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What Nigeria needs to fix in the tourism sector, according to Dr Adun Okupe

Nigeria is a land of boundless cultural treasures, beautiful destinations and natural wonders. Yet, beneath the surface, lie complexities and untapped potential in the world of tourism that many are unaware of.

We turn to Dr Adun Okupe, a seasoned professional in the world of tourism, to shed light on the nuances of Nigeria's tourism landscape and what the country needs to fix in the tourism sector.

What are the challenges of the tourism sector? And how do you think they can be fixed?

I would say the biggest challenge is the lack of an approach and a deep understanding of what tourism means. Many times when we talk about tourism, we're mainly focusing on international tourists. However, tourism goes beyond that; we can have domestic tourists and regional tourists, right? Anyone who spends over 24 hours in a place qualifies as a tourist. So, it's about understanding what tourism truly means.

We need to recognise that we have a strong domestic market that we're not effectively promoting. In countries like the United Kingdom, India, and America, domestic tourism contributes more revenue than international tourism. It's also important to understand that tourism is primarily about the leisure economy. It involves creating a balance between work and play and enabling people to understand how they can engage in leisure activities. We shouldn't limit tourism to special zones for tourists; people should be able to come and experience the local community. How can they engage with various communities? How can they explore and discover new places?

One of the root causes of the challenges is the lack of a comprehensive approach to tourism. While security is often mentioned as a challenge, taking security seriously can address other issues as well. Making tourism more accessible and ensuring safety and security are crucial. Often, governments have invested a lot in creating documentation, but implementation is the key. I would encourage us to identify one or two short-term focal areas, harmonize efforts, and achieve concrete results before taking on more initiatives. It all comes down to defining who should visit your destination and why. We must be clear about who we want to attract and the unique qualities of our destination that make it appealing.

What is the way forward for tourism in Nigeria?

I think it's nice that we have a Ministry of Tourism. Private sector leaders have been working hard over the years to advocate for a dedicated Ministry of Tourism, and we're very happy that it has now become a reality. I believe the way forward is to ensure that the Ministry builds upon its existing efforts and adopts a more strategic and holistic approach to tourism development across Nigeria. Instead of trying to cover all states simultaneously, we should focus on pilot or pioneer states, perhaps three, four, or five key states, and collaborate closely with them. We should simplify and harmonize policies and also provide clear guidance to potential investors. Investment is essential for the sector, but inconsistency and lack of clarity can deter investors.

What role can we, as Nigerians, play in promoting tourism in our country?

As Nigerians, we need to recalibrate our understanding of what constitutes a better life for all of us. For employers of labour, this means drilling down to understand what it means for the people who work with you. Are you creating spaces where they can work effectively while also having time for other activities? Are we fostering a sense of discovery? There are numerous business opportunities in the tourism industry, including various value chain opportunities. Often, we find ourselves all looking at the same thing. As Nigerians, I believe we should embrace more innovation. We need to recognise opportunities and harness them in meaningful ways.

There are abundant opportunities within the tourism sector for self-employment. The advantages include flexibility and the ability to engage in professional work that doesn't adhere to a rigid nine-to-five schedule, especially as the world of work is evolving. It's about how families spend time together, how they explore and discover.

When you cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity, it can truly help you understand better how other people live and realise that we are more similar than different. This perspective can lead to seeing things differently.

I believe that there's a significant amount of work to be done in terms of tourism information and awareness creation. It's an area where the private sector can collaborate with the public sector to drive awareness. It's about raising awareness, conducting sensitisation programs, and setting examples. Let people take action.

Nigerians should explore their own environments, explore their own country right?

Yes, exploring your own country and then, of course, exploring others. I remember going to speak to a school some years ago, a Secondary School in Ikeja, and some of the students went on holidays abroad. But what they did is they went shopping. That's it. They went to McDonald's and went shopping. I would say that, that's travelling, but you know, they hadn't explored the museums, they hadn't explored galleries, they hadn't experienced cultural activities. So my session was about helping them see that they could do more. They could explore more within Nigeria and also when they travel abroad so that there's an immersive experience, not just 'oh, I've gone to London and I've gone to Oxford Street to buy clothes.' It's more about discovering what makes London London. What's the history of London?

So we can also do the same here. What makes Ikorodu Ikorodu? What's unique about it? What's peculiar about it? And then you start to really understand more about how Lagos has emerged over time to become this bustling city that we all love to live in.

How can Nigerians looking to travel and explore go about navigating the security concerns in the country?

I would say that crime is not a Nigerian word. Crime happens around the world, and I'm not saying that it's less important to address it in Lagos or Nigeria. But in cities like London and many other countries, there's crime, yet these cities continue to attract tourists because there's a narrative and a perception of how they see themselves and the place.

If we perceive that an environment and community are not safe, what are we doing about it? It comes back to how we participate in that. Of course, there's a lot of work the government have to do in terms of the perception of security and taking security seriously. We also need to communicate that we're making destinations safer and more secure. But the other thing I wanted to add is tourism actually also contributes to this. When a community understands that tourism is going to provide more sustainable livelihoods, they become your protectors because they don't want anything to jeopardise the positive tourist experience in their locality.

And that's where countries like Kenya and Tanzania have done very well. They have been able to really get the tourism spirit ingrained in the local population, so they take responsibility for the environment and the community. We need to do similar work because the type of security we need has to be community-based. When people understand that they can travel safely, their experience will be secure, and they will be protected because the community understands that this will lead to improved lives for everyone.

Another thing is that we have this rural-to-urban migration, which is really affecting our rural areas, making them isolated, deserted, and unsafe. However, with tourism development and attractions being revamped and redeveloped in these areas, it would also bring more activity, which would stem this rural-to-urban migration. This means that more people will stay within their local communities to invest, develop, and work, which would also lead to safer environments by decongesting the cities.

What is one area that is often overlooked by our tourism sector?

One thing that I think we need to take more interest in is how we can enhance the tourism experience in Nigeria for individuals with physical disabilities. I believe that when we start addressing this issue, it will also lead to greater inclusivity for the elderly and families with young children and infants. So, for me, I'm inclined to explore these aspects and contemplate how solving these challenges can benefit a wider range of people. Consequently, this will make destinations more accessible, including hiking paths and routes to waterfalls.

How can the government make travelling more accessible for people with disabilities in Nigeria and how can they move around a little bit more easily across the country?

I don't think it's solely the government's responsibility to achieve this. I believe it's more about us taking the initiative. We have the responsibility and the agency to drive the changes we desire. What should the government do? They could establish a policy for accessible tourism. I'm certain that when I was involved in the Lagos State master plan, we included it as part of the plan. However, the question now is how well are we implementing it. So, what can people with disabilities do? I think it's primarily about collective engagement. We operate within a capitalist society, a capitalist system. There are financial resources available from various quarters in Nigeria that we haven't tapped into. We need to recognise that we're not just losing potential revenue; we're also neglecting the importance of improving the lives of more Nigerians and others. Therefore, inclusivity is of utmost importance.

The final point I'd like to emphasise is that the tourism sector needs to consider how to welcome people with disabilities. I've been advocating for this for a long time, to see more individuals with disabilities being visibly integrated into our environment, society, workplaces, and daily activities. In fact, the United Kingdom had a Home Secretary who was blind, illustrating the incredible potential of individuals with disabilities. Tourism can serve as a catalyst for this change because it offers a flexible working environment, adaptable schedules, and a range of professional opportunities.