Nkereuwem Onung is the newly elected first National Deputy President of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria [FTAN]. Besides, he is a foremost Tour Operator in the country and Founder of Remlords Tours with head office in Calabar and offices in Lagos and Abuja. He is also the president of National Association of Nigeria Tour Operators [NATOP], one of the most important tourism subsectors in the travel and tourism industry.
In this interview with Lucky Onoriode George, Publisher/Editor of African Travel Times Magazine, he proffers solutions on how to make tourism more relevant and contribute to national economy.
I will not localise this interview to what is currently happening in Cross River State or the Niger Delta region alone, but nationally, what is the state of the tourism industry in Nigeria?
The already unhealthy tourism industry is even more threatened by the on-going rhetoric of words between some uninformed youths, saying one part of the people should leave their areas or the other. To leave the union is a pointer to the world that Nigeria is a fragile place and unstable, which is regrettably very sad.
This is the time that Nigeria should be harnessing its tourism potentials. Unfortunately, those youths drumming this rhetoric are people that have not witnessed the pains of war, hence they are speaking out of ignorance and I very much doubt it, if the political class will ever let it happened. Those statements are made out of frustration and poverty.
Coming back to tourism issues proper, I am really encouraged by the two recent appointments by government; the new heads of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation [NTDC] and National Council for Arts and Culture [NCAC], were good efforts that could help ginger the sector because of their respective previous experiences; we have to get going marketing Nigeria as a destination internationally.
I am of the opinion that we have to experiment with our packaging; let’s see how we can do them because since Otunba Segun Runsewe left NTDC in 2013, Nigeria has not really done any serious marketing and promotion anywhere.
Attempt has been made since to focus on domestic tourism, which sadly again has not changed the fortune of the sector locally, and I am of the school of thought that it’s when you go out marketing and promoting what you have, that those interested will turn up either as tourists or investors.
Again, people like yourself that has been championing travel and tourism information dissemination in the past few years through your specialised publications and your recent book, ‘Nigeria: A Holiday Guide’should be supported and encouraged to make such publications available for people to read them because of the deep knowledge you and few others have about the sector locally and internationally.
I am sure you saw what we did at NATOP Annual General Meeting/Conference recently in Lagos that we deliberately brought in some young people that are on their own, doing so much to promote and spread the gospel of tourism in their environment.
These young men in Enugu, Akwa Ibom and a lady in Lagos are doing so much, and I think people like them should be encouraged to continue what they are doing. Not just that, I am also looking forward to the director general of the NTDC coming up with a programme that can encourage the old and up-coming people in the industry.
We were in Ghana recently, and we noticed that all the buses that were used by the Tour Operators were purchased with the help of the Tourism Development Fund.
Again that brings us to the issue of statistics, which you have always emphasised.
Because the government and its agencies don’t have full understanding of the calculus and tourism contributions to the economy, it has not been given proper recognition and it’s one of the reasons that practitioners must continue to call for a full fledged tourism ministry, because that is the only way some level of recognition can be accorded the sector.
What can be done for government to recognise tourism contribution to Gross Domestic Products [GDP]?
That is where people like you [media] comes in, because the advocacy must continue with intelligent and quality arguments why tourism matters and what it has been contributing and what it can still contribute.
The various associations must create value and add values to their partners; which has been one reason we have been able and regularly pull off successful conferences and annual general meetings as NATOP over the years.
Same goes for NANTA, because they have been able to structure that association and that they can easily add values to their partners, because without value, no association can just walk into a bank or any other organisation for that matter and demand sponsorship, because no association can survive on subscription alone.
For instance, International Air Transport Association [IATA], airlines, banks and even insurance companies would always want to support travel agencies. Unlike NATOP, there is even a dichotomy between the hoteliers and us, because there is no working relationship which I believed FTAN should have been able to establish over the years, but why it was not done is baffling.
We have a body that controls hotels, travel agencies and NATOP in one federation, and we cannot put in place an acceptable rate that would enable the tour companies’ package inexpensive tours across those safe zones in the country, still beats all imaginations.
The states should own their assets, and states like Akwa Ibom and Cross River that have invested heavily on tourism must as a matter of responsible governments, market and promote those assets for patronage.
