Nigeria boasts one of the most eco-diverse environments on Earth. It is a melting pot, a potpourri of over 250 ethnic groups, some of which tracing their origins to 200 BC. It is blessed with a vibrant music and film industry, and is the defacto cultural heart of the African continent. Despite these impressive qualifications, the Nigerian tourism industry is still in embryonic stages and has not yet assumed a significant position in Nigeria’s GDP pie. Thousands if not millions of potential jobs remain just that – “potential”. Equally disappointing is Nigerians’ own ambivalence, and at times ignorance, towards the country’s natural and cultural blessings. For instance, very few Nigerians are aware that two World Heritage Sites are located in Nigeria (Sukur and Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove). Idanre Hills is another candidate for enlistment.
The issue is extremely complicated. Pundits argue that Nigeria is bedeviled with incessant security challenges (Niger Delta insurgency, highway robberies, and ethnic clashes) rendering any discussion of Nigerian tourism, domestic or international, a futile one. Cynics argue that Nigeria tourism is not even possible, owing to the lack of motorable roads, stable power supply, and a general sense of insecurity. To complicate matters further, a legal framework guiding the development of the sector (for example, a tourism bill) is still inexistent despite recent efforts to formulate the necessary laws and establish institutions. Nigeria’s tourist visa regime is rather cumbersome (for example, tourists such as myself required a letter of invitation).
A NASCENT SECTOR
Despite the above, not all is gloom and doom. Nigeria with its abundant natural and cultural attractions managed to attract over 900,000 tourists in 2008 (However, the definition of the word tourist is not so clear). Visa rules are being relaxed and Nigerian embassies are putting their act together. The World Tourism Organization (WTO) has segmented tourists into distinct categories, with Nigeria being particularly strong in the areas of cultural, adventure, and eco-tourism. Granted, tourists in pursuit of zebras and giraffes prefer such places as Kenya or South Africa (even though this kind of Safari experience is locally available in Yankari National Park). Where Nigeria has a comparative advantage is its vast number of ethnic groups, each with its distinct language, dance, and cuisine, in such a relatively small region. Ironically, its under-developed tourism sector appeals to hard-core backpackers in search of hidden adventures and less traditional itineraries.
In my opinion, Nigeria’s tourism potential today is unrealized. What I mean is that with today’s infrastructure and socio-political environment, Nigeria as a country can attract double, if not triple the number of inbound tourists. Lack of awareness about regional attractions (outside Lagos) remains the single largest impediment to the sector’s takeoff. Efforts of the NTDC, FMCT and other government agencies to promote everything positive about Nigeria abroad have been unfocused, uncoordinated, and lack seriousness and resolve. I recall visiting FITUR (Madrid’s yearly global tourism forum, the third largest in the world) in 2008. It was attended by over 150 nations. Smaller countries like Benin and Cameroon were present and aggressively promoted their respective destinations. When I asked around about Nigeria, I was told their team could not secure visas in time because they had applied last-minute.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR NIGERIAN AIRLINES
Through this essay I wish to demonstrate how a pro-tourism strategy by Nigerian airlines can lead to increased tourist inflows. This mostly applies to Arik Air, as the Nigerian airline with the largest international network to date, and growing. The airlines themselves stand to benefit directly, flying additional passengers from intercontinental destinations and onward to regional tourism spots such as Calabar, Jos, Kano, etc.
A major asset recently added to Nigerian tourism is the country’s first ever Tourism Master Plan. This comprehensive document provides general guiding principles for the industry, identifies areas of priority investments (both private and public sectors), and zones the different tourism spots of the country into clusters (illustrated below). The airlines already have access to this Master Plan. It is now a question of how serious the airlines are in fitting in their travel-solution into this overall framework of tourism development. Providing safe, quick, and efficient means of transport is only one building block. Optimizing a route by highlighting the beauty and intrigue of the destination is where it gets interesting.
