The potentials of the annual Akwa Ibom Christmas Village came into focus as tour operators from all over Nigeria and beyond recently converged at the prestigious and serene Ibom Icon Resort, at the historical Nwaniba village, on the outskirts of Uyo for the annual general meeting of the Nigerian Association of Tour Operators (NATOP).
The meeting, which brought together proven professionals in the industry from within and outside the country, saw potentials unveiled, challenges x-rayed, targets set, promises and assurances extracted, advice given, and dancing skills showcased. Places of interest toured and diverse local cuisine enjoyed as the tour operators savoured the serene and beautiful environment and climate of Akwa Ibom. It set the stage for intellectual and enriching discourse on the way forward for tourism to take its rightful place in the country’s economy and the West African sub-region as a whole. It had as its theme: “Restarting Tourism in Nigeria: A New Template.”
While declaring the conference open, the chief host, Governor Udom Emmanuel, tasked the participants to adopt new strategies in promoting tourism in Nigeria. The governor expressed delight with the new level of commitment and zeal, in recent times, by the tour operators and other stakeholders in promoting tourism in the country, saying the new lease of life in the sector, if sustained, could generate huge revenue for both practitioners and the government.
He said the people’s hospitality remained infectious while recent developments in transport, social, and tourism infrastructure despite dwindling revenue was a deliberate strategy to open the state to the world. The state, according to Emmanuel, is blessed with more than scores of cuisines. At the same time, natural tourist sites, including the residence of Mary Slessor, the blue river, the longest coastline in Nigeria. At the same time, the annual Christmas Carol and Christmas Village have become a must event in the calendars of lovers of tourism.
He pledged the assistance and partnership of the state government to NATOP but urged them to adopt measures that would project their services and attract goodwill to the country.
National President of NATOP, Bilkisu Abdul, who paid glowing tributes to NATOP former president, Fatima Garbati, expressed sadness over the loss of revenue to the tourism sector occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. But she was happy that the tour business has gradually returned, with Akwa Ibom being one of the star destinations for tour operators.
“Domestic tourism started to come back to life towards the end of last year. I am glad to note that Akwa Ibom became one of the star destinations for tour operators. They came for the Christmas village events in December and observed that it was a great success. They found your state rich in attractions. As we begin to breathe back life into tourism, insecurity and high airline ticket prices became a big problem.
“Those two evils of tourism are one of the reasons we have chosen Akwa Ibom as our destination of choice for our AGM 2021. Akwa Ibom State is secure and has the infrastructure that we need to thrive. It has one of the best resorts in Nigeria, has an airline and an airport. Our coming to Akwa Ibom State is not accidental. NATOP uses its AGM to promote domestic destinations, and all our past destinations of choice have become viable locations for tourism.
“In 2016, we were in Calabar, Cross River for our AGM. In 2017, we moved to Lagos. In 2018 we were in Jos, Plateau. In 2019, we went to Ile-Ife. We did not hold AGM in 2020 as we did not think virtual conferences yield value for tourism. We must do what we preach. If people don’t move, there is no tourism, so we move people. As we come to Uyo, our members will obey all the approved COVID-19 protocols, and we hope to enjoy the bounties that Akwa Ibom offers. On behalf of NATOP, I thank Akwa Ibom for hosting us. Our coming will put Akwa Ibom Tourism on the global map,” the president declared.
A keynote speaker at the AGM, Group Managing Director of Decision Group, Akanimo Udofia, said tourism could generate more than crude oil and gas for the country with improved commitment and institutional attention. He added that many countries not blessed with natural resources have thrived and prospered through tourism. Udofia maintained that tourism represents one of the world’s leading service sectors that generates sustainable revenue and is a major wealth and job creator.
“You will be pleased to hear that a country like Thailand, which is a developing country, ranks as the 4th highest earner for tourism in the world, earning a whopping $60 billion a year from tourism. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is the 19th most visited country in the world, with as many as 15 million people visiting yearly. Most of the tourism in Saudi Arabia largely involves religious pilgrimage, and it generates $12 billion per year. Now remember that Saudi Arabia ranks as the second-largest proven petroleum reserves in the world and the source of most of its revenue, yet it pays a lot of attention to other sectors, including tourism which is less than two per cent.
“I believe that irrespective of this small slice of the pie of their total revenue, we can all agree that $12 billion revenue from tourism on a yearly basis is still a significant amount of money. Bringing it closer home, Sao Time and Principe is a very small island off the coast of Cameroun and Equatorial Guinea with about 200,000 people. It generates a revenue of roughly $66 million (17% of its revenue) from tourism. The Gambia makes about $116 million per year from tourism, and that accounts for about 20% of their GDP,” he disclosed.
Also speaking as a guest speaker, a former Minister of Tourism in Ghana, Catherine Afeku, and using the Ghana experience, urged the Akwa Ibom government to utilise the opportunity of the Christmas Village and the Bridge of No Return to attract more tourists, as well as welcome back descendants of Nigeria, lost to the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Afeku further urged government and practitioners to focus on domestic tourism, lobby for tourism incentives, adopt a policy of right of abode for relatives in the Diaspora, repackage tourism sites and patronise Made-in-Nigeria products and services.
