Some of the faces at last week’s NATOP tourism summit in Lagos. Seated in front from left to right are former Cross River Governor, Sen. Liyel Imoke; Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed; and DG NTDC, Mr Folorunsho Folarin-Coker. Standing from left to right are Regional Manager (West Africa) South African Tourism, Hloni Pitso; former NATOP President, Fatima Garbati; NATOP President, Nkeweurem Onung; Chairman Calabar Carnival Commission, Gabe Onah; and organiser, Akwaaba Africa Travel Market, Ikechi Uko…

A conference convened by the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators served as an opportunity for leading figures in the tourism industry to meet and devise strategies for the future, reports Demola Ojo… 

Last week in Lagos, the Nigerian Association of Tour Operators (NATOP) held a summit that drew key players within Nigeria’s tourism industry.  Minister for Information and Culture, Ahlaji Lai Mohammed, the Director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Mr Folorunsho Folarin-Coker and former Governor of Cross River State, Sen. Liyel Imoke – who was also the keynote speaker – were among the personalities that made contributions at the event held under the theme, “Positioning Tourism Within the Nigerian Economic Space”.

Also present were NATOP President, Nkereuwem Onung, President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agents (NANTA), Bankole Bernard, chairman of the Calabar Carnival Commission, Gabe Onah and organizer of Akwaaba Travel Market, Ikechi Uko. 

If the dream of making tourism an alternative means of generating revenue for the country is to be achieved, the above names will have a big say. 

In addition, there was representation from other countries, with Regional Manager (West Africa) for South Africa Tourism, Hloni Pitso, MD of Jumia Travel Kushal Duttal, country managers of several African airlines, and more from beyond the shores of Nigeria. 

 NATOP’s focus on youth was evident as a panel consisting of emerging players in the tourism space discussed challenges facing the youth in promoting Nigeria as a leisure destination. Some of the participants were Pelu Awofeso of Travel Next Door, Chiamaka Obuekwe of Social Prefect Tours, Sam Adeleke of Afro Tourism, Allen Effeh of Ibom Tourism, Wale Olapade, an award winning journalist with the Nigerian Tribune, among others. 

According to NATOP President Onung, the event was held last year in Calabar as a way of appreciating the contribution and impact of the Cross River government on tourism in Nigeria. This year however, it was moved to Lagos as confirmation that Governor Akinwunmi Ambode is the tourism governor of the moment. “Lagos State has invested and is still investing in tourism infrastructure that will make domestic tourism a delight if well articulated,” he said in his welcome address. 

Setting the tone for the day, Sen. Imoke shed light on the way forward, drawing from his experience as chief executive of Nigeria’s leading tourism state (Cross River) where he spent eight years overseeing the growth of the Carnival Calabar, which is renowned as Africa’s largest street party.

Sharing insights from his address titled ”The Building Blocks of  Tourism Products”,   

Imoke described the progression as moving from a vision to a policy, then legislation and regulation, then institutions.  

He posited that the private sector should lead the way in developing domestic tourism while government provides the needed support in building infrastructure and providing security.

“I pray that we will eventually get there especially with the leadership we have now both at the ministerial level and now at the NTDC,” Imoke said.

Also speaking at the event, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, reiterated that government has the political will to promote and grow tourism. “To this end,” he said, “a number of policy changes are being implemented to achieve positive results.”

The Minister for Information and Culture referenced last year’s summit. “At your last AGM, you issued a 10-point agenda. As a listening government, we have started working on the good ideas proffered by experts.”

He listed positive developments as the appointment of substantive heads for tourism and culture parastatals, the setting up of a committee to review the tourism masterplan and the resuscitation of the Presidential Council on Tourism.  

Other developments include a simplified visa on arrival process with a 48-hour timeline, and the rehabilitation of the runway and other major repairs at the international airport in Abuja, which he said would soon be extended to other major airports in the country in order to boost the confidence of prospective investors and tourists coming to Nigeria.

He also promised to support young tour operators encouraging domestic tourism in Nigeria. “I want to commend NATOP for bringing them together and promise that government will work with NATOP to empower them. I will be inviting the leadership of NATOP to Abuja for further consultations on how we can move this youth initiative forward.”

Incidentally, the NATOP summit was the first time Mr Folarin-Coker would – in his own words – hold a mic and stand on a podium since his appointment as NTDC DG. His first few words also point to better days ahead as he charmed his audience by enunciating the diverse ways to sell Nigeria through the sectors the country already has a comparative advantage in: movies, music and fashion among others.  

For him, Nigeria is the most valuable holiday one can get, considering the present exchange rates in the country. 

“We need to package tourism in a simple manner that the average Nigerian can understand. If we don’t package it, individuals cannot take advantage of it. We understand the product better, we are the most critical audience and will demand better value for our money. 

“At around N400 to $1, we are better off spending our naira here.  It will also help in boosting our economy and strengthening our currency by reducing the pressure on it.”

Coker also emphasised the need for robust communication between participants in the tourism value chain. 

According to him, “one of such is what happened here today, the synergy between NTDC, NATOP and NANTA. It is the beginning of better things to come in the industry.”