Ihuezi Cave in Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State

A venture into the bowels of the South-east revealed invaluable tourist treasures. Ugo Aliogo who was part of the team that toured the region recently, reports that Nigeria could generate more revenue from tourism than oil

The South-east region is regarded as the country’s fastest growing business hub. The people of the region are entrepreneurial and industrious. From the shoe manufacturing industries in Aba, to the consumer goods market in Onitsha and the automobile spare parts market in Nnewi, the region is truly endowed. But beyond the business history, there is a huge potential in the region that has remained underdeveloped.

A trip to the tourist sites in South-east Nigeria revealed how hugely blessed the largest country in Africa is. Every part of Nigeria has something unique to showcase to the world and the South-east region has more tourist destinations than could ever be conceived which are still untapped.

Recently, the South-east chapter of Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria (FTAN) organised a tour primarily to walk journalists and tour operators through the amazing historical and cultural sites in the region using well-researched sample itineraries that would appeal to both local and international tourists. The effort was premised on the hope that the exposure would drive tourism traffic to the zone and help generate income for the communities where these tourism sites are located and boost the businesses of members.

That is the lot of most of the historical and natural tourist sites that grace the Nigerian landscape from the Northern Savanna to the swamps of the South, glaring at the Atlantic.

Every part of Nigeria has something to showcase to the world and these artefacts, natural wonders, the flora and fauna cannot be appreciated until they are exposed. The South-east has such invaluable tourist sites which have been grossly underappreciated, but FTAN has initiated the effort to exhume these sites from obscurity. Some of the tourist sites are the Ogbunike Cave, the Long Juju Slave Route of Arochukwu, National War Museum Umuahia, Ihuezi Natural Waterfall, Ihuezi Natural Cave, Awhum Waterfall, Ojukwu Bunker, the Oguta Lake, Mbari Cultural Centre, Igbo-Ukwu Museum, and others.

Speaking during the tour, the Vice-President of the FTAN South-east Zone, Mrs. Ngozi Ngoka, said members have businesses that cover the whole spectra of the tourism value chain from transportation, accommodation, feeding to site seeing/entertainment.

She also stated that the region is a tourism haven for so many reasons, noting that the area is naturally endowed with many historical and cultural sites, local and renowned artists, and enterprising people, good recipes and delicacies and transport system.

From research, it was posited that the region has common cultural practices for tourists to contend with which makes tour planning and guiding easy and the experience stress-free. This is the current, unharnessed and unplanned tourism scenario in the region. This is a sad development for Ngoka, therefore she explained that what happened with lack of planning is that some initiatives are not able to withstand the periodic (sometimes daily) changes that occur in unplanned business operating environment.

She argued that if the state governments began to make optimal use of the existing environmental resources in their economic planning and include tourism development with strategic focus on improved road networks, standardisation of accommodation options, maintenance of existing tourism sites, institutional framework and proper legislation that would attract investors into the sector, “these are the key areas that the government should pay attention for tourism to thrive.”

The FTAN South-east VP lamented that the country has failed to embrace the idea of tourism as an alternative tool for economic development, adding that the private sector, through FTAN is taking a lead role with the hope that they can positively influence the tourism discourse especially by showcasing how it can be used as a tool for poverty alleviation and strategic development of rural communities for economic empowerment.

She noted: “Successful tourism development is predicated on sustained efforts to clearly mapped out tourism development objectives and integration of these objectives into the national economic planning for the country; involvement and control by local communities where tourism initiatives are sited; regional co-operation and integration of common policies by state governments and government facilitation of tourism entrepreneurship through tax reduction and subsidies for tourism startups.

“I believe that the entire advocacy that FTAN is currently engaged in is a bold step towards achieving these objectives. Investors usually research online, so we have started working on our website. When the site is ready, visitors will be able to upload downloadable ebooks and journals about South-east tourism and investor follow up systems. We want to know who is browsing for information about our region so we can target them in our social media marketing campaigns.

“We are regularly uploading videos, photos and podcasts to attract and educate potential investors about tourism in South-east. We also publish on portals such as YouTube, Vimeo and ITunes and run promotions on social networks such as Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Digg, Delicious, Pinterest and Instagram.

“We have included ‘South-east Tourism Investment Opportunity seminar’ in the programme for the food and fashion fair coming up later in the year and we also plan to launch a book about South-east Tourism written by Mr. John Paul Ezeani. We will keep advocating at seminars and speaking engagements with business associations and embassies.

“I believe strongly that the only way to effect change in the tourism sector is to actively get involved. If we all sit down and remain elegiac about our situation, nothing will get done. Our efforts will surely influence change in the sector for the better. We have received a lot of support from our member associations and some individuals and we are currently working on getting the state governments to key into the programmes, therefore we are planning for October, 2018 and beyond.”

