LIFE & ARTS ‘You need to fund tourism to reap tourists’ dollar’ - BUSINESSDAY
If you want tourism to become one of the viable means of diversifying the economy, away from its present dependence on oil, Rabo Saleh, president, Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN), says you need to fund tourism and put the right policies in place. In this interview with Obinna Emelike, Saleh, who leads the umbrella body of tourism practitioners in Nigeria, insists that you also need a full-fledged Ministry of Tourism to make tourism count in the Nigerian economy among other related issues.
What is the contribution of tourism to the economy?
Tourism is one of the largest employers of labour. To confirm this, just look at the number of both skilled and unskilled labour in the industry from airlines, hotels, restaurants, car hire, tour operators, travel agencies, even the entertainment sector, all these are in the tourism sub-sector. Tourism employs a large chunk of Nigerians, especially youths. All we need is proper organisation and proper packaging of the industry so that we can get more people involved in it and the impact will be felt more.
The government gains from a robust tourism sector, especially from taxes and returns accruing from the arrivals, even if it is domestic tourism. We have always been saying it is not only international tourism we will be looking at; we are advocating more for domestic tourism. Right now in FTAN, we are working with airline operators, tour operators, car hire, hoteliers among others to come up with packages we can promote within Nigeria; where people can come for weekends in Abuja and people from Abuja will go to Lagos and the rest can move to any place they find comfortable. We are coming up with the package very soon and it is with affordable prices. The package will boost domestic tourism and when people begin to move within the country, it will entice foreigners to come in.
How can tourism replace oil in Nigeria?
If we want tourism to become one of the means of diversifying the economy from its huge dependence on oil, then we need to put tourism in the right place.
What I mean by that is funding tourism adequately, putting the right policies in place and having the right people to drive the policies. It is one thing to have policies and another to have good drivers of the policies.
Currently, we do not have a full-fledged Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Nigeria, instead tourism is subsumed under information and culture. As a result of this, any time you mention Ministry of Information, Culture and National Orientation, Tourism is silent.
If you look at most countries that make huge foreign exchange from tourism, they first funded and put the right policies in place. So, you need to fund tourism to reap tourists’ dollar and not the other way round. We need to put all the right things in place in order to drive tourism. What are these things; we need to have the right policies. The government should come up with the right policies, while the private sector takes advantage of the right policies to drive tourism development. When stakeholders do what is required of them, we will be able to achieve set goals, especially growth, diversification, employment generation and able to feel all the good things that tourism can create in an economy.
Unfortunately, government does not fund tourism adequately, and that makes the realization of most of the set goals very difficult. The budget for tourism today is very lean. Today NTDC does not participate in international tourism events, then how do you market Nigeria. If we say we are promoting only domestic tourism, then are we putting in the necessary fund to create the awareness within the country so that Nigerians can move within the country? We are not doing all these and that is why tourism needs funding so that it can achieve sustainable tourism development across the country.
Do you think tourism will thrive better under the incoming government?
If the government has not supported tourism adequately in the past administrations, I think the incoming government, which is reelected, has opportunity to support, fund tourism and most importantly, diversify the economy through tourism. But how do you achieve that?
We the private sector have advised the government that one of the means of diversifying the economy is tourism. But if you are going to use tourism to diversify the economy, then you have to open tourism, create the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, which will be a body that will be responsible for the promotion and development of tourism in Nigeria. Government does not need to drive tourism, we the private sector drives tourism. But we need favourable policies to do so and that is why we need the ministry. If the ministry is there with all the strong policies, then the private sector will drive it; we are at the background to drive it.
If you look at major tourism investments in Nigeria, they are owned and driven by the private sector. Yet, there are no enabling environment, no proper security in the country, epileptic electricity power supply, among other challenges. We need good roads, enabling infrastructure such as rail among others.
