Uwechue-Mbanefo

Growing Nigeria’s economy beyond oil and gas has never been more imperative, but can a robust diversification take place without eradicating corruption? Director General, Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, NTDC, Dr. Mrs. Sally Uwechue-Mbanefo, tells THISDAY Travel and Leisure what can be done

There is outcry about the state of the economy. What is your take on it being an ex-banker?

We cannot build an economy where corruption is the working capital. It is also not possible to over-emphasise the importance of our fight against corruption. It is felt in some quarters that we may be sacrificing the economy while the fight rages. This is most emphatically not so, because the fulcra of our economic policy are privatisation and liberalisation, and both would gain very little traction if the general socio-economic landscape is not de-corrupted or sanitised.

In effect, in an environment of the unbridled corruption that Nigeria has become, all policy implementation in attempts at growth and expansion would be likened to swimming against a powerful tide that invariably pushes us backwards. A sanitised Nigeria will have a quickening impact on FDI consequent upon a boosted investor confidence.

Nigeria is in recession. How do you react to this?

I would say we are in interesting times. But, on a more serious note, we are in a correctional interregnum, owing to the monumental and far reaching restructuring this government has had the courage to embark upon. These are not times to discourage Nigerians and investors alike; these are interesting times- times of change and, consequently, the mother of all opportunities.

What solutions will you proffer?

Of my almost 30 years as a career woman, of which 21 years was spent in the banking and finance industry, we cannot help but embrace Fiscal Discipline, Tight Monetary Controls, Fiscal Sustainability Plan (FSP), Improved IGR Drive and entice Diaspora Funds. Yes, Diaspora Nigerians should be our financial ambassadors; $20 billion remitted by them represents only a tip of the iceberg of the investable funds available.

Let’s not forget another controversial topic, ‘the devaluation of the naira’. Let me say categorically that regardless of whether our exchange rate is, $1 to N1 or $1 to N400, the ingredients of success remain timeless and non-changing. The virtues of hardwork, discipline and diligence will always stand one in good stead. Exchange rate is neither a deterrent to success and growth nor a hindrance to creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship. Interestingly, every devaluation yields new and varied opportunities, hence the dictum ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’

Would you say we are in a crisis situation?

Let me respond by saying that the Mandarin word for crisis is a compound of two ideas: Danger and Opportunity. It is not so by mere happenstance that dire times bring forth heroes and heroines, great men and women of historic relevance. It is therefore pertinent for all of us to help make Nigeria great by deploying our globally recognised creativity, intellectual prowess and entrepreneurship to solve our existential problems and create wealth for the benefit and happiness of all. These are also the conditions under which tourism can flourish whilst also adding its quota.

Nigeria, for instance, presently has 80 million phone users; this constitutes 80 million markets or transactional platforms if explored, with each unit potentially yielding streams of income. This is a huge market.

For example Nigerians spend $110m annually procuring visas to visit Dubai because Dubai has infrastructure and the right tourist attractions. Imagine what that amount can do if retained in the system.

What are the solutions and are there success stories?

Solutions include embracing domestic tourism. NTDC has signed a number of MoUs that will impact directly on all sectors of the local economy.

How supportive has the ministry been about your initiatives?

For once, we have a minister that understands how the tourism value chain functions and is doing everything within his power to make it a success. He is so passionate about culture and tourism finding its rightful place in the economy and society, thereby making our job more seamless and effective.

So, this means there are no challenges?

First, let me mention our success stories. Our entertainment industry is a huge success; Nigerian music has made a major impact worldwide. Nollywood has spawned the third largest movie Industry in the world, creating over two million jobs to date. Tourism has created community empowerment through festivals and carnivals. Carnival Calabar is one of popular tourism events in Africa. From festivals to carnivals to meetings, whether in the South West, North or South-South, all have potential multiplier effects on the local, state and national economies.

Yes, there are challenges in security but this has long been a global challenge that has hampered but not dampened tourism in countries where their tourism industry is sophisticated and well developed. As a rule, we don’t market unsafe areas; we have witnessed relative calm in our core tourism areas such as South- west, South-east, Abuja, and a few other places.

Tourism accounts for one in every 11 jobs globally, but in Nigeria there is insufficient data on the number of people currently employed. However, the large numbers of people working in the over 11,000 hotels, in the close to 30,000 restaurants nationwide are skilled, semiskilled and unskilled labour force’s contribution of tourism to the employment force.

This is another success story, which has not been fully exploited. Other success stories include inclusive growth where business tourism thrives and this has created a vast range of business opportunities. Another area is that SME’s growth is fastest with tourism, because 95% of tourism businesses are small scale. If our tourism industry is well developed, it will address social inequality.

Again, Nigeria under tourism is host to some big international hotel chains like Starwood, Hilton, Intercontinental, to mention a few, and a few continental players like Protea and Southern Sun. Tourism goes beyond the economic benefits, it also has social and health benefits. It is a major driver of citizen diplomacy, as nationals meet for conferences, as we have in Abuja and sporting activities, which help share experiences, build relationships and mutual understanding.

Not to over sell the success of tourism in Nigeria, there are investment opportunities and incentives like tax holidays, tax reliefs and of recent, we have introduced work permits instead of expartriate quota for the tourism industry.

What would you say is the way forward?

The potential of tourism is incredible, as it accounts for over 30% of the world’s export services. The sector, globally, accounts for 260 million jobs worldwide, whilst the UNWTO predicts that 296 million jobs will be created by 2019. Tourism had a global GDP contribution of 9.3% in 2014 and $7.3trn revenue in 2015 with 10% contribution which currently dropped to 9.8% due to global crisis, and it is expected to climb back up by end of 2016.

The way forward for Nigeria is the development of infrastructure like roads to access the tourist sites, water, public utilities and power. Power is crucial, as this will reduce overhead costs of hotels, which is transferred to guests, among other reasons. We must have a National carrier to do domestic and international flights and encourage Nigerians in diaspora to visit home more often and spend in Nigeria.

We need a more liberal visa regime that will encourage visa on arrival. The role of the private sector in driving tourism cannot be over emphasised. Nollywood is the third largest in the world purely by its own sweat, exporting our cultural heritage worldwide, but we are not celebrating them the way we should. We must upgrade our organically grown products to be more refined and appealing to a more diverse audience, and encourage them to shoot their movies at our tourism sites.