Ethiopia and a few other African countries are leveraging on tourism and aviation to grow their economy, while Nigeria, still contributes less than one percent to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In an interview with Ifeoma Okeke in Ethiopia, Ikechi Uko, a travel expert speaks of how best to address this challenge in Nigeria. Excerpts.
Ethiopia has lots of huge tourism attractions and rich histories which they have been able to harness to enhance economic growth. Nigeria also has rich histories but has still not been able to showcase these to the rest of the world. What is Nigeria not doing right?
Ethiopia probably has an advantage because they have the greatest number of world heritage sights in Africa. The world has been able to recognize that there is something about Ethiopia that is unique. They have written history longer than us. They are quoted in the bible and in the Quran. So, they already established history about them all over. Nigeria has advantages over Ethiopia which we haven’t used.
We could say their own is working for them because it is already written for them, so they are just exploiting it. Are we making any effort to exploit our own? There is a national policy about aviation and tourism in Ethiopia. It is this national policy that drives Ethiopia. There is a national policy about aviation in most East African countries. It is this policy that is driving the tourism. The tour operators say that Uganda was charging $100 for visa and they protested and the government dropped it.
Kenya was complaining that the minister was not promoting tourism and the president changed the minister. Tourism is vital for those countries. In Nigeria, tourism has not proved itself vital for the whole economy that is why Nigeria has not given it attention. You could see a state like Cross River, here tourism is important. Once there is a little bit of violence everybody starts screaming in the state and the government will parade with military men, trying to show up confidence because tourism is important to them. So, there has been no national effort to drive, promote and organise tourism as a business in Nigeria. That is where we are.
How best do you think we can practically address this challenge, looking at what Ethiopia is doing right?
People are discussing and raising issues that the private sector is organising itself and there are things that need to be done by government and before five years time, we might get on the path but those things cannot be done in isolation. First we are a country and people are coming to our country, so our country has to have an image and a set of things that will make it appealing. So, there is no national master plan and no consensus on what we should be selling. There is no agreement on the products Nigeria should concentrate on. A country like Rwanda sells mainly gorillas. They have actually doubled the price of their gorilla to $1,500 from $750.
They make over $400million from just one product. So now they are trying to diversify, they are doing tree houses, they hired lions from other countries to put in their national park. There is a concerted plan to grow tourism. Ethiopia had just relied on its airline to drive its tourism but now, they are beginning to market tourism. We are in Ethiopia because Ethiopia airline is organising familiarization trip. Nigeria has never organized familiarization trips, even for Nigeria media or the tour operators.
The familiarization trips are organized by private organisations like my own organisation, like Cross River government and few others. We want to get results without doing the right things. We expect that these things will happen naturally but there has to be a plan. We have to identify what the products we as Nigerians want to sell and how we can sell it? You only bring in CNN probably when countries have crisis. That is the last part of your plan. There are set of things that need to be done before going to expose a campaign.
The biggest problem I have seen is that you appoint people into government who believe that tourism is easy so they spend four years figuring out that tourism is not easy and after they have finished learning and their term expires, they go and another person comes and start something else. Meanwhile there are quite a number of people in Nigeria who have been doing this for ages. Government has the right to appoint anyone they want and when the person comes up, you will ask the people what can be done. In the last six years, there has never been a time the government of Nigeria has called private sector people and asked them what Nigeria should market.
How do we market Nigeria? Who do we market Nigeria to? This has never been done. Even if government is smart and figures out what to do, who is going to implement it? So if government is smart, government needs these people to implement it and if government is smart and is not working with the people, government cannot do it. Government cannot be a tour operator, hotelier and run airline at the same time. There are people who are specialized in different areas. For me, the first step is to begin to get the right people. We need to look at what Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries that are excelling in aviation do.
Do you think aviation and tourism should be under one ministry?
I am one of the few people that play well in aviation and also in tourism and I can tell you a lot of people in both industries misunderstand the two businesses. People in aviation see aviation as a technical thing so they will always tell me I am not in core aviation and that is stupid. Aviation is what provides service for the travellers. Air transport will either carry cargo passengers or for military purposes. When you now talk about the travellers and the people, the travel aspect of it is tourism. For most people in Nigeria, that doesn’t count. Pick any Nigerian paper; 90percent of the story on aviation is on the other part of providing services such as the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, (FAAN), Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, (NCAA) and others. The most important reason why you have an airport is the passengers and that is what we need to concentrate on but these are the people we concentrate the least on. Instead of concentrating on dealing with the passenger aspect of it, we do not do that. The people who say they want aviation and tourism under one ministry are talking about that aspect where tourism and aviation meet, which is the airport environment. This won’t work in Nigeria because 98percent of the people in aviation are not interested in what happens to the passengers. They are interested in what happens in the other aspect of it, if not, most of our budget will go into making our airport passenger friendly. Aviation in Nigeria is running without the passenger, as the passengers’ needs are the least.
For tourism, the tourism people see tourism differently. They do not see it as travel business. All tourists are travellers but not all travelers are tourists. So tourism should be a ministry on its own. Aviation can be a department under transport. Aviation ought not to be a ministry; it ought to be regulated by NCAA. As it is now, there is confusion. If there is a ministry, the job of NCAA is to regulate. NCAA ought to be cooperating and be on the board of the tourism organisation or the ministry. The ideal thing for me to see in Nigeria is to have ministry of tourism that has culture in it and see a ministry of transport that has a department of aviation and has NCAA that is autonomous and independent. Tourism will work well with this organisation.
The ministry of tourism is supposed to coordinate the affairs of everything about tourism in Nigeria. There is also a problem with the Supreme Court judgement that says that tourism is a business of states not federal government. This creates another problem. In Nigeria, our tourism is not based on wildlife. So, national parks are under environment but if our tourism was based on wildlife, national parks should be under the ministry of tourism. Culture should be under the ministry of tourism. If there is ministry of tourism, the minister will deal with all these people together. He will be the policy maker and NCAA will regulate. So, in Nigeria I cannot see how tourism and aviation will work together.
How do you think we can use the aviation sector to drive tourism in Nigeria?
We can ride on the back of aviation to grow tourism because the passengers’ saved tax is supposed to help grow tourism. We could also use it to drive other things. United Kingdom started their airport departure tax for places of more than four hours. Africa wanted to start a 10percent tax on aviation too and use it to grow tourism and fund the African Union (AU) but international organizations fought against this. So for Nigeria, tourism needs to be supported because when tourism grows, aviation grows.