“You can have a good holiday within Nigeria”
Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has huge untapped tourism potential which, if properly harnessed, could earn the country so much revenues that what it currently earns from crude oil would pale in comparison. Ranging from long stretches of exotic beaches, to lush mountains, waterfalls, among others, the country boasts of so many attractions capable of drawing tourists from different parts of the world to the country all year round.
However, long years of neglect from government and other stakeholders have left many of these places dilapidated and run down, while the same government laments loss revenues from tourism.
IFE OLANREWAJU is CEO of Foshizi Tours, a travels and tours company which has been in operation since 2011. In this interview with NSE ANTHONY-UKO in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, she calls on government to up its investment in the tourism sector if it wants it to boost the country’s diversification drive; pass the enabling law for the industry to help rid the sector of fraudulent operators.
The tourism sector in Nigeria has several potentials that are largely untapped. How can the country boost revenues generation from tourism as part of its economic diversification effort?
I have always been concerned about how much revenues we are losing by not investing in tourism in Nigeria. Each time I go to Ghana, and even small countries around us, and see the way people throng those places that have been given some value, it amazes me how much revenues Nigeria is losing. We pay as much as $100 to do the Canopy walkway in Ghana and we have such canopy walkways in Nigeria. We have even nicer places in Nigeria. I believe the government can invest in those places and give them a voice. If the government backs up what private individuals are doing it gives those locations a voice.
For instance, take the Calabar Festival; it has become an international event that people travel worldwide to be part of because government gave it a voice and visibility. There is only so much a private individual can do but when the government backs up a particular site it gives a stamp of endorsement to it.
I’ve been to Ikogosi Warm Springs a few times and I have been disappointed at the way the place has become dilapidated. Even though I can see they are trying to improve on it but a little more investment is needed in that place. Imagine a place where hot and cold water meet and they don’t mix. I mean that is supposed to be a place that people should be thronging every day, paying $50 to view and it would increase the economic cycle in that place because it will make people offering other supporting services to thrive in business and bring development to the area. It would create an Eco-cycle in that place that makes the place very viable.
If the government should focus on investing a bit more in tourism, invest in security because people want to be sure that they are safe; so the place is secure and it is well taken care of, you can be sure that people will come
There is a new hotel that was opened in Abeokuta, just right by the Radisson Blu. It’s just a hotel but because some people with private initiatives invested in it and made it very beautiful people go from Abuja to Abeokuta for retreats. So if the government can pump in revenues into the tourist sites and make them marketable people will come.
Another example is the Farin Ruwa Falls, in Nasarawa State, considered the highest waterfalls in Nigeria. We took some tourists there last year and it was terrible how we had to practically tear through bushes to get to that place. You could see railings that where done maybe in the 1990s that were broken down, pathways that were created that have been overgrown by weeds because no one is taking care of the place. And because it is not taken care of, that tourist site, which happens to be like the second or third highest waterfalls in the world, so reputable when you compare it to the waterfalls in Canada and other places that people pay money to go to [is wasting away].
People will go to Farin Ruwa in Nasarawa State if the road was accessible. The road to get there is so bad. But when I got to the waterfall I was amazed at the work of God. This is a beautiful site that people should be coming and people should be paying money to enter to see. This extremely beautiful site is left to rot in the middle of nowhere because there is no access road to the place. If the government of the state can seek for funds to improve that place and make it visible on the map people will throng that place. I wish to take people there, but when I think of the difficult access conditions it’s so discouraging. We’ll first of all do about three hours from Abuja, and then we do another two hours for a journey that should not take more than 30 minutes. We trekked for one hour within the bush because we wanted to see Farin Ruwa waterfalls! So, government should pay attention to it, there is a lot of revenue that can be made out of it.
From your knowledge of the sector in Nigeria, can you put a figure on what tourism could generate for government?
Government is losing several billions of naira in revenues that could come from tourism. It’s not just about government making money it’s also about creating an ecosystem of creating jobs, and making the communities around there to become vibrant. At Farin Ruwa you will be shocked at how dilapidated the community is.
How can the sector attract more inbound tourists?
Number one, develop the tourist sites and after that we market them to the world; make them attractive and advertise on platforms where there are international viewers; shine the touch on those places, tell stories about the places that make them attractive to the world and let people be emotionally attracted to them. Once those things are in place and people are sure that when they get there their safety is guaranteed, they won’t fall or slip, and people will come. Once they are sure they have a good accommodation without bugs and cockroaches and they are sure that they are secured – that as they are sleeping nobody will bomb where they are – people will come.
Look at Kenya; despite all the bombings that take place there and all the Al Shabaab, they still have tourists thronging the place to see their safaris and wildlife. The case of Nigeria is not even so much about the security, but because we have not put the torchlight on those places for the world to see.
What is the focus of your business and how did you come about the name Foshizi?
We decided from the beginning that we wanted to focus on tours, not just the flight ticketing that was the norm at that time. We started with outbound tourism that is taking people out to experience other cultures, different things outside Nigeria. But within the past one year we have also moved our focus from not only outbound but inbound to encourage people from outside Nigeria to come in.
The name Foshizi? This is how it came about. I was working somewhere and I had to register my own company and coming up with a name became an issue. I juggled the name of my family, I tried bible names but I couldn’t get a name. There was this [bible] scripture that came to mind, Proverbs 18:23. For surely there is an end and the expectation of the righteous shall not be cut off. This kept buzzing in my mind. I wondered what that had to do with the name of a company. Then I went to South Africa for a programme.
In the bus I kept hearing the word Foshizi. When I asked for the meaning I was told ‘for surely’, ‘for real’ ‘definitely’. And I was like ‘yes that’s it’ because I have an expectation for this company. That was how I came about the name.
