As the Lagos State Government in an attempt to widen its quest to harness and develop the travel and tourism potentials of the state, Folarin Coker, Commissioner for Tourism, Culture and Arts in this interview with Lucky Onoriode George, assures on doing everything that are needed to safeguard against any setbacks in future.
Lagos State has in the last few years embarked on registration of hotels, motels and Inn that would lead to actual grading and classification start, how successful is the exercise?
First of all, we needed to enumerate how many hotels around, where they are and how many rooms or how many have swimming pool, function room, car park among others. Gathering the aforementioned information is a long and tedious process.
It is after gathering the data that we would be able to analyse and as we are going along, we are also observing standards that as we see maybe 5 hotels that are below standard, we also see same figure of good hotels.
Arithmetically, the sector is getting better beyond where it has been before.
I don’t want to mention names, but I will because you cannot compare a new hotel at Ojuelegba with respect to the people of that wonderful area of Lagos to the ones in Ikoyi.
There must be a disparity in terms of quality and standard. Again, there are laws and regulations that are guiding every business, especially the hospitality industry. If you ask people to come and stay in your hotel with their life, properties and safety, you cannot, but provide the best for them and guarantee their safety.
The aspect of the law that concerns my ministry is that you must register with us.
There is another law that concerns taxation which makes it mandatory for you to pay to the appropriate ministry or agency that the owner of such business must fulfilled, or else faces penalty for failure to do so.
Another area is safety and health department that also go round the hotels to ensure that they comply with all necessary standards, to ensure that the water and food served in these hotels are properly stored and cooked in a hygienic environment.
From the above, you can see that the exercise is a multi-ministries activity and we are doing it.
For instance, the safety department has just submitted new guidelines to the governor for direction for our beaches because of some recent incidents in some of the beaches, and we will fully implement those guidelines when we eventually receive them.
Just for information purpose, as at 2014, Lagos State was in shortage of 8, 000 hotel rooms; invariably, we can say that because of the short fall, this is also responsible for the high cost of accommodation in Lagos as well as space for the not too standard hotels to operate.
If more hotels come up, room rates will crash which also suggests that the business is good. Even with the global economic slowdown, depreciation in the value of the Naira and the cut to government spends unlike in the past, are responsible for recent lull in the hospitality business nationwide; that being said, the sector will not still go burst.
Your ministry also register and regulate travel agents and tour operators activities in the state, how did you feel when you read that Accra, Ghana has overtaken Lagos, Nigeria as a major hub in sub-Sahara Africa?
The whole of Ghana is 25 million people and I can say to you today that the day time population of Lagos is almost same figure like the entire country of Ghana. If I may ask, what is the volume that is going through the country of Ghana compared to Nigeria, a country of over 170 million people?
Recently, the National President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies [NANTA] and his executives were with me and we talked about their operations and I reminded them that the law requires them to register with the state and because we are not in the habit just penalising or punishing people or businesses and happy to say that we have reached an agreement and they will comply soonest.
We reached the understanding because the success of every travel agency, tour operator, every hotel and restaurant is my success because it would mean that they are doing well and will be able to pay their taxes and charges that government levy on those businesses.
One of your ministry’s mandates is to make Lagos State one of the top 10 preferred destinations in Africa for entertainment, how successful is the vision?
How profitable can it be with the current exchange rate for anyone to bring a top international artist that could cost 3 million dollars to stage a show in Nigeria? It’s almost impossible because how much ticket can you sell and at what rate to recoup the investment?
In view of the above, we have decided to look inwards, which was why we have continued to use our top Nigerian artists in all our programmes to drive the consumption of Lagos products and its workings.
When are we expecting Lagos State to begin allocating its beach fronts for resort and hotel development like other major destinations that their water front are the most preferred location for such investments to attract international arrivals instead of residential as we are witnessing in the state of late?
One factor I can deduce is that whilst that has not happened in the past was that maybe because tourism as a major business has not been the main stay of our economy; like the Gambia, Kenya and countries of the Caribbean where waterfronts in major cities and towns are reserved for public tourism investments.
For us in the past as a nation, oil and its related businesses have been the focus; as such investments generally were more pro oil businesses which have changed now because of the slumped in the international oil market.
Again, the state will continue to provide the enabling environment because capital or investments flow to destinations where there are opportunities, security and anticipated profitability for such investments.
