Temi-Tope Ogbeni-Awe: “I believe that one day Nigeria will make tourism work”

August 22, 2021
Weekend Reads

In this interview, conducted in 2011 and previously unpublished, Pelu Awofeso sits down with a veteran reporter and public relations expert on the prospects for tourism development in Nigeria and how the intermittent pitfalls, including a deficit of political will, could be erased – for good. Ogbeni-Awe turned 66 in April 2021. This interview is published for the records only and all gaps in the answers, omissions and errors are regretted.

Temi-Tope Ogbeni-Awe

You were a trailblazer in tourism reporting. How did you find yourself on the beat and what kept you going?

I used to be the State House correspondent for Vanguard for many years. That gave me the opportunity to travel extensively to various parts of the world with the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. Having been there for close to nine years (I was actually the doyen of the State House press corps from 1984 to 1993), and visiting countries like Kenya, Germany, Japan and Lesotho, among others, I thought maybe I should do something new. I could have gone to Abuja to continue as State House editor for Vanguard, but I knew that the newsroom, since my absence, had been populated by editors. I didn’t want to upstage anybody or step on anyone’s toes although I was a pioneer staff of Vanguard (in fact, I was the first _ reporter employed when the paper started in 1984). So, I decided to try travel and tourism. I make bold to say that there was nothing like that in newspapers then. The common thing then was people who travelled and returned to write travelogues. And that itself was not regular. Stand-out pages in Nigerian papers then were Sports, Woman’s page, and Business. There wasn’t even Politics.

Kenya influenced your going into travel writing. Does it not seem shocking that Kenya is ahead of us when it comes to tourism promotion?

East and South African countries had tourism going for them: Zimbabwe, Botswana, Gambia, Tanzania. But Kenya had always been a prime country for tourism in Africa, because of the development of their wild cricket. Kenya has always been a tourism hub; just that South Africa has successfully dislodged it because of aggressive harnessing of their resources and because of the economic problems of other countries. In tourism, you would talk about Egypt, Kenya, and Cote d’Ivoire. Gambia has always been there for the Scandinavian countries. Gambia was a tourism destination where people came in droves, stayed a month and went back. Gambia is a small country that was satisfied with the small number they got. But East Africa, led by Kenya, was a tourism hub. Nobody talked about South Africa, because it was an ostracised country at the time.

At the time you started, what were your early stories? Were you now recalling your trips all over the world?

I was not even recalling my trips because I got Uncle Sam (Publisher) and the powers that be in Vanguard to be interested. I told them to give me four pages that I would get advertisement for those pages and I would get stories. So it was a different venture. What I did was to look at airlines and talk to them on their destinations, routes, expenses, and talk to those who were doing things in tourism. There was a tourism propagandist, Mr Matts Da Silva, who was always saying things. He always had new ideas and novel approaches. He needed a voice to propel that vision. He was the voice while the products brought business. The early starters were Eko Hotel & Suites, Prince Fatona who used to be in British Airways, and Mr. _ who was president of NANTA (National Association of Nigerian Travel Agents). They were early supporters of what we were doing. Other airlines joined too, because it became a rallying point for them. So I became like a bride because everyone was calling me.

Then it was a novelty, an eye-opener. But what I didn’t stop doing was to encourage anyone who came to me to do tourism. I was doing more of travelogues, but other papers joined. All of them came to ask me how I did it. At that time, it was advocacy tourism page, because I pointed what countries were doing wrong or right, but embedding it with tourism product news and development. Again, because I was a crack reporter, I fed the page with exclusive news. If Eko Hotels was to open a new wing or BA was to do something new, I was the first to say it, because I had one-on-one relationship with them.

Tourists at Ado Awaye rock-lake (courtesy of Umma Zone Plus)

Was the experience worth your while and for how long did you run the page?

