Ini Akpabio is no doubt most loved hospitality professional in Nigeria today. He’s friendly, sophisticated and humble. Besides the aforementioned, he’s also a jolly good fellow.
In this interview with Lucky Onoriode George, he bares his mind on challenges and opportunities that abound in the sector.
You have been in the hospitality now for decades, can you take us down memory lane?
Agreed, I have been in the industry for several years. Apart from pioneering and serving at high levels in most of the Associations that have to do with hospitality and tourism, I have worked most of my life within the industry. My company NANET Hotels Limited debuted in 1970.
What was it like the first time?
The first time I was travelling to England to start my MSc programme in Hospitality and Tourism, the Nigerian Immigration officers were amazed that someone should travel all the way abroad to study a course that seemingly any one can practice. This made me more determined to study that course. That was in 1984.
Where was your first point in the industry politics?
My first point was as the Chairman of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Association of Nigeria [HATMAN] Kaduna Chapter and later I became the National President.
How much information do you have about the sector before you came in fully?
Not much information as the statistics are porous, but what met the eye was a niche waiting to be exploited.
What was your first assignment when you were retained?
My first assignment on entering the industry was to bring into play innovation and create enduring structures.
At what point did your unionism or activism started?
My activism started early. I was not satisfied with our industry. Things were not well structured, we were not recognised sufficiently and our people were highly marginalised where they worked. Only vibrant associations that could eventually charter her members and ensure that employers treated their staff well were our target.
Skilled workers are a major issue in the hospitality industry, how bad was it when you arrived?
Up till now skilled staff in the industry are hard to come by. Nigeria lacks proper hotel schools like the UTALI College in Nairobi, Kenya which graduates lots of competent people with practical hotel skills. Hotel education is relegated to be taught in polytechnics for those who are not very bright educationally. A few universities in Nigeria are just starting to offer the course. Support post-secondary schools are not doing enough to fill the gap.
Has the situation improved now?
The situation is improving, and today National Institute for Hospitality and Tourism [NIHOTOUR] and Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation [NTDC] are in the process of obtaining charters while more schools are offering hospitality and tourism courses. We also have a reservoir of skilled staff who are teaching the upcoming ones.
No doubt, Nigeria is a business destination of which your organisation profits from, how can Nigeria tap into the leisure industry to increase volume?
Nigeria needs to tap into the leisure market using several methods like having more festivals like the CALABAR CARNIVAL, encouraging family holidays and increasing international family holidays. Increase in family dry and wet parks, adventure lands, LEGO land among others.
How would you rate general tourism activities in the country?
The general tourism activities in Nigeria is picking up spurred by the recession, which is encouraging people to drink more, and travel within the country rather than abroad. Domestic tourism is increasing. Government needs to tidy up all aspects of infrastructural development as that is the only way tourism can be encouraged.
Nigeria and Ghana have witnessed more international brands in the hospitality sector, how much of a help is this to the sector at large as a key Nigerian brand company?
Help from international brands can only trickle to Nigerians if our laws protect our local brands and ensure our people are trained by the foreigners. This is not the case in Ghana and Nigeria. Our laws in both countries don’t protect our people. Our governments need to help our hotel brands grow.
More and more local properties are going alone instead of the usual franchise, how advantageous is this?
There is no advantage whatsoever. The properties remain small and cannot enjoy the benefits of scale not to talk of expand both nationally or internationally. By joint ventures and franchises mega brands are formed.
You have been in politics of the sector for years now, would you say you achieved your purpose or some purposes that motivated you joining initially?
I achieved some purposes but a lot still needs to be firmed up. We need to have charters to help us establish career guidelines for the industry.
NIHOTOUR and NTDC bills were recently passed by the senate and left with the House of Representative, what is your opinion of the quality of the bills?
The quality of the bills are poor. Most Hospitality and Tourism bodies in Nigeria wrote the NASS and stated the clauses that were required to be removed or amended.
How would you rate Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria [FTAN]?
FTAN has come to stay. It has succeeded in ensuring its sustainability. The body has tried to reach out to relevant governmental and non-governmental bodies to register her presence and communicate its objectives. However, it remains bedevilled by lack of adequate funds, nationwide spread and presence, ability to capture all relevant tourism bodies and a lack of capacity to get itself chartered.
How would you rate the minister, National Institute for Hospitality and Tourism [NIHOTOUR] and Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation [NTDC] bosses’ performance so far?
The performance of the minister and the heads of various parastatals have followed the historical pattern of lacklustre and unfocused performance. Their inability to grasp and understand the dynamics of the sector and where one or two heads exhibit passion, it is merely channelled towards unproductive ventures.
In summary, there is a complete dearth of professionals, and seemingly opportunists have taken over the centre stage. Tourism is recognised worldwide as a massive revenue earner and job generating sector, we are yet to accept this in Nigeria and all tiers of government keep missing this point.
The way forward is to appoint the right professionals to man the sector at all governmental levels, to finance the various ministries and government to place tourism as a high priority ministry. At the federal level, tourism must be unbundled from the Ministry of Information And Culture and given her own separate ministry. The only state in the past, Cross River, where the government prioritised tourism as its number one sector, is till today still reaping the bountiful harvests from this sector.
The future of the sector in West Africa is very bright. Nigeria is one country in this region that has more tourism potentials than the whole of East Africa combined. It is only waiting to be exploited.
More governments in this region are placing greater emphasis on tourism development and moving in the right direction. Nigeria needs to follow suit.