2010 winner in the tourism category of the CNN Multichoice African Journalists Award, Pelu Awofeso who is an author, travel journalist, publishing entrepreneur and environmental activist, in this interview with Montage Africa, speaks on the ills affecting the growth and development of the Nigerian tourism industry.
Your Beach Samaritan initiative has been helpful in not only drawing Nigerians attention to the dreadful state of our beaches, but also in revealing to us of their immense beauty. How has it been working out?
Beach Samaritans has succeeded since inception (2014) largely due to the commitment of hundreds of volunteers who join us for each bi-monthly cleanup of a public beach. We have also enjoyed in-kind support of a few private organisations and individuals. We hope our cleanups and allied activities will help draw the requisite attention to the beaches. It is sad that though Nigeria has over 800km of coastline, none of our beaches rank among the Top 25 or Top 50 beaches in Africa; they are not only badly polluted, they are not properly managed.
When in 2012 you attempted to partner with the Badagry LGA to clean beaches, you said in an interview with CP Africa that the project failed because the folks at the LGA “couldn’t see any way to make money off the project”. Could this be the cause of the tourism industry being underdeveloped because government at all levels do not see how they can make money from developing it?
Without a doubt, yes. Badagry, for example, is a hotbed of tourism assets, cultural and historical; but the Lagos State government has overlooked it all along. The local government authorities which administer the community daily haven’t fared better either. It is worrisome how people in government can’t see a gold mine even when it’s staring them in the face.
Also, the inability of government staff to be creative and fashion out ways of making money from national monuments like museums, theatres and galleries, seems to be affecting Nigeria’s tourism. How can we fix this?
Sadly, that is the most horrible aspect of our attempt at trying to promote tourism. I have visited about 30 museums and monuments across the country in the last decade and I can say that they are in very bad shape; if you want to be depressed, visit any of our museums. Recently, I paid a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Lagos; it was in complete darkness and the exhibits were covered in dust. The story is the same nationwide and it makes one wonder what the ministry in charge of culture and tourism spends its budgetary allocations on. It will take someone with the mindset and temperament of the late Minister of Information, Mrs Dora Akunyili, to bring life back into them. Alternatively, stakeholders have suggested a PPP (Public Private Partnership) model to manage the culture and tourism sector. That is what has happened in a place like Freedom Park in Lagos.
As a traveler and lover of Nigerian festivals, which ones are your favorites and why? Also which one have you attended that left a lasting impression?
It is impossible, really, to name a favourite among all the festivals I have witnessed and reported over the years, but a few remain most memorable because of the colour, pomp and ceremony that characterize them: Ofala Festival (Onitsha, Anambra State); Osun osogbo Festival (Osogbo, Osun State); Argungu Festival (Argungu, Kebbi State); Durbar Festival (Kano, Kano State); and Igue Festival (Benin City, Edo State). It is always a delight to see Nigerians celebrate their heritage proudly.
Several industry experts have spoken broadly of the need to develop Nigeria’s tourism industry. If the government decides that it was time to prioritize the industry, in specifics, how do we go about doing that?
Since 1999, the governments in Nigeria, state and federal, have often made political statements about developing domestic tourism, but it’s been all talk and no commitment. The best tourist attractions in Nigeria are in two broad categories: Natural environments and cultural heritage. It’s a long list but If I were to advise the government, I would say this as a matter of priority: upgrade, renovate and restore all the museums and national monuments in the country; standardize festival calendars and advertise the major one globally; ensure that our embassies abroad have sufficient supplies of these materials for Visa applicants and potential tourists; ensure better grading of hospitality facilities; invest in the production of guidebooks, travel literature and documentaries; train tour guides; and orientate Nigerians to appreciate our travel assets and travel more within the country.
Nigeria is in a recession and the FG has been asked to prioritize tourism to checkmate it. Question is how do we attract more tourists at this time and more so how if we still battle basic insecurity challenges across the country?
Aside from the crises in the northeast, Nigeria is safe. We have simply failed to manage and/ or communicate our security challenges better, which is what countries like the US, the UK, Mexico, India, Turkey and a couple other do excellently. In spite of the occasional negative news you hear from those places, tourists still visit them in huge numbers. I can tell you, for example, that the US spends some $200mn in marketing its tourism annually worldwide. That is a country that ranks highly with tourists. A few days before this interview, I attended a road show hosted in Lagos by South African Tourism: there were a good number of hoteliers, tour operators, travel agencies and related businesses selling South Africa holidays and festivals to their Nigerian counterparts. The big question is: How much of selling does Nigeria do abroad? The answer? Zero.
Lastly, in this recession where money is hard to come by, for individuals and families still looking to explore Nigeria’s tourism, can you be kind as to suggest three places each where they can go (1) Shopping, (2) Lodging, (3) Dining and (4) Holidaying without having to break their banks?
As someone who has travelled to 32 states already, I will answer this question by saying that every state in Nigeria is good for shopping, for lodging, for dining and for holidaying; each state offers a wide array of options for all the four travel activity you itemized. But you can’t go wrong with Uyo, Calabar, Kano, Lagos and Abeokuta. MA