I did it for two successful years, during which tourism became the lamppost of Vanguard. Vanguard, today, is known as Nigeria’s number one tourism paper, because of our efforts. We had tourism in three or four different Vanguard publications where only the front and back pages alone were news; all other pages were tourism and advert. It is there in their library. I think we had about three or four editions like that. So, Vanguard, after seeing the substance of the stories we did, introduced Info-Tech, Labour and so on. After two years, I saw the competition and jealousy, which is common in human endeavours. Even within those two years, I saw a lacuna in what I was doing, and I saw that people were not doing what I thought they were doing, because our advocacy was good, but there should be a limit to it. Before I left Vanguard, I was consulting for other newspapers. I did that with The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Times, Financial Standard and Business Day. That format is still available today for whoever has the key.

How far would you say that the media has come?

The problem the media is facing now is not specific to tourism. There is a downfall generally in journalism. We journalists of the old school were trained to be journalists through and through. My own work as a journalist took me to being a reporter, interviewer, business reporter, sports writer, visual writer, columnist; we did the whole gamut. Now, people break into specialisations and lose the essence of newspapering, which is to be a damn good reporter. I always say that if you’re a reporter, you’d be a good visual writer. The same tenets apply; it’s not rocket science. For instance, if you go to a country, say, Cairo, and IICC were to play Zamalek, I would report it, even if that was not my reason for travelling there. Journalists must understand the rudiments of the profession first. Have a little bit of everything before you decide to be a specialised correspondent. Coming back to tourism, many of them, like me, just jump into it. There is no special training for it, other than just being a journalist. Nigeria has always been a chronic buyers’ market. In those days, it was a sellers’ market. Now, buyers are the ones looking for sellers. And that is part of the problem why many of the pages do not get requisite advertisement. But I still believe that if you have a product, you can still draw adverts. In those days, Sheraton and the likes didn’t have to wait till festive periods before advertising, which is the norm now.

What are we not getting right?

Government doesn’t yet have the political will. If they did, they would grow infrastructure, roads, electricity, and enabling environment.

But the NTDC (Nigeria tourism Development Corporation) is …

An agency of government is not government itself. You cannot overload NTDC with the task of developing tourism. It is government responsibility. Will NTDC clear the rood to Argungu town or provide electricity or potable water? NTDC can only do its bit. Government itself must decide to use tourism as an economic driver. They say it but it is always lip service; countries that thrive today say it, mean it and plan it. It is when you have done that that you can then task NDDC on blueprints, strategies, documents, master plan to actualise the policy. If you can scale down to states, local governments, streets, communities, streets, everybody will be talking about tourism. As at now, everything is haphazard.

Obudu Hills (Courtesy of Ovyay Visual Stories)

In some countries, tourism tax is embedded in their hotel rates. It is a government decision, not that of the national tourism body, which eventually is the beneficiary of the task. Tourism is an afterthought of the Nigerian government. Is there a national tourism strategy document? When did it evolve and when last was it revised? It is a political move that rests with the government. In other countries, government don’t make tourism declarations just to appear on national TV or to be seen on the network news of their country. They believe in it as an economic driver and labour generator. Here, our government has to stand up to be counted. That is the only way to strengthen, empower and then streamline what NTDC should do. And then we can hold NTDC to account.

Is that the only way to go?

There are two ways to look at it: It is important to go to the outside world and tell them to come and see what we have. I don’t see anything wrong in NTDC attending international events. The point is, how are they empowered? They might not need to go to all the places; they might just indentify where they think the opportunities lie.

Can states, Cross River for example, help make a difference?

I think the decree — granted it is a misnomer — setting up NTDC states there are three tiers of government: federal, state and local. If the states want to, and are empowered by the constitution, there’s nothing wrong with it. But I know there’d be a collision course somewhere with the federal. Where exactly that would happen is what I don’t know.

What’s your take on Nigeria’s rebranding efforts?

