, the area of - I like to call it—selling culture,” the scholar said.
“I’ve tried to get conversations going in that area over the years. More than twenty years ago, I propounded the idea that selling culture could earn Nigeria more money than oil. When I was talking about it, people said I was crazy,” he revealed. “But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we don’t realise how much more we can earn from this industry.”
Utomi touched on a few aspects that could help Nigeria generate revenue from tourism going forward. He zeroed in on Nigeria’s ample coastline, ‘’…stretching from Badagry all the way here (to Calabar).”
He continued, “Do you know the number of people that come from Europe to Gambia to sit on those beaches that are not half as nice as the beaches that we have here?”
He compared Gambia’s “bungalow airport” to the “monstrosity” called Murtala Muhammed International in Lagos. However the attitude of officials at the point of entry makes all the difference. The experience of most visitors coming through MMIA is enough to dissuade a repeat visit.
“Our immigration officers need to be helped. Airports need to be places of welcome,” he said. “A service culture needs to be built.” He emphasized the need to focus on delighting people, not making money.
Utomi enjoined tourism practitioners to creatively solve tourism problems. For example, traffic to TINAPA in Calabar could be increased by linking it to the Le Meridien Ibom resort through the river that links both points. The men can play golf, while their families take a refreshing both trip to what was conceived as a shopping and entertainment destination.
Still on ideas for TINAPA and Calabar as a whole, Utomi believes tourism will only take-off in earnest if Calabar is a regional hub that links West Africa to Central and East Africa.
“There should be 40 to 50 flights coming into Calabar daily, rather than the four or five we have presently.”
Still on the subject of ways forward, NATOP President Onung said, “We believe that Nigeria can have a visa regime that encourages tourists to Nigeria.” He continued by advocating for a “National carrier that is partially privatized and fully commercialized with a mandate for national development.”
In his remarks, Lai Mohammed revealed the position of government. “A key aspect of this administration’s policy thrust is the development of the non-oil sector of the economy which was hitherto neglected. I am therefore glad that this conference has been initiated as one of the platforms that will further the discussion on this issue.”
According to him, in other to boost tourism and give it the needed impetus to contribute to Nigeria’s GDP, government has decided to list tourism among the six priority sectors of the economy. Other initiatives include, a review of the National Tourism Policy of 1990, provision of attractive incentives for prospective investors, and launching of the Nigerian Tourism Development Plan.
“In the days ahead, we will be bringing all stakeholders together, also here in Calabar, to chart a definite path forward,” he promised.
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