If we have a tourism ministry, it will be able to work with other sister ministries because they are on the same level, they can liaise with them to discover areas of need and make combined efforts at solving the problems. One thing about tourism is that if you develop a resort on a remote area, the local community also benefit from it. So, you will see the ripple effects of tourism in terms of providing infrastructure, employment opportunities for locals and good host-tourist relationship also. But if you do not develop these things, it can cause resentment as locals will begin to see tourists visiting their communities as the only ones that enjoy while they are poor. But you cannot balance it because you do not have a ministry that can talk to a sister ministry because tourism in multifaceted; you need power, roads, housing among other infrastructure in place for tourism to thrive.
It seems the present administration downgraded Tourism because of its poor contribution to the economy as captured in National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report. What do you think can be done to boost the figure?
Sometime last year, there was a UNWTO CAF Meeting in Nigeria and one of the issues they discussed was Tourism Satellite Account (TSA). The NBS was there and they have shown that tourism contributes to the GDP only that the statistics are not collected adequately to show the level of contribution so that we can feel the impact.
What the ministry ought to have done was to call all the stakeholders; immigration, airport authorities, hoteliers among others to gather relevant information and statistics on inbound tourism.
With the statistics, they will know the number of the arrivals, spending by visitors, where and how long they stayed, among others. With that, they will be able to gather the needed information and statistics that will help in assessing the contribution of tourism to the national economy.
Well, NBS is trying. FTAN recently signed MoU with them on the collation of data because without data you cannot plan. You need to know the arrivals, the type of tourists, where they are coming from, their interests here, their spending among other indices, which are necessary to guide you on knowing the offerings to provide for them here.
NBS, with all the stakeholders including; Immigrations, NCAA, NTDC among others, need to work together so that we would be able to collate the information and NBS will put them in their data and help government in knowing the contribution of tourism to our GDP and for proper planning also.
Do you think insecurity is a threat to tourism arrivals in Nigeria?
When you have a minister with the portfolio of a Minister of Tourism, then we can be able to suggest the creation of tourism police. FTAN has been an advocate of this. If you go to other countries that are tourism-friendly, you will see tourism police at tourism sites. Their work is to ensure that visitors and locals are safe. If you have a minster with tourism portfolio, he will be able to liaise with the Inspector General of Police or Minister of Interior to work at that level for effective security of tourists, locals and policing of all our tourist sites.
As well, terrorism and kidnapping are things that happen everywhere in the world, but we should be able to curtail them. They are declining with time. What we need is to be able to coordinate places that are peaceful now because we cannot wait until things are all at peace before tourism will happen. Even in places where there are security challenges, people still go there. No matter the level of terrorism, it does not stop us from developing our tourism. Security agencies are always there and all they need is to be further enlightened on what to do in such security situations. So, if you train them along that line, definitely, there will be relative peace, they will help us in promoting tourism, and people can go around enjoying themselves.
What are the qualities you are looking out for in the would-be tourism minister?
We need professionals, we have to put round pegs in round holes now. If the Ministry of Tourism is created tomorrow, we need someone who has vast experience in tourism to man the ministry. Even if the person is a politician, it has to be someone who can relate very well with other ministries because tourism does not work in isolation, you need to liaise other sectors, ministries and agencies in order to have a robust industry.
What are the things you think a tourism minister should do if appointed?
The minister should first bring all the stakeholders together, so that they can brainstorm and forge a way forward for sustainable tourism development. We have a lot of policies on ground that have never been implemented, even the Tourism Masterplan and policies.
The minister should be able to lead a team, and even engage professionals if necessary, to review some of these policies to enable tourism to take off. There is a tourism policy since the time of Silas Ukpana but nobody knows what has happened to it.
The minister should also revive the Presidential Council on Tourism (PCT) and use that platform to gather together concerned stakeholders, bring in governors that are tourism-friendly, connect with ministers that are related to tourism. The PCT is a good reason to have a Minister of Tourism because if you do not have a minister that will sit on that Council on behalf of tourism, then who is going to do that. You need that minister because he is the one that will meet with his fellow ministers and together will find a way to help him push for the development of tourism. If you need a road to a particular destination, electricity in a rural destination or security, it is the minister of tourism that will meet his fellow ministers whose responsibilities cover those areas of need in tourism for solution. That is a way to fast track tourism development and that is why we need a tourism minister now.