It’s time to grow money for Nigeria through tourism – Coker
Folorunsho Coker, director-general, Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), in this interview with a select group of editors in Lagos, spoke on his plans to make some remarkable and profitable changes in the tourism industry in the country, saying that his focus is to rebrand tourism into a revenue-generating business. He also spoke on other issues within the industry. ZEBULON AGOMUO was at the session. Excerpts:
Looking at the tourism industry in Nigeria from the point of view of an insider, what is you general assessment?
In Nigeria, we have some traditional forms of tourism that have not been invested in; therefore, the returns from them are constantly dwindling. They are also seen as leisure community activities that are not income-generating or taxable. That’s why the business aspect of it needs to be refocused. In Nigeria, we are also lucky, apart from having this cultural heritage- destination tourism, we also have over the years been able to develop new medium of cultural expression that has come to even dominate in the world. If you look at our music- a few days ago I was in Toronto, there was a protest march and they were playing Korede Bello’s ‘Godwin’ and singing to it. I had to come out of the car. It was unbelievable. Our fashion is very strong. Our film is number two in the world. I went to Toronto International Film Festival- it is a business. Film production is a big business globally. The film festival is a business on its own and that is where tourism again needs to look at all these new mediums of cultural expression and start to define them as businesses. The Zuma Film Festival in Abuja needs to be like the largest film festival in Africa since the largest business in Africa resides in Nigeria. We are number two in the world, but we don’t even have the number largest film festival in Africa. Something is seriously wrong in terms of how we define our tourism assets and how we use them for business. If you look at sports, we are a sports-loving nation, particularly football. I challenge you to turn on your TV set on Saturday in Nigeria, you can watch La Liga, you can watch EPL, South African football and all that but you cannot watch Kano Pillars; Iwuanyanwu National play or any local league for that matter. And we have a 20 strong league. Again, if you look at tourism as a business, it will compel us to look at certain things. Why is there so much money in EPL and how many people are watching this EPL in England? How many people are in Europe and are watching La Liga? How many South Africans are there? Why are their leagues so globally strong? Television! People want to watch it on television. Television focuses on them and as television focuses on them, advertising becomes a very significant thing. Television focusing on sports allows advertising to come in; allows the revenues that we need and the sports stories to also grow.
What is the place of branding in Nigeria’s tourism business?
Before going into that, let me quickly say this: One of the areas we have problem in Nigeria is- even when we get something right, we don’t know how to sustain it. Even where Chief X makes money, we don’t know how to transfer it to the next generation. How many millionaires of my father’s days were able to manage the money to successfully transfer it to the next generation? That also has to o with branding. It is about branding and consistency in improving consumption. Coca cola is sugar, water and colouring, we all know it. We can make drums of it. But we buy Coca cola because it is a brand. At a point when Coca Cola discovered that people were no longer buying the product the way they were doing before; they started branding it, using people’s names on the bottle of the drink- Lola, Yemi, Kola, etc to make us buy more, and if you didn’t buy, somebody would buy it for you. Somebody would say, ‘see your coca cola’. That’s the power of branding. Branding drives consumption. It focuses attention and creates an emotional connection to a product that allows you to consume more of what you know you shouldn’t probably be consuming, but you continue to do it.
Now, if you look at the logo of NTDC, it looks like a military detachment regiment somewhere, but look at the rest of the world- South Africa, Singapore, Croatia, Bangladesh, Malaysia- you can see how friendly, warm and engaging they are. So, one of the first things I did was to look at the brand NTDC as a master brand and created a sub-brand called TOUR NIGERIA, simply in line with the Coca Cola principle that for me to create an emotional connection with our Nigeria, by a Nigerian and for a Nigeria, I needed to create something that was simple and fun.
Why ‘Tour Nigeria’?
