For many years, middle class and rich families in Nigeria have made it a ritual to spend the months of June to September overseas on summer vacation, particularly in Europe or America and more recently Middle East and Asia, precisely Dubai. During this period, if you are around the major international airports in Nigeria, the rush to leave the country will make an unsuspecting observer feel there is impending crisis or even war. At the end of the summer vacation period, it will appear as if there is competition amongst families who will come back home with more suitcases. As holiday makers travel out of the country, scarce foreign exchange leaves with them. The opportunity cost tells on our dwindling infrastructure, under-developed domestic tourism, taking a big toll on the economy, and our jobs developing wings and flying away. Because middle and high income families are majorly the leadership class, nobody really cares about copying and pasting those things that make other places attractive, even when that does not require rigorous mental work.
As the families leave the country in droves, these other countries gain in every sense because of the tourism value chain effect. The destination cities grow richer, jobs are multiplied, and infrastructure is developed to keep pace with increased demand. The countries we go for vacation earn so much from foreign tourists for which Nigerians constitute a significant proportion. In 2018 alone, statistics from United Nations World Tourism Organisation showed that the US earned $215bn from foreign tourists; two other popular destinations for Nigerians. Spain earned $81.5bn and France earned $65.5bn. Dubai as a city earned $30.82bn from tourism in that year. These countries are also spending on marketing to attract the world, including those of us from more endowed but less fortunate countries, to sustain or improve on the number of tourists visiting their countries because of its overall impact on their economy. With social media, marketing becomes easier, cheaper and much more effective. These countries advertise things you may consider trivial like food varieties, dance, holiday sites, beaches, casino gaming and benefits of a particular location for health even when there is no empirical proof. A non-profit organisation, World Travel and Tourism Council estimated the contribution of international tourism industry to global economy at $8.8tn in 2018 and it is responsible for 10 percent of all economic activities and 319millon jobs around the world. Without doubt, Nigeria earns little or nothing from this share of global tourism industry rather we are among the big spenders officially and unofficially.
The question is: has anyone ever bothered why Nigerians are obsessed with summer vacation abroad or properly put in context, foreign travel? The reasons are everywhere to see yet nobody does anything about them. Conversely the key attractions to Western tourism destinations for Nigerians are shopping, healthcare, religious activities, and leisure sites generally. But from insecurity, lack of infrastructure, underdevelopment of our own potential tourism attractions, poor or no health care facilities, to our ailing local manufacturing, social reasons, adventure and simply western indoctrination, these critical components that should have made our country the ideal destination remain ignored.
Faced with Covid-19, all the mad rush to go for summer vacations abroad will temporarily be put on hold. Nigerians will be forced to enjoy summer holidays in the country. This will be the same for citizens of most other countries. Unfortunately, neither Nigerians nor our domestic tourism industry seems prepared for this. For a start, when the airspace is opened, the COVID-19 scare will limit the travel boom and cause families to avoid travels in aircraft, trains and cruise ships for risk of contracting the virus. At best, you can expect a boom in passenger movement within the first few weeks only because people who were locked down away from home will be rushing to return back. But things may take a U-turn after this rush. Then you have the insecurity plaguing the Northern part of the country and rising tension in many areas across the country coupled with the spending power of families being at its lowest level. All these contribute to the already volatile situation. Confronted with this existential and practical reality of COVID-19 and its attendant visa restriction, travel ban, boarder closure plus drastic drop in income, it is time we reflected on important issues about this concept of summer vacation and rethink it.
First, there is nothing that says we can only enjoy vacation abroad. And this does not deny the multiple benefits you get if you can afford it. But there are equally good local alternatives. The point is that we have not made effort to explore our local alternatives. There are many tourist attractions, beaches, local safari, cultural performances, varieties of food in country, different cultures, many languages, so much to explore about our country yet we refuse to promote them. The unfortunate thing is that we have lost faith in ourselves and our country. Could it be that the tourism industry is doing little about marketing these opportunities? Or could it be that the players in the tourism sector cannot organise local tourism packages except they are overseas? The craze for overseas summer vacation inadvertently rubs our children the opportunity of knowing their country, it’s culture, history, norms and imbue in them the patriotic spirit needed to contribute to nation building. Most of the millennial children are “white” inside and “black”outside meaning they are Africans who in their mindset and actions deny their roots.