It’s not just enough to build infrastructure and abandoned them, they must be put into use; that is why it’s sad to see places like TINAPA and Obudu Mountain Resort that are almost abandoned today.
Initially, I suggested that NATOP should go ahead and commission a study to evaluate statistically, what tourism contributes to the GDP, but now that you have been elected First Deputy Vice President of FTAN, is it a doable programme now under the federation?
Yes, it’s possible, but a direct engagement with the National Bureau of Statistics [NBS] to ask the salient questions; what are the challenges facing the agency? What can tourism private sector do to assist it? And what collaboration is possible so that the facts and figures are established?
Succinctly put, it’s possible because if NBS has the right information as you have rightly educated people that the United Nations Statistical Committee since 2002, put in place structure on how to calculate tourism earnings will help.
No matter what we do on our own as private sector, if it does not come from the NBS, government will not still take it seriously.
What is Tourism Satellite Account [TSA]?
Tourism Satellite Account [TSA] is a standard statistical framework, and the main tool for the economic measurement of tourism which regrettably has not been deployed in Nigeria.
It helps measure the size of economic sectors that are not defined as industries in the national accounts. Like we all know that tourism is an amalgam of industries such as transportation, accommodation, food and beverage services, recreation, entertainment and travel agencies/tour operators.
With the TSA, governments and entrepreneurs and the general public will be better equipped for designing better public policies and business strategies for tourism, and for evaluating their effectiveness and efficiencies.
From the documents produced by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation [UNWTO] that I have read, there are partners that produce the TSA. They are national tourism administration, National Statistics Office, the Central Bank and Tourism Enterprises.
According to the document too, it was emphasised that the National Statistics Office equivalent of our own National Bureau of Statistics [NBS], is responsible for producing basic statistics, but also because it is, generally speaking, responsible for preparing a country’s national accounts and on occasion, the Balance of Payment [BOP].
In view of the aforementioned, where do we start from?
Again, the leadership of NTDC has been talking of much emphasis on domestic tourism, however, not much of marketing and promotion have been done locally. I will be waiting to see the corporation blue print on achieving that objective.
Not just on domestic tourism, but also what they would package for their first international outing. I know of families that used to go abroad every year for summer, but last year because of the economic situation, they opted for Abuja with their families for a week or so where they stayed in hotels, and I can confirm to you that those families enjoyed it.
We need more Nigerians to take their holidays locally, again, the NTDC, the states and local council areas where manageable alternative are, will have to up their games in terms of promotion, marketing and development.
For the domestic tourism promotion issue not to just remain a mere slogan, people must be taught or equipped with the culture first, because without proper understanding through education, all the efforts may just be in vain.
To achieve that, National Institute of Hospitality and Tourism [NIHOTOUR] must do more than just presenting a bill to the national assembly. As for the NTDC, they will have to come up with their own programme that can convince us all.
It’s also no longer news that the NTDC is not well funded, what is responsible and what can be done to change the rhetoric is also a major task, because the corporation has to be well funded.
NATOP as an association has a relationship with South African Tourism [SAT], and they regularly collaborate with us that we have been criticised for by some people. Globally, countries market themselves as destination to markets they have identified to generates tourists for their country.
The NTDC if well-funded and the leadership designed, products or packages, Nigeria can also go to South Africa or any other country for that matter to do Road Shows.
What is the role of a national carrier in all these?
A national carrier is at the heart of everything you do in travel and tourism industry. For instance, South African Airways and South Africa Tourism, partner to sell their country as a destination, Kenyan Airways and Kenyan Tourism do same and so is Rwanda Tourism with Rwand Air.
For us in Nigeria, we need a national carrier like yesterday. Sometimes the benefits of having an airline goes beyond profit, but national image, prestige and convenience for the populations of that country.
Nigeria is one of the most expensive destinations in the world today because we rely on others for almost all our international travels. It’s really a shame and troubling to some of us.
Once again, the issue of national carrier is not negotiable. Though the carrier might not be wholly owned by government, but it must be done sooner than later.
In the hospitality industry, government took the lead and the transition from public to been privatised has worked, why not in the aviation industry?
Unfortunately, the transition that worked in the hospitality industry did not work in the aviation industry, probably because the Nigerian leadership of that sector is too localised.