First of all, the focus of NTDC is on domestic tourism. Domestic tourism is simply the only sustainable form of tourism that you can ever get. It entails using what you have best in your home, locality, region and in your country. It is the only form of tourism that can withstand shock. For instance, when they blew up an aircraft coming out from Egypt, people still go to Egypt. When they shut up a shopping mall and killed people recklessly in Kenya, people still go to Kenya. It is because they have a strong domestic tourism industry that the international tourism can set up. One is a shock absorber, but allows the growth of the international. Domestic tourism, because it is local, strengthens our establishments- our hotels, if we consume more of our hotels, our restaurants, tourism heritage sites, and our tourism events here, you find out that it will become stronger. It is when it is stronger that it also strengthens the institution- the government, the agencies, the taxation that come off it. It is only within that structure that eventually the international bodies will be looking and say this is the ultimate; we want to generate billions of dollars. But if we don’t take it as a business, if we don’t invest in it; if we don’t set the right policies to drive it, we cannot expect to reap the yield that we are looking for, and the rest of the world being able to partake in.
Is there any relationship between a country with youthful population and a successful tourism industry?
Our population is over 180 million. It is the densest concentration of black people in the world. It is the most populous country in Africa. If you look our demographics, we are also fat in the middle because we have the age bracket 18-35 that makes up the bulk of our population. This group is digitally connected; they are the socially mobile and they are a productive workforce. Add that to whatever infrastructure we have, to Arts and culture as we have it; to entertainment as we have it; we have an opportunity to accelerate the development of tourism because all our needs and assets are already existing. It is not like manufacturing where you have to go and get the machine, the labour and all those things to start to build. It is not like agriculture where you will need to go and get the land, till the land, plant your seed, wait for it to grown and harvest and take to the market. All we need is already in existence in group of manageable structure for tourism to become a serious income earner for Nigeria. So, after rebranding, we “Tour Nigeria”. “Tour Nigeria” is a very simple brand that we created to focus on our domestic tourism agenda. We also created the acronym called ‘CHIEF’. It is a 5-point action plan. C- Stands for corporate governance and regulation; H – for human capital development; I – for Infrastructure development; E- for events and marketing, and F- for finance and investment.
Now, what I am trying to do in NTDC is to put NTDC through this 5-point action plan. In terms of corporate governance and regulation, we’ve been through first and second reading at the public hearing to try and repeal the old bill which was set up in 1992 and enact a new bill so that we can bring the policies that govern tourism into 2017 and the next 10 years. If we don’t change the regulatory framework or the legal backing, we cannot hope to grow tourism the way we want do it; and some of the things relating to that- there’s tourism levy that will populate a tourism funds, and that is already a tax that is existing; it is just for us to be given the money for tourism.
In terms of regulation, right now 36 states are setting 36 different standards in terms of hotels, in terms of grading, etc. So, the international community that we want to attract cannot take the grading standard of a hotel in Zamfara and a hotel in Lagos and say this is an internationally acceptable standard. Nations, national agencies set standards and grade hotels that are internationally recognisable not individual states within a federation of state.
Human capital development – Tourism is driven by a digital medium. Today, most businesses are driven by digital medium. Now, with a large population of digitally-connected individuals; we must embrace technology. If we don’t embrace technology, we cannot hope to, for example, take the message out and potentially reach two million people on Facebook or several millions on Instagram.
Capital development on appropriate training, not just training like we have been used to, but training in the new mediums and new technologies that help you market with the same prowess as Jumia or Wakanow or Konga.
Infrastructure development – I’m glad to say that Nigeria has the infrastructure but they need to be developed; especially in the tourism industry, infrastructure is either not in the right hand, not being driven properly or moribund and we need to look at it holistically.
What do we have and as a business how can we use this better? How can we use the Tafawa Balewa Square (IBS) better? How can we use National Theatre, Abuja Stadium, National Stadium in Lagos; Football stadium in Akwa Ibom – how can we use all these better? What do we need to put around Abuja stadium to make it work- a hotel? Do we allow all league matches to be played free of charge there? What will happen if we do that? Will the population of the North Central of Nigeria collapse temporarily into Abuja for certain things, thereby countering the population imbalance we have between the Southwest, the North central to the axis of the North East?
