By Emeka Anokwuru
When members of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP) chose Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, as host city for this year’s annual general meeting (AGM), it was deliberate. It was a deft move by the tour operators to revive and chart new ways of reflating the travel business in Nigeria, which was adversely impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic that appears now to be receding. Before now, Akwa Ibom had been known as the pearl on the coastal region, with its warm beaches, pristine lands, cultural, historic heritage and a people who offer hospitality without prompting. Akwa Ibom State is secure and has the basic infrastructure needed for tourism to thrive. It has one of the best resorts in Nigeria. It has an airline and an airport, and a generally great weather. This explains why NATOP executives accepted the deal to position Akwa Ibom as preferred tourism destination. Speaking at the fifth AGM held at the Ibom Icon Hotel, Governor Emmanuel Udom of Akwa Ibom tasked the stakeholders to explore new methods that would make the country’s tourism industry attractive and economically beneficial. At the two-day meeting, Udom lamented the dwindling fortunes of the tourism sector despite its vast potential in Nigeria. He charged them to add verve to the local tourism industry by leveraging on technology, maintaining best practices, and adhering to industry protocols and procedures. On the AGM with the theme “Restarting Tourism in Nigeria: A New Template” Udom, however, applauded the new level of commitment and zeal demonstrated in recent times by the tour operators and other stakeholders in promoting tourism, saying, if sustained, it could generate huge revenue for practitioners and government.
According to him, Akwa Ibom State is blessed with many cuisines and natural tourist sites, including the residence of Mary Slessor, the Blue River, the longest coastline in Nigeria, while the annual Christmas Carol and Christmas Village have become major events in the calendars of lovers of tourism. He pledged the assistance and partnership of the state government to NATOP but urged them to adopt measures that would project their services and attract goodwill to the country.
In a keynote speech, oil mogul, Mr. Akanimo Udofia, said, with improved commitment and institutional attention, tourism could generate more revenue for the country than crude oil and gas. Udofia added that many countries not blessed with natural resources had thrived and prospered through tourism.
He said: “A country like Thailand, which is a developing country, ranks as the fourth highest earner for tourism in the world, earning a whopping $60 billion a year,” adding, ‘Tourism is an area that I’m deeply passionate about because it represents one of the world’s leading service sectors that generate strong revenue, as well as also being a major contributor to employment.”
At the event, former Minister of Tourism in Ghana, Mrs. Catherine Afeku, urged Akwa Ibom State government to utilise the opportunity of the Bridge of No Return to welcome back descendants of Nigeria lost to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Afeku urged government and practitioners to focus on domestic tourism, lobby for tourism incentives, adopt a policy of Right of Abode for relatives in the Diaspora, repackage tourism sites, and patronise ‘Made-in-Nigeria’ products and services. The Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Tourism, Mr. Orman Esin, commended NATOP for choosing Akwa Ibom and expressed hope that the conference would usher a new partnership between the state and tour operators. Esin pointed out that the state had pioneered several aspects of tourism in Nigeria, being home to the earliest missionaries.
National president of NATOP, Hajia Bilkisu Abdul, paid tribute to NATOP’s former president, Mrs. Fatima Garbati, who passed on two years ago. But Abdul regretted the loss of revenue in the tourism sector occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, however, that the tour business had gradually returned, with Akwa Ibom being one of the star destinations for tour operators.
“As we begin to breathe back life into tourism, insecurity and high airline ticket prices still remain a big problem.”
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who was represented by the permanent secretary, Mrs. Ifeoma Anyanwutaku, urged NATOP to work towards restoring the tourism reputation of the country and increase international partnerships.