For the hospitality industry, the involvement of the international management companies is germane; the likes of Hilton International with Hilton Hotel, Abuja, Sheraton International with Sheraton Abuja and Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos that lasted the distance as well as Eko Hotel, Lagos.
The above names were all government establishments that went being public to private sector managed businesses. They succeeded as some analysts would say, because of some international management company’s involvement.
They pointed out to the ones that were operated locally by individuals that bought them under the privatisation, and faded away.
The likes of NICON Luxury Abuja that was Le Meridien and several others that have remained under civil servant’s management or state that own them managing directly, have all failed.
Despite the failures, I can tell you that lessons have been learnt, because the Bureau Public Enterprises [BPEs], should understand that ‘clause’ has to be put in place for future privatisations.
It’s not just in the hospitality and aviation sectors alone, but same misfortune also affected all privatised government enterprises at the federal and state levels.
Leisure travel worldwide is driven by tour operators, unlike business travel. Because Nigeria is a business destination, it favours the travel agencies that have now assume they are the driver of the tourism industry which is very wrong.
We need our national carrier that would open up intra-travel between those routes and our dear country.
Leisure tourism is usually mass or large numbers of people travelling mostly for the sole purpose of relaxation or recreational reason only … and it’s the tour operators that are responsible for that worldwide.
We have spoken of the big players that use the national carrier to push their tourism assets, and the small nation of Gambia is also about opening a route into Nigeria to facilitate movement of would-be visitors from Nigeria, which invariably the biggest tourist generating market in Africa.
The absent of a national airline is responsible for a large percentage of Nigeria’s capital flight. Imagine a nation of 180 million people without one, it’s shameful!
We cannot rely on the small local players that lack capacity. The local operators lobbying government every time to stay out of the aviation business, is irresponsible because they are only creating space for international carriers to further consolidate on their hold of our travel industry.
Without mincing words, government should come in big time, and sooner and later it can be listed on the stock exchange for Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike to buy shares. From information available, government has consistently bailed out private airlines which should not be anymore.
How do we get back our tourism ministry?
We have to lobby for it. The minister once told us that the Federal Executive Council has adjusted the name of the ministry of Information and Culture to Federal Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, but till today, it has not been gazetted.
Again, what was outcome of the tourism stakeholders meeting that was held last year? I think the tourism private sector body will have to re-focus and push the government in all fronts to do the needful.
Tourism is a very big part of our economy already. There are more tourism workers in Lagos State alone than the entire federal civil servant of about 70.000 staff or thereabout.
Without even statistics, the travel and tourism industry employs more people than any sector of the economy and yet government treats it with levity.
Despite the noise about domestic tourism push in the last few years, a trip across some of the acclaimed corridors in the country does not smell tourism in anyway, why so?
Do people feel Nigeria when coming into the country from the airports, much more local communities?
Time past, most of the young men at Obudu are always very happy to take tourists around and they are paid. In fact, I even suggested that their fee be added to the room rates and each tour guide is eventually paid based on the number of tours embarked upon.
I also think we should begin to teach our kids by introducing social studies or tourism into our curriculum for them to imbibe the culture of tourism when they grow up.
Cross River State has a tourism school at Obubra, which is a good one that must be emulated.
We have brought them to our office once or twice for interaction as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR].
What should be the role of FTAN in re-shaping the industry?
The new federation must engage with the relevant government agencies and ministries to get the best out of the sector in Nigeria.
NIHOTOUR Bill, what is the position?
Like the chairman of the Senate Committee on Culture and Tourism noted, NIHOTOUR cannot be on yearly subvention of N1.7 billion without any law setting it up is unacceptable.
I am convinced that the bill will eventually pass and I hope they will amend those areas that people are concerned about.
What is your final thought of the way forward for the industry?
My major worry is the issue of perception that I think must be addressed. We have issue of Boko Haram, but not the entire country that is affected. Imagine while the Xenophobia attack was going on in South Africa, the South Africa Tourism [SAT] were here marketing their tourism industry.
Nigeria is not even one of the most unsafe countries or dangerous countries; why the noise.
Despite the insecurities across Europe, the US and even South Africa, Nigerians travel to these places every day.