Also, lending his voice to the need for the development of the country’s tourism industry is the Obi of Ogbunike, John Umenyiora, a learned gentleman with an amiable personality. He explained that if the government is committed, the tourism potential of the region can be developed to international standard to attract visitors and investors to the region.

“If government develops the Ogbunike Cave, it is going to be a revenue earner for both the federal and state governments. But the sad story is that nobody is making efforts to develop it. The present government under the leadership of Governor Willie Obiano, made an effort, but we are still waiting. We are calling on investors who are willing to develop the cave to come to us,” he noted.

The transport sector is very crucial to the promotion of the tourism in the region and the country generally, but the potential of the sector has been under utilised, despite the efforts most of the private transport companies. However, there have been some encouraging signs from some companies such as ABC Transport Company. The company was established in 1993 by the Chairman, Frank Nneji, the desire of the chairman was to improve the way transportation was being carried out in the country.

In 2004, they established the company in West African cities; this was something spectacular. It was difficult crossing the border and harmonising things. However, ABC ensured that they were able to open up the gateway and facilitate tourism activities amongst West African states. Regrettably, this favoured Ghana more over Nigeria because while a lot of Nigerians travelled to Ghana for various tourism activities, the same cannot be said of Ghana.

However, the company is using this frantic effort to drive the tourism potential of the country. But beyond playing its role as a private investor, Nneji is optimistic that in order to promote tourism, it has to be a deliberate effort, “it does not happen by accident.”

He explained that government has to bring onboard experts in the sector through engagement and think of how to develop it, adding that tourism development has to be prepared for and combined with other ingredients such as hoteling.

According to Nneji, “In Owerri, there are many hotels. Having hotel is one thing, the other thing is having things that will make it attractive to people and encourage them to visit the city. For the government to promote tourism, it needs to set up a clear-cut blueprint on what it wants to achieve. Another challenge is the appreciation of the average Nigerian as to what is the importance of tourism. Many people don’t understand the importance of tourism. For instance, in Ghana when they decided that they wanted to develop their tourism sector, everybody was carried along. There is need to encourage people and invite them to be part of tourism development in the country, by creating things that will make them interested.

“Like I said, the development of tourism is a deliberate effort, it is not going to happen by accident. On our part as individuals, the much we can do is advocacy. There are different regulations and rules which only government can do. If there is a site, there should be a government who can take ownership of that site, develop it and engage the community. For instance, we have a blue lake known as the Oguta Lake. It used to be a beautiful lake, you realise that it has been neglected. The government has to put money into infrastructure. There should be travel bureau which would have experts to carry people along.

“In many of these hotels, the problem is not the building, but the number of staff. When the standards of these hotels are upgraded, people tend to be attracted. So you find out that if you have a tourism bureau to take care of these things, an investor can make a calendar that will make people come to your city, and build facilities that can hold large conferences. Here in Owerri, we have an airport and also it is as if we are in a confluence. In terms of positioning, we are well positioned. Talking about what we do to promote tourism, we have the least to do. The only thing we can do at this stage is advocacy. The government has to have a specific goal to develop tourism and I think it is something to consider very seriously such as job creation and to make the city more popular.”

Hoteling in the region is a thriving business which is driving the tourism potential of the regions. In Owerri, the numbers of hotels are estimated to be above 300 with some still under construction. According to some of the proprietors, the hotels have facilities that are of international standards. The proprietors understand clearly the place of hospitality in developing a region and driving the growth of tourism, therefore they are not leaving any stone unturned.

Many tourist experts have lamented that Nigeria is losing a humongous amount of money leaving many of these tourist destinations underdeveloped.

The tourism industry in Nigeria has been described by the world largest travel guide Lonely Planet (LP) as a pulsating powerhouse with deep and layered cultures and environment. Tourism experts have described the industry as an economic cash cow with a strong potential of contributing to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). LP stated that the total contribution of the industry to the global economy was estimated at over $7.6 trillion in 2016, around 10 per cent of the global GDP of $75.6 trillion.

In Nigeria, the contribution of the tourism industry is estimated at around $1.5 billion, figures that are not only a tiny fraction of the global industry but also demonstrated the gulf between the present reality and the potential of tourism in the country.

Conversely, if there is public-private sector collaboration, the industry is capable of attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the country, create jobs, improve infrastructure such as hotels, construction of roads, improvement in the transport system and rebranding of the country’s battered image before the international community. To ensure that these efforts come to fruition, the Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria has been working to ensure that the right policies and laws which would drive the growth of the industry are put in place. The body is at the forefront of the revitalisation of the industry to expand its frontiers of competitiveness internationally.