A pro-tourism policy can come at almost zero cost to the airlines. A sensory and visual experience of Nigeria’s tourist attractions can begin in the cabin in far-away destinations such as New York or London. For instance, the airline can play exciting and colorful footage of Nigeria’s fauna, or endangered species, on the aircraft’s IFE (In-flight Entertainment) during boarding and before takeoff. It may also present professionally taken images of Nigerian landscapes and towns, clearly identifying the site, and the nearest airport which the airline serves, to highlight convenience of access. Traditional African patterns and motifs may be part of the cabin interior concept. This could boost awareness of Nigeria’s beauty among the expatriate community, and would lure them to discover “Unbelievable Nigeria“. Curious to know more, they can be treated with simple pamphlets and wall-to-wall, post-card quality murals in the airline’s offices in Lagos and Abuja. Overseas offices can also adopt sights and sounds of Nigeria in their visuals and communication channels, affirming Nigerian pride.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
NTDC some years ago brought up the notion of serving Nigerian food items on board Nigerian carriers, to “help promote Nigerian tourism”. Apparently, the NTDC does not fully grasp the idea. Nigerian airlines could serve a select number of creatively-presented, organically-positioned, Nigerian snacks in order to promote the healthy and beautiful side of Nigerian cuisine. This, in turn, could contribute to rehabilitating Nigeria’s image abroad, which would then boost Nigerian tourism.
The cabin experience of Nigeria should not end with food and imagery, but can also extend to other areas such as airline uniforms. The marketing campaign of Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s most profitable airlines, revolves entirely on the Singapore Girl. The elegant batik uniform of the Singapore Girl, along with her friendly smile and charms, represent a sort of cultural ambassador. Nigeria is world-renowned for her rich fabrics of vivid colors and array of traditional wears. Nigerian airlines can promote the Nigerian sense of fashion by integrating these fabrics in cabin crew uniforms. To help control costs, these flashy uniforms may be restricted initially to first and business class cabin crew.
Arik Air and Nigerian Eagle Airlines have recently started offering their own complementary in-flight magazines. This initiative should be sustained, and be directly tied with other tourism-related programs within the airline and other Nigerian entities. For example, the magazines can feature a different Nigerian destination on a monthly basis, offering passengers hints about the best hotels, activities, and natural attractions in its vicinity. A strong emphasis on artistic photography would be most effective. The quality and insight of the articles are more important than quantity. Out-sourcing this sort of investigative & creative journalism to a local magazine or newspaper would make perfect sense.
THE WEBSITE AS A STRATEGIC CHANNEL
Noteworthy are the airlines’ reluctance to offer any kind of tourist information on their websites. One in particular claims to be ‘Nigeria’s flag carrier’ yet the only information offered on its website is vaccination information and some basic data. This is hardly a healthy attitude for a company aspiring to be Nigeria’s ambassador. An airline must recognize its website as a strategic channel to lure potential tourists. Why would a Japanese businessman be interested in a side trip to Enugu? Jos? What is there to experience? Expanding an airline’s website to include more information on its destinations could trigger passenger interest and consequently traffic figures. Hence, Nigerian airlines have the opportunity to accelerate the development of routes previously identified as ‘unviable’ by tapping into their tourism potential.
Partnering with hinterland boutique hotels (some of them already exist in such cities as Bauchi, Calabar, and Osun) could also boost the airlines’ traffic figures by increasing domestic tourism. A holistic travel product, inclusive of such amenities as car rental, organized tours, and transportation to/from the airport, is something which established carriers worldwide have offered for decades. ADC Airlines, once a major airline in Nigeria, offered such services in conjunction with affiliated organizations and hotels.
Airlines have also started to partner state governments. In demonstrating that an airline can have a direct role in attracting tourists, rather than assuming the passive role of providing efficient air transport, state governments have an incentive to purchase additional seat blocks and hence increase their subsidies.
The notion of stimulating domestic Nigerian tourism can also be strengthened through sponsorship programs. A variety of events dot the nation’s Tourism Calendar, such as the Carnival and New Yam Festival in Cross River State, the Argungu Fishing Festival, Abuja Carnival, Kano Durbar, among numerous others. In return of assuming certain costs on behalf of organizers (communications, PR, transportation of staff, etc.), the airlines as ‘official carriers’ are guaranteed higher patronage. They may also derive higher revenues through advertising some time-limited promotional offers that last the duration of the event, the effects of which are sustained year-round. These may be publicized on the airlines’ websites.
Separately, certain non-profit conservation organizations are on the brink of collapse due to shortage of donation. One of these is CERCOPAN. Established in 1991, its purpose is to save a number of indigenous Nigerian primates from extinction. Well-run by a dedicated staff of Nigerians as well as expatriates, it has grown to become Nigeria’s most prominent wildlife preservation initiative. Unfortunately and due to the global financial crisis, it can no longer afford basic expenses such as rent. Airlines such as Arik Air have a strategic opportunity to sponsor CERCOPAN or other non-profit entities, affirming their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and concern for environmental issues.
