In July 2015, a few months after President Buhari was sworn in, he took a trip to Washington D.C at the invitation of then US President Barack Obama to discuss bilateral cooperation on Nigeria's economy, corruption, and security. During a meet and greet held in his honor at the Nigerian Embassy, a few attendees were selected to address the President and offer what they wanted his administration to prioritize. Responses ranged from security to abolishing the "state of origin" designation to using sports as a tool for youth development. My response albeit drawn out, was simple - focus on international tourism in lieu of Foreign Direct Investments, because tourism dollars typically stay in country and help develop it and can even attract FDI. Two and a half years into his administration, a currency crisis and a crippling recession later, you could make a valid case that a more deliberate focus on international tourism; which the Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria (FTAN) estimates is about a $4Billion shortfall might've mitigated the financial crisis. But this piece isn't about Nigeria's failed or non-existent tourism policy, but about how to create growth in spite of it. Following the meet and greet, I was inundated with messages cheering me on, but some were skeptical, saying Nigeria was not ready for international tourism, citing poor infrastructure. As I pushed back against these arguments, I realized that the solution to the governments failure isn't to wait for them to lead, but to take matters into our own hands by electing local, state and national leaders who can channel the cultural resources into generating revenue, encouraging businesses to actively vie for the patronage of international travelers, and for citizens to become brand ambassadors for Nigeria.
In 2017, the World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index ranked Nigeria 129 out of 136 Countries studied. Buried in between the numbers is the Prioritization of Travel & Tourism in which Nigeria predictably scored very low, because we lack leadership that prioritizes travel and tourism. Donald Duke, the former governor of Cross River State; who had a vision to attract large numbers of tourists from around the world, once compared Nigeria to an aircraft being flown by untrained pilots. Adding that when the plane crashes, everyone blames the pilot, instead of the fact that there are no flying schools. His point was we elect and appoint leaders who aren't skilled in the tradecraft and then blame them for their lack of skill. Omoba Gbolahan Ayoola; a critically acclaimed artist, who is exploring a Senatorial bid for Osun East - the home of the ancient town Ile-ife, echoed that sentiment. He suggested that for tourism to be taken seriously in Nigeria, we have to elect more creative professionals especially in areas with significant cultural heritage. Ayoola who pointed out that the capital of the Yoruba Nation is in Osun state, lamented the fact that the Osun state government has been unable to tap into the cultural significance of the state to create a hajj-style pilgrimage for people of Yoruba descent who span 3 continents. He points out that while there are a few small festivals, they barely scratch the surface of what's possible. All across the country, creatives, are starting to explore the possibility of running for elected office, offering a different kind of leadership, one that prioritizes the cultural resources that have been all but abandoned since the discovery of oil.
The second foot of the 3-legged stool is local businesses vying for continental and international tourists. From airlines, and hotels to culture, film, and music festivals, Nigerian businesses have quite a bit to offer, but they have all but conceded the international market to other players. They don't run adverts for local events or companies outside of Nigeria. Nigerian tourism is still largely a mystery to even the savviest of travelers, even as brand Nigeria fueled by Nollywood, Afrobeats and literature is at an all time high. While festivals like Chale Wote in Ghana, destinations like Lamu in Kenya, Debre Zeyit in Ethiopia and Jahazi Literary & Jazz festival in Zanzibar are on the global map, tourists are still wary of visiting Nigeria. While the government sets the tone and shores up things like security and infrastructure, it is not up to them to attract international visitors to patronize local businesses. Businesses have to go out and grab these thrill seeking travelers by their backpacks with amazing deals they can't refuse. With the popularity of alternative travel sites and travel bloggers like Tastemakers Africa, Spirited Pursuit and Visiter L'Afrique, reaching them has never been easier; businesses just have to be willing to take on the responsibility.
The last leg is the role of the citizen - what we do when visitors arrive in Nigeria. Getting people to come through the doors in any establishment is the most difficult thing, but how you treat them once they're there determines whether they return and whether they refer you. The Tony Elumelu Foundation which hosted its 3rd annual TEF Forum, brought about 1000 entrepreneurs and over 100 Journalists from across Africa and the world, to Lagos. This is a group of very impressionable and influential people who are either producers of goods or service providers with a large and/ or increasing customer base and media folks who have the power to create and shape narratives. For their part, TEF put on an impressive and inspiring show and highlighted the best of the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit, with keynotes from Aliko Dangote, master classes with the best and brightest Nigerians and a riveting speech from Vice President Osinbajo. The rest was up to the Nigerian entrepreneurs and the other Nigerians they encountered during their stay to show them what Nigerian hospitality is.
Over the last few weeks, there have been similar events like the Lagos Fashion and Design Week, Art X Lagos, AFRIMA and GTB Fashion Weekend that boasted guests from across the continent and the world and similarly the organizers put together an impressive show, but the real work falls on the everyday citizen to be the best brand ambassadors for Nigeria. Nothing bridges cultural divides or enriches the experience of a traveler like the people-to-people interaction.
As I discovered during that meet and greet in 2015, the Government isn't willing or capable of swiftly addressing the large-scale needs of businesses, like infrastructure
They are more likely to address piece-meal policy items like easing travel restrictions and allowing visa on arrival for all nationals. So while we continue to demand the big-ticket items, we must get government to do what they can do in the short term. What people think of Nigeria reflects on each and every one of us, therefore, we must make sure that in local, state and national elections we support candidates who understand and prioritize our cultural heritage. We must also understand that whether at home or abroad, it is our job to promote and defend our brand - flaws and all, to the world.