Mrs. Sally Uwechue-Mbanefo is the Director-General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation. She tells Oyetunji Abioye about the economic potential of the tourism sector
To0 many people in the country, the tourism sector is largely silent. What do you think is responsible for this?
Generally, I think first of all, the oil boom has spoilt Nigerians. The oil boom distracted us. We have never been tourism friendly in Nigeria. We have never recognised tourism, in spite of (former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s passion and gusto in creating that department, oil has always been the major attraction. So, that the tourism has been quiet is a historical thing.
Secondly, the private sector does not recognise that tourism is a private sector activity and so does not think it has a role to play. But tourism is a private sector activity and ownership must be taken by the private sector. When Obasanjo came he tried to make a big deal out of tourism but the private sector was not interested. As at that time they were doing international exhibitions, no private sector had ever participated in any tourism exhibition internationally until I came. I was the one who started it even at a time when there was no enthusiasm into tourism at all.
What do you think is responsible for the lacklustre interest of the private sector in tourism?
What I think is responsible for this is the fact that statistics and data that can show that this is how much tourism is contributing to the GDP of Nigeria are not available. Because tourism is a value chain that touches every sector, we cannot say it’s not contributing; it is contributing. The most important contribution of tourism is employment. It has been creating employment consistently but there is no statistics to show it because even in Obasanjo’s time, the private sector was not interested. They looked at it as a government’s job. But at the end of the day, the government could not even pull it through. Then you find out that tourism is a value chain that touches agriculture, manufacturing, aviation, road and everything. Every sector in the economy is impacted by tourism. How do I mean? First of all, what is tourism? You leave where you are and explore the area of residence. If you go out of your boundary, it is external-bound tourism. If you do it within Nigeria, which is what we are preaching, it becomes domestic tourism. And when people come in, it becomes in-bound tourism. My critics say, I don’t go abroad enough to do international exhibition, but I am asking them what am I selling outside Nigeria when Nigerians themselves have not bought that product from me. There is no point for me going abroad like my predecessors crossing Japan etc. What are you selling? You are not going to make impact. You will be wasting government money, government’s resources and your time.
Now you have talked about unavailability of statistics on the input of tourism. But in your own view, how much do you think tourism is contributing to the nation’s GDP?
At the moment the NTDC has statistics. We go and gather what we call primary statistics while the immigration gathers secondary statistics where people coming in fill forms. Even the CBN does. The Bureau of Statistics now compiles everything. But let me tell you something that is wrong. In 2013 for example, people who came into Nigeria were about 4.3 million. In 2014, 4.8 million came in. We are still finalising that of 2015. It will be slightly above that. We think they are above that but it is not accurate. I will tell you why. These figures that we have now are about four per cent contribution to the Nigerian GDP. This is unlike countries like Kenya which contribution to the global GDP was 10 per cent. This year, it crawled down to 9.8 per cent because of the crises going on in the Middle East and so on. The Gambia contributes about 17.7 per cent to its own global GDP, and Egypt 13. South Africa is doing 9.8, Mexico about 14.8, Seoul 9.6 and Cuba a year ago was doing six per cent. When the story about the lift of embargo began, today they are doing 11 per cent. That is Cuba for you. That is for you to see the global statistics and compare ours. We are doing only four per cent. But to me, we are not doing enough, apart from the fact that it does not capture the reality of the situation. Let me explain why. The Bureau of Statistics for the measurement of statistics is not complete. They always take accommodation, feeding and all things that go with feeding. But the United Nations Statistical Committee in 2012 gave the requirements for this. It said the very first thing that we should be calculating in knowing the contribution of tourism to GDP is transport.
As an apostle of domestic tourism, which efforts have you made to endear it to the minds of the people?
I have been working on domestic tourism as my sole concept of selling tourism. People would ask sometimes why I was not advertising like other people or country. But my answer had always been, advert was the last thing. If you advertise Obudu Ranch for instance, how would you get there? Obudu is beautiful but there is no road to get there. You fly to Calabar and from there you drive seven hours to get to the ranch. That is no longer tourism adventure. That is stress. But some places are ready. For instance Kano is ready-made. And there a lot of things there. What I have done is that I have made it a point of focus to travel. I have been to all parts of the country: North, East, West and South. If there is anyone who has an important festival close to his heart, I have been there. How do all these translate to selling tourism? They create awareness.
How do you get these to the common man?
One of the things I am doing differently is that I am no longer sitting in Abuja like my predecessors. I have put aside my fancy clothes and shoes. Anything like fancy has been thrown into the basket. I have satisfied myself and I have been everywhere. And anytime I go there, I don’t go to sit with my people. I go to the local government where the people who attended would be. I meet the commissioner in charge at the grassroots and they take me to the traditional ruler. I have met every traditional ruler everywhere I go even in Taraba State. The local community is always with me too anywhere I go. I sit with them and I eat with them. But I let them know the essence of tourism and tell them that even the little you can do as a local community, do it because when people come to visit your tourism site, it will create job for your people; you don’t have to go to Lagos or Abuja. If the tourism site is in a local community, we must develop that local community so that jobs are created for the people.
