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HomeEditorialOpinionIS UDOM REALLY INTERESTED IN DEVELOPING AKWA IBOM TOURISM?

IS UDOM REALLY INTERESTED IN DEVELOPING AKWA IBOM TOURISM?

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…Information For Ini Edo, SA on Tourism Matters

By Ukpong UKPONG

Akwa Ibom State government is considering several avenues of attracting investments to improve its Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) and reduce harsh outcome of global oil slum. The governor, Deacon Udom Emmanuel, has taken important steps toward developing the agricultural sector, human capacity building and power sector, which he claims will form the foundation for industrialization.
Perhaps to boost local investment, state government is also incubating small scale manufacturers and entrepreneurs through Akwa Ibom Entrepreneurship and Employment Scheme, AKEES and is partnering with the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, to provide soft loans to them. In doing all these, government may have over looked investment in tourism, a key sector that has similar potentials to turn around the state economy.
The economic potential of tourism is remarkable, with direct and indirect impact on employment. According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), 63.6 million international tourists arrived in Africa in 2012, compared to 17.4 million visitors in 1990. The top six countries for international tourist receipts in 2012 were, in descending order: Egypt ($9.94 billion), followed by South Africa ($9.994 billion), Morocco ($6.711 billion), Tunisia ($2.183 billion), Tanzania ($1.564 billion) and Mauritius ($1.477 billion).
In Nigeria, the federal government has realized the importance of tourism in its efforts to shift the nations economic mainstay away from oil and gas sector which it considers volatile and has expressed readiness to address infrastructural and policy constraints in the nations tourism sector. The Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, as reported on Channels television on June 17, 2016, said government is set to introduce a form of subsidy to encourage private sector involvement in tourism development.
In the same way, Akwa Ibom state government in theory vowed to develop the tourism industry. As stated in its tourism ministrys vision statement for tourism industry, “development would be done in a sustainable manner as a critical source of revenue and employment generation as well as wealth creation, believing strongly that if well developed, Akwa Ibom State will have a fair share of the global tourism revenue”.
However, in practice the state continues to lose millions of Naira in expected revenue from untapped potentials as it embarks on unplanned development of infrastructure, failing to identify and engage core tourism operators in the development of tourism industry.
In addition, the state Ministry of Culture and Tourism seems to work at cross purpose with well established tourism agencies like Council for Arts and Culture and the State Tourism Board, sometimes interfering with their activities. To worsen the situation, even appointment of who to man these ministry and agencies is more for political compensation rather than putting a square peg in a square hole.
Hence, successive governors have paid lip service to investment in tourism as they appoint politicians, artistes, medical doctors, lawyers, the latest being a petroleum marketer to head this highly technical ministry. It is thus difficult to see how Governor Udom Emmanuel intends to grow state economy with tourism. Is Udom really interested in developing Akwa Ibom tourism industry?
One may argue that Udom means business by appointing a Nollyhood actress, Ini Edo, as his Special Assistant on Tourism Matters, but the nagging question is how much does a screen diva know about developing tourism? This is not the first time a governor is engaging an indigenous entertainer in this manner. Recall that Attah’s government engaged Obot Etuk in a certain project that ended in controversy, Akpabio appointed Mr XTO into the state Council for Arts and Culture yet he could do nothing.
So, employing the Nollyhood super star, Ini Edo, in addition to Moses Armstrong, Ime Bishop and others is not out of place, especially if Udom’s intention is to impress the people and benefit from their huge fan base, but then he should have created some bogus portfolios (as he did for his legion of media assistants) related with entertainment and not sacrifice a highly technical sector like tourism on the altar of fame.
Tourism is more than shooting a movie or adorning cover pages of celebrity magazines, tourism is that neglected sector of our economy that can have tremendous impact on our Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), scale back unemployment, reduce crime and encourage sustainable use of our environment. The state continues to lose huge financial opportunities provided by annual traffic of visitors to Nigeria, which stands at 1.5 million according to the World Tourism Organization, WTO.
Every year, Akwa Ibom state fails to gain from tourists that converge in Calabar because it does not see the need to develop ingenious ways of diverting this traffic laden with foreign exchange towards the state. For instance, it takes less than 10 minutes to ferry between Oron and Calabar. If government decides to invest in water transport and advertise that route as an ancient slave trail, tourism investors and travel agencies could seize the opportunity immediately.
Moreover, what stops local government areas located along the coast of Atlantic Ocean from jointly investing in water sports, festivals and such cultural activities that can attract tourists? The bitter truth is that although government is aware of inherent potentials in tourism, it however hesitates to invest because tourism demands a long term financial commitment, whereas a governor or a local government chairman wants to invest scarce funds in short term projects he or she can commission within his term in office.
Nevertheless, there are success stories from states that invest in developing tourism in Nigeria. For instance, the Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival which predates colonial rule in Nigeria, was a major income earner for Kebbi until it was stopped in 2009; famous durbars in most northern states that contribute to their economy; the Osun Oshobo festival, which organizers of the 2015 edition, claim witnessed a large turnout of tourists from 11 countries and attracted huge foreign exchange earnings to Osun state and the world acclaimed Calabar Carnival tagged the largest street party in Africa, which continues to thrill the world and put Cross River State firmly on the global tourism map.
Some experts spoken to, have opined that why Akwa Ibom state cannot progress from winning laurels at national festivals to earning from its robust tourism potential is the lack of a tourism master plan, a comprehensive outline that should drive state policy for the industry. They are certain that there can be no organized, result oriented and pro-investment development without this comprehensive outline detailing what should be done, what to build where, who to handle what, milestones toward achieving set targets, promotion and packaging, regulations, financing and how to evaluate progress.
That is where the Akpabio administration got it wrong, mistaking random building of infrastructure to mean tourism development. It failed to attract genuine investors and tourist traffic despite allegedly spending huge resources on subsidizing airfares for visitors passing through the state owned airport, providing waivers in hotel bills for visiting dignitaries as well as other incentives given in order to attract annual general meetings (AGMs), conferences and workshops.
It failed because it did not create unfettered access for real investors, both local and foreign, to openly bid for and participate in building tourism infrastructure in the state, according to global best practice and due process. It did not understand that the trend nowadays is that governments only create enabling environment for investors to build tourism infrastructure based on need from their market survey and feasibility study, not on assumption. It simply did not appreciate the importance of producing a master plan for tourism development.
Although there were several attempts to draft a tourism master plan during that administration, each effort was thwarted by short lifespan of successive state tourism boards, which the law empowers to oversee tourism development in the state. Otherwise, from their interaction with stakeholders, they were well versed to produce that fundamental document.
For emphasis, the board chaired by Mrs. Mary Umanaette Udo in 2010, embarked on statewide fact finding visits to all 31 local government areas to identify, assess and catalogue all tourism sites in each of them. It inaugurated local tourism committees, made up of experts and stakeholders from those areas, who were to work with state tourism board in conserving indentified sites pending their development. At the end, the board submitted its report to the then governor.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism then under Barrister Valerie Ebe, also conducted a separate fact finding tour to all tourism sites in the state and also submitted a report. About that time too, there was an attempt to make an ancient shrine in Ubium, Nsit Ubium local government area, a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as draw the attention of federal government to the fact that the historic treaty to effect Nigerias Amalgamation was actually signed in Lord Lugards House in Ikot Abasi local government area and not some vague town in the north central region.