Sponsorship opportunities transcend conservation agencies. The list of under-funded, high-potential organizations include museums and art galleries. Facilities at the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA) in Jos are in dire need of overhaul, to bring them to international standard. By aligning themselves with non-profit initiatives, the airlines can fulfill their societal duties in a manner that stimulates the tourism industry. This would ultimately enhance their load factors.
Air fares in Nigeria remain relatively high, for a variety of reasons better not delved into. The average tourist who would be interested to visit Nigeria today simply cannot afford to travel around the country by air. The hazardous state of many roadways connecting Nigerian state capitals means the vast majority of them simply stay away. One possible solution to this problem is a ‘Nigeria Airpass‘, emulating the Brazilian Airpass. A promotional air fare of 25,000 Naira can be advertised for a 3 stop round trip flight, in condition that the passenger originates from outside Nigeria. For example: Lagos-Calabar-Abuja-Kano-Lagos sectors covering a 2-week holiday can be considered a Nigerian Airpass. Most airlines today would charge an exorbitant fare for the same routing, deterring eco and adventure tourists who are typically on a shoestring budget. This type of promotional fare might also appeal to Nigerians living abroad.
AIRPORT TOURIST INFORMATION
When it comes to foreigners in Nigeria, few are aware of what Nigeria has to offer beyond business opportunities and the shelter and comfort of their housing estates. In an attempt to address this problem, the NTDC has inaugurated information booths in Abuja and Lagos Airports. Ill-equipped and under-funded, the booths are often unmanned and do not show any enthusiasm or passion in delivering the message. Foreigners react to what captivates them, and captivating the NTDC booths are not. The airlines can intervene, and working with FAAN (Federal Airports Authority) can secure space for their own Travel Point in international arrival halls. To give them the proper angle and credibility, they could partner world-renowned travel guides such as National Geographic Traveller, Time Out (already covers Abuja and Lagos), Conde Nast, and others specialized in non-traditional eco-tourism. This would ensure the highest standard of information relay through highly trained and friendly staff, dynamic workstations, free wi-fi for the airline’s passengers, etc.. Additionally, the airline’s Travel Point can readily refer passengers to the local attractions, through traditional media or downloadable PDA applications.
I was very pleased with the tourist facilities already available in such places as Calabar and Obudu. It is unfortunate that none of the 3 major airlines which ply the Lagos-Calabar route offer any information on tourist attractions in the area (the drill monkey reserve, Afi Mountain Canopy walk, Tinapa, and Obudu) let alone package deals.
A situation where stakeholders in the travel industry, from airlines to hotel and tour operators, act independently, remaining isolated from one another, can no longer persist. If they cooperate and offer their customers a holistic travel product, they are bound to imbibe the Nigeria option as a viable alternative to other holiday destinations. The sum would be greater than the parts.
In the face of underperforming government agencies, it is sincerely hoped that the airlines would take matters into their own hands and at the very least, boost awareness of Nigeria’s breathtaking landscapes. Doing so would most certainly contribute to improve the country’s image abroad, and would complement Nigeria’s efforts to rebrand.
I prepared below a list of Nigerian significant attractions, listed by nearest airport. Feel free to contact me to improve and expand on it.
Abuja: Aso Rock, Zuma Rock, Millenium Park, Millenium Tower (under construction), Nike Arts Centre, Arts and Crafts Village, Gurara waterfalls, Farin Ruwa waterfalls, Abuja Zoo
Akure: Idanre Hills
Bauchi: Yankari National Park
Bebi: Obudu Mountain Resort, Nigeria’s only cable car, honey farm, dairy ranch
Calabar: Calabar Carnival, Cross River National Park & rainforest, Marina Resort, Old Calabar, Old Residency Museum, CERCOPAN, Pandrillus, and numerous others.
Ibadan: IITA, Botanical Gardens, Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove
Ilorin: Central Mosque, Kwara Farms
Jos: NOK ancient civilization, Plateau Rock Formations & savannah, colonial buildings, MTNA
Kano: The Durbar, die pits, old city walls (to be restored)
Katsina: The Sahel and desert landscape
Lagos: Badargy Slave Route, Bar Beach/Resort (under rehabilitation), Oba’s Palace, Banana Island, Nike Arts Centre, Olumo Rock (Abeokuta)
Yola/Maiduguri: Sukur Cultural Landscapes
Benin City: Oba’s Palace
Ibadan: Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove
Uyo: Le Meridien Ibom Golf Resort, palm wine tours, Tropicana Resort
Sokoto: Argungu Fishing Festival (also through Kebbi air strip)