Eugene O. Nwauzi is the Chairman, Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria [FTAN] Rivers State Chapter, and also the State Chairman of Nigeria Hotel Association [NHA]. In this interview with Lucky Onoriode George, African Travel Times /Publisher/Editor in Port Harcourt, he bares his mind on the several issues militating a productive and prosperous travel and tourism industry in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Scrapping of the Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation is not a big deal, but that it was done shortly after a tourism practitioner concluded his tourism as minister, Edem Duke, where did we get it wrong?
I was not surprised though because before the creation of the current Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Rivers State, there was Ministry of Information and Culture of which tourism only existed as a department and yet things were still taken care of.
Sincerely, there is no big deal, hence the reason was to maximize our resource and with tourism now under information and culture, I am of the opinion that there would be a better working relationship, rather than the initial rivalry that was therein in the old ministry.
Concerning the behaviour and performance of the former minister, I don’t want to dissipate my energy talking about his tenure anymore. However, my major regret was his inability to get tourism a representation at the last confab which every sector of the Nigerian economy was represented, except tourism.
So regretful because till date, the travel and tourism sector still remain the highest employer of labour nationwide; ahead of government and oil and gas put together.
With economic crisis starring us in the face, I have no doubt that tourism is once again ‘low hanging fruit we can easily harvest’ to create jobs at the moment. If we are dreaming to industrialise or even going into mechanised farming, the aforementioned will still take a while because those equipment and industries would be built from the scratch.
In fact, there are some states in the Niger Delta here that their main industry is hospitality business. No manufacturing business or anything close to that, which is one of the reason we are calling on the federal government to give us the large chunk of the N200 billion intervention funds, that it said is set aside for the travel and tourism industry and see what will happen within a short period of time, because we are all capable of paying back within a short time.
No hotelier, restaurant owner or fast food operator that would not want to pay back provided the interest rate is pegged at single digit, as has been done for the other sectors in the past.
Imagine the huge amount that was given to Nollywood that is part of entertainment and an insignificant part of the tourism sector. The question is, what was done with the several millions of dollars given to the Nollywood guys? Was it for campaign or what? If it was for campaign, there are more hoteliers and tourism operators nationwide.
Imagine the numbers of operators campaigning for a governor or president, he or she would have been home drive.
One of the reasons why I think Jonathan lost the last election was the beef against him by operators. Imagine the travel and tourism industry campaigning and voting for him?
Imagine operators getting loans at 22 per cent? Though one of the banks promised 18 per cent which has not materialised though; just as we have the issue of C of O because for several years now here in Rivers State, the government has not issued C of O and it’s one of the major requirements of the banks.
What should the current Minister, Lai Mohammed start with?
First and foremost, the new minister must fight for tourism intervention fund for the sector, if he’s to make impact and leave a legacy at the end of his tenure. Without mincing words, we need 80 per cent of the N200 billion set aside for intervention in the 2016 budget.
Why should tourism alone get that much?
The reason is simple because most sectors of the economy have been given under the former regime. Textile, manufacturing, agriculture have all received. Again, such should go through the Bank of Industry so that operators can access the funds.
If you go round most of hotels in Rivers State and across the country, they cannot afford to change their linings or bed spreads regularly due to poor business environment.
Most recently, the era of kidnapping is back in our lexicon and even public servants are no longer safe. They are randomly kidnapped on daily basis and they are going into hiding.
Does that mean we are back in the past again?
The situation is worse than when we had the issue of militancy. Ask anyone in Rivers State. I am calling on the current governor to also call on the same God that the former governor [ChibuikeAmeachi] called on once again for His Majesty’s intervention, because the issue of militancy was not solved by military process alone.
Go round our hotels now and you will be shocked that we hardly have up to 30 per cent occupancy now. Times are really hard.
For almost a year and half now, business nose-dived due to pre-election, elections and the many negative utterances that followed.
For your information, most of the oil companies have moved their workers to Lagos and now shuttle between their rigs and Lagos due to insecurity.
It’s a tragedy. Now, hospitality business is booming in Lagos, whereas here in Port Harcourt, we are crying.
Worst still, information we are getting is that, some countries insurance companies in the last few years approach Nigerian High Commissions and Embassies, especially, the United Kingdom not to issue a visa to any British coming to Port Harcourt, except to Abuja and Lagos, saying they cannot bear the risk.
Is the state government aware and what is Wike’s regime doing about the volatile insecurity?
Well, the state is aware and they have been on radio and television, telling people that the government is on top of it. Besides, we also read in the media that the security agencies have been very active in the last few weeks combing hide outs and arresting some suspected criminals to douse the situation.
It’s only God that can help our situation, and we are calling on Governor Wike to please do same because most hotels have not been able to pay their workers and suppliers are also being owned too.
The aforementioned was the main subject of discussion at our meeting recently, because every one of us, big, medium and small is feeling the pain. Now that the Supreme Court had cleared the only outstanding issues, we are expecting that things will be better from this point.
However, we are having issues with the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency [NESREA] coming for hotel inspection. This is the first time they are coming forward and we have written to both the state and federal ministry of health respectively that were hitherto doing this and still doing so.
We are also going to write to Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria [FTAN] and the Nigeria Hotel Association [NHA] national, for them to find out what is the true position and sudden involvement of NESREA in inspecting hospitality establishments.
Already, we are over taxed and with the pushing from NESREA, we are also mindful that it might come with a form of tax again. With that in mind, operators are worried that they have not received any support from the federal, states and even local governments, hence the resentment of not wanting to accommodate any tax again.
Impression of tourism nationally now?
Presently, nothing is really happening at the national level, which is why we are planning Niger Delta Tourism Summit, through which we can attract investors because we are aware of the appetite and desire of the Middle East people to invest in the sector.
So, we want to bring people together to showcase our untapped tourism potentials in this part of Nigeria that has received little or no tourism attention except for oil and gas exploration business over the years.
To make it a success, we are mobilising the state governments and the Niger Delta Development Commission [NDDC] and other relevant agencies among others.
What should be the role of the private sector at this time?
I am calling on FTAN at the national level to mobilise all tourism related bodies to be part of it. Fashion Designers, Film Makers and Nollywood sector because they have all joined FTAN here in Rivers State.
We are also bringing the airport car hire service operators on board, transport companies; we will educate them, register hotels because Rivers State government did not register any hotel. Time past, business owners only did Corporate Affairs Commission [CAC] registration which is why it’s difficult today to know the exact number of hotels in the state.
However, we are working with the state government to formally begin the progress which will not only help provided the needed data, it would also help security wise and generate some cash for the government.
How many hotels are in operations in Rivers State?
There are close to 600 hotels of different categories in operation in the state, but those that are FTAN members are well above 200.