Events and marketing – we need to look at what events we have. At NTDC, we have created a January to December calendar of events that allows people to plan. If you look at the football league in England- you know that Manchester United is going to play with Chelsea on the 4th of June next year at Chelsea’s ground. It is fixed. It allows hotels, transporters to plan, and it is in that planning that you get the acceleration of wealth creation. Again, it is a business. Then we will have one platform anchoring other events.
Again in marketing, the promotion has to be digital.
Today, nobody leaves home without their phones. So, it is the medium we reach maximum number of people. If you look at your WhatSap messages, the stories we all share among ourselves on a daily or weekly basis – it tells you what people are interested in. It is either about fashion, food, religion, music, film or politics. If you look at your last 20 messages you will see that they fall into the above mentioned categories. That tells you that these are the Medium of expression through which people are consuming whatever information today.
May we know some of your programme projections in the short and long terms?
We have mapped out some of the things we are doing at NTDC in the short to medium and long terms. In terms of corporate governance, we are continuously interacting with stakeholders in the tourism industry. Change is here and tourism is not going to be excluded from that agenda. Whether we like it or not, certain things must change for us to move forward. We can grow money or we can earn money. If we treat tourism like a leisure activity we will continue to earn money. If we treat tourism as a business we grow money. If we invest in infrastructure specific to tourism that grows tourism, we will reap multiple benefits from it.
Whether government is APC or any other; whether I am the DG NTDC or any other person else, it continues to flow. We are also using the digital platforms – social media, the internet, to make presence of NTDC known. We have ‘Tour Nigeria’, which is the hash tag and is on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, We have our website – tournigeria.org.ng where we are hoping to put a lot of positive images about our country to reverse the negative conversations about Nigeria. There have been lots of challenges simply because people would always want to resist change. Again, some people have not just taken the time to understand the law. One of the things that people are agitating the most about is about the registration and regulation and grading of hotels. In any country in the world where tourism is treated as a business and the values they get from it are real, there’s an external body responsible for it, but because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, states have been granted the power to so do, but those states will never get international recognition for it because they recognise countries, they don’t recognise the components of countries.
The President’s order on ease of doing business in Nigeria has benefitted us in being able to get visas and access to some other things. It is not perfect yet, but it has started to yield good fruit; it will continue to get better. We are hoping that NTDC will be the steering agency for all tourism-related activities. We must take tourism seriously as a business, if we treat it otherwise, we cannot get the revenues we are hoping to get from it.
Independence anniversary is by the corner, do you have any programme to showcase to Nigeria?
Abuja is my adopted home, so tourism programme that we’ll run in Abuja will be akin to when I was commissioner for tourism in Lagos. We will every month do something in Abuja in the hope that other states in the federation will be able to copy it. For example, Independence Day, we’re doing Nigeria flavours in Abuja at the Julius Berger Shooting Range and it is simply flavour of Nigeria – the food, the drink- it is a family-oriented event. October 1 is our freedom; it is a happy event where communities come together to eat, drink, and listen to music. It is not just restricted to military parade that it has been in the past. So, what we are trying to do is to encourage the different states to celebrate independence. We believe that by so doing, many will develop a different emotional connection to our country. I’ll say that tourism is an incredible healer; tourism brings people together.
Could you point out some specific practices or perceptions you think should change, which you also believe may positively impact the tourism industry in the country?
I do not believe in world tourism market just yet, I believe in a Nigerian domestic-focused tourism market. Let me be clear on this: I don’t see the need to go and market what (products) I know that are not as strong as I want them. I don’t believe in going to London to say, I want to do London travel market to go and market products that are not as strong as I want them to be. I will like to focus inward and strengthen those products here first, then maybe in a year or two you can take them to the London travel market. There are some market functions, they call travel market in Nigeria today – the individuals that pushed us to be promoting Nigeria’s cultural heritage are being sponsored by foreign airlines, foreign hotels and all that they are promoting is sale of foreign holidays to Nigerian citizens. I don’t stand behind such misconception. People are misled to believe that this is promoting the Nigerian culture when foreign airlines, foreign hotels come into a Nigerian hotel to put together a programme to show Nigerians the beauty of South Africa or Dubai or Rwanda; it is not promoting Nigeria, it is promoting African culture but not Nigerian culture. My business is not to promote the culture of any other country apart from that of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Looking at the status of tourism industry in the country, do you have some recommendations?