We always put the cat before the horse. Even companies rebrand. Look at the policy formulation and what it was aimed to achieve. Part of the problem is continuity. It’s a good move, but we don’t give our jobs to the right people; we hardly put round pegs in round holes. If that job was given to the right set of people, backed up with the political will, work would have continued on it. Look at Osama Bin Laden’s death: the journey started when Bush was president; and whether he was there or not, the job was followed to the end.

What’s your take on Nigeria as a cultural destination?

Government does not even have a defined tourism policy, which it can then use as an instrument of destination. I think that one of our striking features is our culture, but can culture be marketed alone? However, we must start somewhere. We don’t have infrastructure, but culture is very rustic and rural.

Your ventured into public relations, why was that?

The reason I veered from journalism to this is that I saw a lacuna. I realised that most of the tourism product owners and suppliers had corporate communications departments; so I thought I could create a company that would cater to that need. That’s how Topcomm PR & Events Ltd. came about in 2000. Our niche market is travel and aviation; that is still out core area till today. Topcomm is about tourism promotion communication and that is why we partnered with a South African tourism firm. Again, we saw Nigeria as a business traveller’s destination. Most of our clients are in South Africa. We don’t only promote destinations; we promote destinations through marketing agencies. We promote airlines, hotels, car renters, credit card operators, travel management companies and companies into IT and property.

Rivers Nigeria and Benue (Courtesy of Mayowa Blades)

Why South Africa?

It is because South Africa does not promote in Nigeria alone. They promote in identified selected countries around the world, and Nigeria happens to be one of those. The lesson is that any country that has taken tourism seriously must market its national brand. We must take tourism seriously and ensure that marketing agencies are empowered to do the job. They need that enabling power from government.

Nigeria appears to be embracing the carnival culture. What do you say to this trend by the states to float one?

Let me use Cross River State as an example. Our company did a job for Cross River State Tourism Board (CRSTB) at the inception of Donald Duke’s tenure. And we advised that we should have a tourism roundtable, where elders would gather to discuss a common cause. We brought in airlines, FAAN, banks, telcom operators, the media, car rental companies. That was the initial take-off of whatever strategy the state put into place. And one of the things we identified was carnivals. We advised that the state tourism board should be fortified with professionals. And that is why Cross River State is like a mono-tourism product.  The idea for the carnival is to host it every year so that we can all re-energise, evaluate and recreate.

One of the problems of Nigerian tourism is that we do Osun-Osogbo festival. After the festival, that’s all. There are no ancillary products or services to be enjoyed. So, why would someone fly for eight hours just to attend a four-hour festival and that’s all? I would think that carnivals are a step in the right direction if the job is given to the professionals who know how to do it. And there must be long-term planning. Who are the media communication experts handling the campaign?

Carnivals can be the beginning of the drive towards domestic tourism. If Nigerians begin to travel all over the country, that’s something. When I travel to Ekiti, I have family there but I stay in a hotel. Everybody who goes to Europe or other parts of Africa stays in a hotel. It is because of our propensity to spend money elsewhere that countries like Ghana and Gambia are marketing to us. Our company truly had a hand in Gambia, even Ghana. We thank God for it. We are pacesetters. We lead; others can go in. But we believe that one day, our country, through the federal government, will make our tourism work. The Nigerian government really and truly needs to take the bull by the horn. We have seen what tourism has done to countries in Africa, Europe and Middle East. Dubai, for instance, owners of Emirates: it is part of the deliverables of Emirates to the UAE government that it must bring tourists to Dubai. It is a government directive.

Ogbunike Cave (By Diusor Odiakosa)

What are your five favourite destinations in Nigeria?

Even though the infrastructure is not there, I’d take a ride to the north (because I have driven from Argungu to Lagos before); a drive from Calabar to the East (I have equally done that). And I keep on saying ‘drive’ because you would see various vistas. If the roads were fantastic, nobody would be flying in this country. In the West, I’d say, drive to Ondo, Ado-Ekiti and Akure. Along the way, if you have done that, there are hotels and gas stations on the way to all those places. So, generally, I’d say road trips in Nigeria.

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