How many of these tourism sites have you helped to develop?
We cannot help anybody to develop anything if money is not being released and if the private sector is not giving you funding. We are handicapped because we do not have the resources. And that is why we are talking about the private sector. We want the private sector to say that, “Madam, we are giving you this because you have come to us.” Even those we have not reached out to should reach out to us. I think that people like Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola and all these people who have made themselves should reach out to the NTDC and the ministry of tourism, culture and information and say that there is this so and so tourism site which we want to develop. For instance there is the Moremi Shrine in IIe Ife which is just covered with bush. There is a Moremi Hall in the University of Lagos. I went to the late Ooni of Ife and the current one but nothing has been done. Anybody can come, approach the NTDC or ministry and take it up for development.
What about job creation? How many have you been able to create?
Do you know that we have 11,000 hotels in Nigeria? But there is no statistics to report how many jobs tourism has created. I have never come to complain about funding. My concern is that we are fishing for people who can contribute to come on board and join us because it is not the government that is going to give the funding that I need. Funding can only come from the private sector; people who believe in what we do. Now, why is the government not giving money? It is because they do not have accurate statistics on the actual contribution of tourism to the GDP. When they look at it they say, it is not good, they don’t pause. And this is because we have not proved to the government that we are worthy of the serious attention that is being given to us. There are 11,000 hotels but we only have records of approximately 4,000. If you go around, you will see that another 9,000 are operating without licences. So are 11,000 hotels not creating jobs? Think about the number of workers in just one hotel: the security personnel, cleaners, cooks, bouncers, waiters, chefs, bartenders, etc. Even the agriculture sector is provided for as the guests will have to eat food. Do you also know that we have 30,000 restaurants in Nigeria? And they could be more because we do not have an accurate figure. Now put 30,000 restaurants with 11,000 hotels; imagine how many jobs have been created! Those are major job creation activities and I will tell you categorically that tourism worldwide is the greatest employer of labour today because the country needs to increase productivity so that SMEs can grow. We have to look for jobs that are labour intensive. That is where tourism comes in. Labour intensive in the sense that you can see the list of people I just gave to you that are needed to get a hotel or restaurant to work and function well. It is labour intensive; you cannot replace tourism activities with computers. People still need a smile to say: “Welcome to Nigeria. Hope your visit is pleasant?” even taxi drivers who are part of the value chain should be marketing Nigeria happily. That is why I am saying that I am not going international to market Nigeria because we have so much work to do within ourselves to get Nigerians to buy into the product tourism. Nigeria is a product; we must sell it with pride, self satisfaction and our whole heart.
What have you done with these partners of yours in the tourism train?
We have reached out to all those who are connected with the value chain that exists in the industry. We have reached out to the transport unions, immigration, customs, even the police. Not only that, we are reaching out to state governments. Since it is a value chain that touches all other sectors, you cannot be preaching tourism without talking to the operators. You arrive at the airport, the taxi driver, an operator, is there. Hence you talk to the Taxi Drivers Association. Even the Okada riders. You see some tourists electing to go on the okada because they want to experience it. We have reached to them and are seeking collaboration with them. But they also look up to us as a Federal Government. When I went to Ile Ife, the local governments called me. They all wanted to see me. They all have tourism sites which are not well developed. But let me tell you tourism is a game changer. Game changer in the sense that we hope that we are going to do a Town Hall’s meeting where we would call our stakeholders and tell them what we need to do. Taxi drivers, the commissioners of tourism of every states, hotels and all what sort.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love children a lot, hence I occupy my spare time in taking care of them or trying to do thing that will take care of them. I so love children that I wanted to have eight of them but because my husband came from a small family, there were only two of them, we settled for three children. However, my desire to have more children has not stopped. I continue to work with young people especially the less privileged. I do a lot of work with them. And I have been doing that all around the country for the last seven years. I teach them. I mentor them and I guide them spiritually on having relationship with God.
What is your hobby?
I love to cook for people to eat with me. I like to cook for people.
You don’t like someone who will like to go into the kitchen?
I love cooking. I have the Italian passion for cooking. My mum is Italian-Swiss. She comes from the Italian part of Switzerland. If I retire, I will open a restaurant. If I am making egusi soup, I will add coconut cream to the egusi. If you try it, you will find it delicious. You will think it is the egusi that is that tasty whereas it is the coconut. That is black and white and maybe it is because I am of a mixed parenthood – black and white. I like to experiment with cooking. For instance if you make White soup which is a delicacy from my part of the country, instead of thickening with yam like it is done, you may use cream. – Punch.