We recommend that tourism be included in the curriculum of educational institutions. If people don’t start to learn it from an early age that this thing exists and that if you treat it like a business you can earn money, they may not show interest in it. If you look at how many people that take Chemical Engineering; Mechanical Engineering, Architecture and look at what they feed into, we have got to look at other side of our inflow of human capital which is developing tourism as a curriculum from schools to university. We are not just saying go and start it now, but let’s look at how we can inject it into the existing curriculum in schools. Most of the people you find in the tourism industry did not really study tourism; they studied something else; but tourism became what they can do or something they just like to do. It is good to get core professionals within the industry.
Issue of security is of a serious concern if tourism must thrive in any country. With the rate of kidnapping, and other social crimes in society, don’t you think such may negatively impact the business aspect of tourism?
I disagree with you. Let me tell you why. Is Nigeria the murder capital of the world? No. Is Nigeria the rape or kidnapping capital of the world? No. I don’t want to name those countries. Every country has security issue. America, Britain, France all have security issue. Look at the attacks that have happened in Britain this year, still people still go there. I am not saying that we don’t have some of these issues, but they are not issues that should stop people from coming here. You and I live here. The security situation has improved tremendously over a year and half now. There are still some new things that are popping up; did we know that terrorists could turn an aircraft into a weapon against people? Did we know that a terrorist could turn a car into a weapon against people? Would people stop going to France, for instance, because a terrorist drove a truck over people on the sidewalk? They kidnap in France; they kidnap in England. But you know what, those countries have very, very sophisticated system of not reporting so much of the negative about them, unless it is something they cannot cover. Do you know how many people that are killed in those countries in a day? I understand the security concern, but they are not things that will stop people from coming to Nigeria. Look, some of these crimes are reactions to poverty; if we grow our domestic industry, some of these things would stop. If a man can wake up every morning to a place he can earn a decent day’s work and get a decent wage for it, robbery is not the first option for our people. Security concerns should not stop the development of our tourism.
How much does tourism generate for the country at the moment?
If over the next three years tourism moves from about 1.4percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to close to 10 percent of the GDP, I think we would have gotten ourselves on a remarkable track. But certain things need to be done. There needs to be investment in our tourism assets. There need to be change in our policy; there’s the need to be support for the tourism function to rearrange things in the way where it generates this income. Also, we need to capture data; we need to open the tourism satellite account that allows us to count- how many foreigners are coming into the country; where are they staying, what are doing, how much are we making from them? If you don’t count that it will be very difficult for us to know what exactly our revenue is.
You are the DG at the moment and having good plans for the tourism industry. One of the major problems of Nigeria is lack of sustainability. Policies are not sustained; programmes are not sustained no matter how good they are. How would you ensure that the programmes you are putting in place now would continue after your exit from the seat?
You see, this is the year of sustainable tourism globally. It is the type of tourism you grow internally, domestically. Now, what are the hallmarks? Support your own domestic tourism industry; pay a fair price for your domestic products; engage with your domestic stakeholders, create advantages for your domestic stakeholders against foreign attractions. Let me give you an instance. You know what Ghana did? Ghana gives a tax holiday at the weekend for tourism activities. So, the cheapest place now for you to have a conference is Ghana. You know what that means?
Nigeria was recently recognised on the global tourism scene; may we have your comment on that beautiful development?
I am so happy that my boss, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, honourable minister of information and culture, has been appointed the Vice President of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. It is a reflection of the commitment and tenacity of the man. To have attained this laudable position in tourism, I believe this supports the functions of NTDC immensely. And I believe that with his support, tourism as a business is here to stay.
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