Recently, the just dissolved state tourism board also tried to draft a tourism master plan for the state; it went as far as enlisting technocrats, a bureaucrat and a lecturer in the mould of Dr. Anthony Okonfua, from University of Uyo, as chairman, and Ubong Ekpe, an internationally licensed hospitality expert and tour guide, as secretary. Other members of that committee included Idara Ndem, a state based hotelier, Mrs. Regina Udontia, former director in the state tourism ministry, and Joseph Utin, chief executive officer of Akwa Ibom Tourism Development Company.
From available information, that committee was the best bet to draw up a workable master plan for the state, enhance tourism education, coordinate tourism activities among operators and catalogue tourism products and assets within the state. Unfortunately, it also died prematurely the day the board that constituted it was dissolved.
Aside producing a master plan, there are sundry issues pertaining to amending outdated laws that militate against investment in tourism within the state, addressing non involvement of all levels of private tourism operators and hospitality outfits in state events and activities, removing double taxation, improving security in hotels and accommodations, providing financial incentive to investors needed to encourage sustainable tourism development.
This enormous deficit in the state’s tourism prospect should therefore bother Madam Ini Edo, Governor Udom Emmanuels Special Assistant on Tourism Matters, to stay put in the state and earn her pay which comes from tax payers sweat.
With a petroleum marketer and politician, Mr. Emmanuel Ibiok, as the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, the bulk of work is on her. So, she should brace up for the challenge, interact with a wide range of stakeholders to garner realistic ideas about developing tourism and make reports to the governor accordingly.
Unless her appointment was a reward for endorsing the ‘dakkada’ mantra or perhaps she serves as an eye candy for the Udoms administration, she should make a difference. She should resist the temptation of making similar mistakes made by past administrations, who thought mere visits to tourism sites, building a gigantic edifice like Ibom Tropicana, which is now a farce and making open ended statements will revive tourism in the state. The place to commence holistic development of our tourism is from scratch by producing a master plan, there after making implementable policies with realizable milestones. That is, if her boss intends to develop a sustainable tourism industry in the state.

Ukpong UKPONG is a Tourism reporter in Uyo.

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