The CEO of Zigona Travel and Tours Limited, Ngozi Ngoka was recently elected the Vice President of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria to take charge of the South East zone. She spoke to Chinedu Eze on how her administration would make the zone a tourism destination. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your election. How do you intend to use this new platform to rebirth tourism in the South East?
Thank you. Well, luckily, in the South East, tourism is already thriving, but just as in other parts of Nigeria, tourism products have not yet been adequately identified and harnessed for us to start reaping the full benefits. My main job will be to work with the five state governments to advance ideas on how to improve on our member’s operational delivery; improve on and add to the experiences that visitors have when they visit the zone and device market development and marketing strategies for our members’ collective products and services.
FTAN, at the national level, already has a committee looking at national regulations and taxations in the travel and tourism industry that are adversely affecting our members’ operations and productivity. At the zonal level, we will also have these discussions with our state governments regarding state and local government taxes and regulations. When these three plans are put in place, I believe that you will see a surge in tourism activity in our zone. I am grateful for the opportunity my colleagues have given me to contribute to my quota in this very key area.
People seem to assume that there is nothing attractive in the South East that could justify a leisure visit to the zone. Do you share that view?
Understandably, from an informed standpoint, I do not share that view but I do understand why it appears so. The main challenge seems to be lack of marketing exposure of the amazing tourism products available in the area. There is a large influx of tourists to the South East every week but the visitors are mostly people from the area who are visiting family, attending social functions, or day visitor who cone to trade. We are putting measures in place to attract other tourists to come and experience our food, craft, industry, culture, and entertainment; stay longer, and enjoy the amazing hospitality of Ndi Igbo. We are also planning workshops geared at bringing together tourism providers, investors, and governments to highlight our tourism potential, parley, and exchange ideas on how to improve on infrastructure located around tourist attractions, grade and provide accommodations, restaurants, and transportation around tourism sites located within the region.
How prepared are you to take up the challenge of creating tourism market in the South East?
Sure, I am well prepared. My job is basically to coordinate the activities of tour providers, tour operators and all those in the business of attracting, accommodating, and entertaining tourists in Abia, Ebonyi, Anambra, Imo, and Enugu states, so we can channel a common course towards increasing inbound tourist to the region. Tourism is my area of expertise and I have been engaged in different aspects of the industry for the past 20 years. I believe that the best way to change or improve the current state of the industry is to actively get involved. We want a stable and sustainable business environment and in return we will provide jobs for local communities and pay our legitimate taxes.
Tourism is one industry that can create jobs with trickledown effect to all sectors of the economy which ensures everyone in the economic chain is catered for. Our South-East secretariat is already working with the tour operators, hoteliers, and transportation providers from the five states to compile and assess all our natural and man-made attractions so we can make presentations to the various governments on ways to improve infrastructure to and around the natural attractions in their respective states.
We are also working with stakeholders to create packages for Travel Agents to sell. The packages will be made up of products and services from all our members. We have set a target of 35,000 visitors per month with an average expenditure of about N60,000 per visitor for a three-night stay; you’re looking at about N2.8Billion taxable income coming into the region every month.
We also plan to engage the indigenes of the South East residing all over the world who have built mansions that they use for perhaps two weeks in a year, to consider handing them over to tourism investors who will generate income for the owners by renting them out for short stays and destination events. All our resources, human, artificial, and natural will be fully harnessed and their tourism potential will be made available for investors to key into. We invite all stakeholders to join us so that together, we can establish a sustainable and viable tourism industry.
There have always been stories about Ogbunike Cave, do you think that nature’s creation could attract local and international tourists?
Ogbunike cave is one of the attractions we’re currently assessing to determine ways to make it easier for tourists to visit and have a wonderful experience. For now, the town’s traditional ruler and the local community are managing the place as best as they can. We plan to engage the Anambra state government and private investors on ways to improve on the services around the cave and invest in curios shops, restaurants, and toilet facilities. These improvements will generate more income for the local community. We are also applying the same audit to all the natural attractions we have in all the states within the zone.