“Domestic tourism is very essential because it is the real catalyst for change. The Right of Abode Policy is also key as it provides opportunities to migrate back our lost relatives who we lost to the slave trade. Also, try to repackage things that have to do with the sea because sea adventure is of interest to the young ones. In this regard, boat regattas and cruise ships could also attract tourists here because you also have a peaceful environment,” she added.
Commissioner for Tourism Orman Esin, applauded NATOP for choosing Akwa Ibom and expressed hope that the conference would usher in a new lease of a partnership between the state and tour operators.
Esin pointed out that the state pioneered several aspects of tourism in Nigeria and is home to the earliest missionaries. He added that with the longest coastline in Nigeria, a fertile land rich in tourism, an international airport, and one of the best golf resorts in West Africa, the state is well-positioned to take tourism to the next level in Nigeria.
“Akwa Ibom, the real deal, we have the options for all types of tourism in Nigeria. We have the biggest hotel property in West Africa, with consistent growth over the years. We knew that bringing the Naija7Wonders group to our state in December for the Christmas Village will bring us the attention we needed. We are your partners and will grow tourism together. The governor has a vision of a modern state and has deliberately engineered the development of industries and improved the existing infrastructure.
“Cuisine, infrastructure, scenery, people, and buildings are the hallmarks of Akwa Ibom. We are a very secure place not by accident, but by the determination, focus, and will of the state government.
The governor is an industrialist, and the state will benefit from energising the tourism stakeholders to come and enjoy the synergy of our facilities. Akwa Ibom is your best choice for tourism in Nigeria.”
The commissioner commended NAPTOP for their partnership and commitment to showcasing the country’s tourism potentials and expressed hope that the conference would develop a new template for running tourism in Nigeria.
Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, represented by the Permanent Secretary Ifeoma Anyanwutaku, in a goodwill message, urged NATOP to rediscover the country’s damaged tourism reputation and urged them to increase international partnerships adopting international best practices for networking.
Mohammed called for increased participation from the private sector, while urging stakeholders to work towards packaging the investment and tourism potentials by repositioning the country’s image. The minister assured of the readiness and commitment of the ministry in implementing necessary policies that would grow and strengthen the sector.
Chairman, NATOP Board of Trustees and Acting President of FTAN Nkeruwem Onung, in his goodwill message, canvassed for a separate ministry to exploit and develop the country’s full tourism potentials. Onung commended the state government for its continued interest in tourism and hoped that tourism in the state would boost the conference’s end.
In a vote of thanks, the Vice President of NATOP, Ime Udoh, said the choice of Akwa Ibom State as a destination for the AGM was very apt and glad that the state government stood up to support the meeting.
She noted that Akwa Ibom was strategically positioned as a destination and urged the state government to do more to boost tourism drive and become more effective and efficient as a destination of choice. According to her, the tour operator connects the destination with tourists and the channel through which each destination is being promoted.
Other goodwill messages were received from the Lagos State Government, the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), the National Institute for Hospitality and Tourism(NIHOTOUR), National Council of Arts and Culture (NCAC).
One area that featured prominently on every speaker’s lips was the need to sustain the annual Akwa Ibom Christmas Village celebration, which to most speakers, is an emerging force in the country’s tourism calendar. The village, attracting more than 2,000,000 visitors and which despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic last year still held due to popular public demand.
It has always been a melting point for tourists and people from across the country, who want to enjoy the friendly climate and air that come with the last month of the year.
The village, which is set on a huge spread of land at the expansive Unity Park, allows for effective social distancing and respect of COVID-19 restrictions opens on the 1st of December each year “is a statement to show that Akwa Ibom is ready for the business of tourism”, according to Esin.
It is reputed to be the biggest Christmas event of its kind in Africa with the size of its location and potential for growth. With over 600 vendors and attracting thousands of visitors every evening, the village has become a must-visit place in Nigeria every December, and with lots of musical events, drama, games, and outdoor catering services, the village has been keeping the bustling spirit of Christmas high in Uyo.
The Christmas period is marked by a lot of fun activities conceived through various ideas with a mix of local touch to give its uniqueness, and Akwa Ibom is not missing out on this, the reason the state government, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in partnership with the Hotels and Tourism Development Board, has been organising the #IbomChristmasCelebrations and one of its major features have been the Christmas Village.
The Christmas Village is set up in a conducive environment, home to the Ibibio Unity Museum and Park, which is serene and refreshing with lush green grasses spread across the vast, beautiful landscape. The venue is very much accessible even by first-time visitors to the state.
The Culture and Tourism Ministry has always put everything in place to provide maximum security for the teeming number of fun seekers to the Ibibio Unity Park. Security agencies were always on standby to ensure lives and properties are safe and protected. The commissioner stated, “It has always been a lovely and engaging experience for Akwa Ibom people, and there is no point considering travelling outside the state for the celebrations. We always have lots of amazing activities lined up to entertain guests while keeping the place busy for 32 days non-stop.
“It has always been a great opportunity for businesses to showcase their products and services to the teeming daily crowd of over 3,000 persons at the venue. So book a vendor booth and be on your way to maximising profit from this huge traffic of people.”
If given a more professional and cerebral touch, the event would improve and enhance the tourism potentials of the state, but will chart a new roadmap for tourism development in the country.