What has been your experience managing the company?
I noticed that Nigerians like to spend and we’d rather spend for those outside. But because of the economic challenges, people are changing their thinking and accepting that we can actually have tourism within Nigeria. Somebody can leave Abuja, visit Abeokuta, or stay in Erin Ijesha Waterfalls and come back to Abuja after five days and have a wonderful holiday. Meanwhile before, if you haven’t gone to Dubai or Ghana or South Africa, it looks as if you haven’t had a holiday. That is where we come in to enlighten people that you can have a good holiday within Nigeria. If you choose to go outbound, which many people still prefer in order to experience other people’s cultures and way of life, we are into it. So we do both inbound and outbound tourism.
Part of the services you offer is the Abuja City tour. What are the major attractions for tourists in the capital city?
I usually say that what we don’t value and give recognition remains as it is. Many of the places we go to see outside Nigeria, the reasons we are attracted to those places is because the people there have given the place so much value. They put a rock somewhere and they tell you a story about it. They tell you about one man in 15th Century who slept on that rock and they make a big do out of that rock and people throng there every day because they said Michelangelo climbed on that rock. They make it so emotional that you feel so good to be part of the people who have been there.
Now in Nigeria we don’t value what we have and that is why it looks as if, what is the big deal about these places? So we want to position ourselves and let people know that our Ecumenical Centre is a masterpiece, come and see it and hear the story about how it was created. Come and know the reason why we have eight beams on this side, or why it is built in this shape. We have the Central Mosque, very beautiful to behold. It has a story behind it. We have Katampe Hill where the centre point of Nigeria is. We have some animal wildlife in Abuja that even people in Abuja don’t even know about. We also have art galleries that artworks are being displayed from time to time and art lovers can come and view. We have taken so many foreigners on these local tours and they keep being amazed that we have such beautiful things that we don’t even promote. So, in Abuja there are many beautiful places that people can tour, including our Millennium Park. We want to give value to it and make people feel so special about it.
The first time we took a family to the Ecumenical Centre they were so blown away that even we in Abuja are wondering what they are seeing in this place. That was when I realised that these are things we shouldn’t underplay. There are beautiful sites for people to visit and the government can make revenues from them.
Can you believe that many of those tourism sites we pay zero amount to visit them; and these are places that if you had them in places like South Africa or in India people will pay hundreds of dollars just to view the place. They can be a revenue making mechanism. We also have Yar’Adua Centre that tells the story of Yar’Adua, the family and everything, its history, about people that have paid prices for Nigeria.
So, we have so many tourist attractions in Abuja. Even our Wuse market, the gold stokes. People come from Lagos to buy gold and we take them there. We don’t value it because we go there every day, we buy tomato and everything so to us it’s like ‘what’s the big deal’. We take people on Wuse Market tours and you’d be amazed at how thrilled they get.
What would you consider your major challenge in the travels and tourism sector in Nigeria?
One of the major challenges we have in the travel business in Nigeria is lack of enabling law. We don’t have the full 100 percent backing of the National Assembly. We are still waiting for our bill to be passed to endorse certain areas of our operations. Though they have made appreciable progress, but it’s not yet fully completed. So when our bill is passed for travel and tourism, [it’d would be] such that the industry is sanitized from fraudulent people; such that not anybody can carry and claim to be a travel operator without going through the proper registration; that needs to be done.
We have the challenge of fraudulent people and the reason we cannot clamp [down] on them is because we don’t have the backing of the law.
What about access to finance, does it not pose a challenge to your business?
For us as an organisation, probably because of the nature of service we are rendering, we don’t need to buy products like people who produce or buy products to sell.
For us it’s more about being creative, creating the right awareness for people to buy our services. I am not saying we don’t need money, but we don’t need the kind of money that people who are into manufacturing or who stock materials to sell. The funding we require would be to get vehicles to make it easy to commute with our tourists, or funding to expand our operations. For us as a travel company, we have not explored access to loans because we have allowed ourselves to grow and evolve organically to where we are today.
Many SMEs still consider access to finance a major challenge despite several government interventions, why is this so?
In a system where things are not working the way they should, people tend to create bottlenecks to things that shouldn’t be difficult.
At the same time there are many entrepreneurs who are not sincere about what they want to do. So it is on both sides, the people managing the funds and the SMEs too that need the funds. There have been SMEs that were given funds and they didn’t utilize the funds appropriately and these made the organisations disbursing these funds to become stricter and the conditions to be met more stringent that the people who really need these funds are not able to gain access. I believe it should start with a mind-set change for many SMEs and then people need to develop capacity to enable them make presentations to attract those with funding.
If you’re waiting for someone to lift you up you also have to lift your hands up and show people that you are ready to be lifted. So many SMEs are not ready to invest in themselves to improve on their operations, presentations, and attitude and on things that make them attractive to investors.
Though these funds have been allocated to the SMEs, my charge to the SME operators is to make them competent to attract the funds.
What advice do you have for people who want to go into business?
My advice is that whatever business you want to invest in endeavour to know the industry very well. If you don’t know the industry well try to surround yourself with people you know.
It is important to develop capacity as the business is growing so that one will not crash like a bridge that exceeded its capacity.
How does Foshizi distinguish itself from other operators?
Foshizi Tours has grown from a one man organisation to where it is today and this is because of our attention to details. There has been the personal touch we also developed ourselves in such a way that customera that come to us always want to come back because of the way we relate with them. We have come to realize that buying is an emotional thing, so we learn to connect to people’s emotion and we pay attention to excellence.