There are many tourist attractions, beaches, local safari, cultural performances, varieties of food in country, different cultures, many languages, so much to explore about our country yet we refuse to promote them.
Second, our local tourism industry suffers from serious infrastructure deficit such as roads, rail, barely functional airports, electricity and most importantly security. Conversely the countries where we spend our vacation benefits from funds generated from tourism to increase spending on roads, community areas, schools, healthcare and other vital public infrastructure. We crave for those countries because their infrastructure and systems work. Faced with our new reality should we not put in everything to make our system work? It’s time to think long term and act short time.
Third, government at various levels have not taken a serious look at multiplier economic effect of long-term plan for tourism. No coherent plan whatsoever to tap into the massive economic benefits of organised tourism. It is clear that there is huge potential for domestic tourism in Nigeria. This is the time for government at different levels to put in place policies, regulations, framework, financial support to encourage and grow local tourism. It is bad enough that as the giant of Africa which we are tauted as, we lost the seat of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to Ghana, making them a potential investment hub. The AfCFTA, which will promote free and fair single trade within Africa, could have been an economic springboard for our country, boosting local content manufacturing and development.
Fourth, if there is one thing checking out in numbers for summer vacation abroad is costing the economy of Nigeria, it is employment opportunities. At least not for a country where estimated 40million persons are unemployed. From farmers, cab drivers, restaurant operators, artists, curators, local musicians to local airlines and hotels, we lose incredible employment opportunities in-country and help create jobs abroad in the countries we patronise. In most of those countries, new businesses are created out of tourism and activities of visiting tourists. How do we systematically plan for the revival of our local tourism industry in the face of Covid-19 so we can keep the jobs here. This period provides us that opportunity for serious introspection.
Fifth, Voice of America (VOA) quoting Nigerian authorities say we spent $1billion in medical tourism alone in 2018-2019. This is obvious as medical facilities in Nigeria are literally comatose. Our medical professionals are fleeing the country in droves and VOA argued that if our President cannot trust our medical establishments why should ordinary citizens do? Meanwhile we rush to other third world countries for simple medical procedures which we have competencies in. Some Nigerian doctors have successfully performed surgeries at fair and affordable prices, saving patients the burden of paying a fortune overseas. Nigeria is ripe enough for medical tourism and this can in turn, boost the economy. With systematic implementation and enforcement of ethical rules for medical practitioners, we can subdue the need to travel to India for a bone surgery, or UK for renal issues etc. Instead, Nigeria can be a hub to persons all over the world requiring our medical specialties.
It is time we reflected on our individual priorities and how it impacts our economic well-being. Vacation abroad cannot be a do or die affair, at least that is a truth Covid has taught us. This should also serve as a lesson to our leaders to pay special attention to critical sectors with capacity for multiplier effect such as tourism. If the country’s borders remain closed for a longer time, safe relaxation and get-aways should not really be closed to families wanting a holiday.
Governments and the private sector players should be able to exploit these times and resuscitate infrastructure and facilities for relaxation and tourism within their states, such that the need to travel overseas will gradually fizzle away, and the experience will still be memorable. It will be ideal for the government to deliberately focus on, and market our local offings within and outside Nigeria to the extent where people overseas will crave Nigeria as their holiday destination. We look forward to tour agencies developing local inter-state packages for domestic tourism. Above all, it will be apt if all policies and practices remain COVID-19 compliant and take into considerations, key guidelines from the health umpire, WHO, to safegueard our tourists.
•Dr Dakuku Peterside, former Director-General of NIMASA, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org