Federal and state governments should embrace the expertise of FTAN. We are the practitioners; the people on ground; so to say. State tourism boards should have a slot for FTAN just like the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) and National Institute for Hospitality and Tourism (NIHOUTOUR) have at the national level.
What do you think the governors in the East should do to attract international and local visitors?
It does take a lot to convince travellers and tourists to spend time and money in your community especially now when there are so many destinations, accommodations and attractions competing for the same travellers. Tourism boards should, therefore, up their ante, not just in the South East, but in all states of the federation. They should embrace the expertise of professionals to develop sustainable tourism. Each state should identify its brand-what aspects of the large tourism market they want to project and specialise in. They will then need to identify the type of tourists that their brand is likely to attract.
If these simple steps are followed, they will find it easier to determine the marketing strategies that will be aligned to their strategic positioning and specific goals. Ideally, they should market with a purpose, using the right tools, and embracing technology.
The social, economic, and environmental impact of tourism is just so huge that any government that is not exploring the full tourism potential needs to seriously have a rethink. Tourism is the key to community development and empowerment and is the industry for the future. Infrastructure, especially road networks needs to be improved upon so that when we have our first FAM trip, the tourists we bring in will have good stories to tell about their experiences. I am hopeful that the South-East states tourism boards will get involved in the execution of these FAM trips as a means of marketing the tourism potential of the region. Government should also encourage the inclusion of courses related to tourism development from primary school level so that we prepare them to equip the younger generation with planning and management skills.
The government at local, state, and federal levels should seriously consider giving a tax year holiday to tourism practitioners if we are serious about growing inbound tourism. This will help practitioners focus on improving facilities and providing better service. Investment in the tourism industry is capital intensive and it takes a minimum of six years to start making profit on investment. With the numerous taxes currently imposed on practitioners, many initiatives are forced to fold up. Those that survive, do so by reducing standards so quality drops. FTAN is calling on government to seriously look into giving Tourism start-ups a tax break of six years and also low interest loans as our operations provide direct income to local communities.
What is your projection or timeline for creating tourism market in the South East?
We should finish inspections by end of August, after which we’ll schedule another meeting with stakeholders to identify viable tour plans for the region. We hope to have all these ready by the time Tour Nigeria, an initiative of the Director General, NTDC, Mr. Fola Coker, comes to the South East. We will liaise with the DG’s office and ensure everything is in place when they get to our zone.
What other potential tourist attractions do you have in the zone?
The South East is full of so many amazing cultural and man- made attractions. Anambra has the Ogbunike cave and Owelle Ezukala waterfalls and cave; We have the Ezeagu Tourism complex at Enugu which also has a cave and waterfall; The famous and beautiful lakeside communities around the Oguta lake in Imo; The Okposi/Uburu Salt lake and Amachor cave located in Ebonyi. And for folks interested in history, you must visit the “Ojukwu bunker” and war museum at Umuahia and see firsthand, the amazing inventions that were fabricated during the civil war.
You will see several monuments scattered all over the South East that will help you piece together, the past and recent history of the people of the South East. There are so many cultural festivals and “öfalas” that take place all over the zone. We plan to work with traditional rulers and local governments so that these festival can attract local and international tourists and become viable sources of income for the local communities. We plan to also work with the farmers and artisans to promote agro-tourism and of course we have our Nollywood and the best entertainers from the region. The local live music clubs and restaurants in Owerri should be in everyone’s bucket list. Oguta for instance, should be the place to go for destination weddings. There are also several conferencing facilities scattered all over the South East which are currently under-utilised. We are excited at the prospect of showing them to Nigerians and the rest of the world and creating job opportunities.
Have you reviewed the hotels in the South East? What is your opinion about them?
We are going to start the process of the reviewing and grading not just the hotels after we are done with the tourism sites by early September. There are many world class hotels that have sprung up in recent times. We are auditing ourselves to classify customer experiences for marketing purposes. We will match accommodation with transportation, entertainments, and meals to create tour packages.
Courtesy: Thisday Newspapers