Also on your mandate list, I observed that the beaches within Lagos territory belong to the state and that your ministry oversees them for the state, how can an investor who is interested in investing on the water front access any of them?
Very simple, send your proposal and we will look at it and after making our recommendation and it’s sent to the governor. Period!
Honourable Commissioner sir, residents of Lagos have still not forgiven the State Government for taking away their beach, “Bar Beach”, what alternative are you providing because every major city that is close to the sea develops the waterfront for public use?
The government understands how they feel; however, there is a process that will soon develop the Kuramo end of the old “Bar Beach” for public use. However too, just along same line there are several other beaches that Lagos residents can continue to use. Places like Alfa, Oniru, Ibeju and even Badagry which the government is recovering now.
The Badagry waterfront is being sand filled and pilling exercise going on, and the state is about to start the refurbishment of the heritage sites. Also on the pipeline is the dredging of the waterway from Lagos to Badagry to provide alternative means of reaching that part of the state.
In a nut shell, we are upgrading our Badagry tourism corridor assets and this year alone, the governor has taken our executive council meeting there twice.
Your ministry is saddled with so many responsibilities, how prepared are your staff to be able to carry out these tasks, training wise?
We have had some internal training sections within the civil service in terms of administration. We have also had some tourism focused training by relevant government agencies too.
However, there is not much technical acumen required for you to count or enumerate how many hotels, where they are, do they have swimming pool and such, which at the end they bring back to the office for proper analysis.
Besides too, we work closely with the hotel association for information as well as the cyber space and individual hotel advertisements that are placed in the media which we also monitor for correlation of information they may have provided in their registration document with us.
With all the tourism data in the ministry of science and technology, we can always access them and use them; just as we are also in dialogue with internal revenue service, because they have names and locations of every travel and tourism establishments which we need to work with because I do not have the man power to monitor every street or to know every new hotel in every street of Lagos weekly, monthly and year round.
Don’t forget that our hotel levy is paid yearly, unlike most other government taxes or levies.
When then do we expect real hotel grading and classification to begin?
Classification is a very tricky and serious aspect of the hospitality industry and it must be done. However, the collation of the data must be concluded before you can begin grading and classification proper.
If we don’t know what exists, where and how many, I cannot classify. And in preparation for that, we have consultants for that within and abroad. We are hoping to be able to hand over our data to them for the analysis.
Sometimes, we do not have to leave my office to go get information about a particular hotel because users leave their comments online which are very important. Issues of water, electricity, security among others are part of the variable conditions that are used in the grading and classification exercise.
You talked of security earlier, there is no state in the country that is committed and has invested what Lagos state is spending to protect the lives and properties of Lagosians and visitors to the state.
There was report of over 70 stabbing incidents at the just concluded Notting Hill Carnival in London and whereas when we had our December 2016 festivals which featured 25 shows across multiple locations simultaneously, how many of such incidents did you see and read about; yet some people will say Lagos is not safe.
During the cross celebration in 2015, how many women were molested, Google the murder capital of the world, you will get the names, but certainly Lagos is not on the list; so, why label Lagos as an unsafe place.
Yes, we have issue of terrorism in the country, but it’s not peculiar to Nigeria and as such we must change the conversation about our state and city.
World Tourism Day is by the corner, what is the state planning?
Traditionally, the day is for a review of the outgoing year of tourism activities and performance and to also project for the year ahead. For us in Lagos State, there will be a gathering of stakeholders to discuss and evaluate the sector performance and the necessary improvement.
What should the industry expect from Lagos in the coming years?
Our major task in the coming years is to achieve all the tourism objectives we have set for Lagos, and change the negative narratives with our positive achievements.
That is needed because a lot is anchored on misinformation about us either by foreign media; wrong travel warnings by official websites of some of the countries that we are trying to attract visitors from, you will see the statements of those governments.
Therefore, we have to also counter those negative perceptions and stories about Lagos with our own positive messages, because if we do not populate digital space with our positive stories of our great city, someone will fill it with what we don’t even know about.
We must populate the digital space with our stories of who we are, where we are and what we do by putting the statistics out there for the world to judge.
I don’t want to mention names, but I am looking forward to prominent Nigerian businessmen, musicians, journalists, sportsmen and women to tell their stories of Lagos to the world.
Again, what about the fact that Lagos and Nigeria is now a haven for religions tourism activities; without doubt there are still many positive stories of Lagos that have not been told and we must do so.