Dr Raphael James a researcher, author, publisher, tourist and adventurist, in 2014, began a self-motivated and self-sponsored trip across Nigeria, visiting and documenting tourist sites. In this interview with HANNAH ONI, he explains how Nigeria’s domestic tourism can further be developed among other issues
Based on your knowledge of the Nigerian environment, can you suggest ways Nigeria can further develop its domestic tourism?
The tourism industry in Nigeria has a whole lot of potential but then it is not being utilised by the federal government, state and even the local government. Most of the concerned local government areas are not taking advantage of the tourist attractions they have within their area. So we are in a situation whereby we have things that will generate money but it is lying idle wasting away.
The advantages we are supposed to take over those things we are not taking them because we are depending on oil money. We get this free money from oil and we are not making effort to develop other areas including the tourism sector.
Having said that if government at whatever level can take care of our tourist attractions and improve on them and encourage people to pay for them, I am one person who believes it will help us generate a whole lot of money because people across the world will visit. For example last month I was in a village called Oloko. Oloko is a village located in Abia state and I visited a building there which was built in 1927 and was inaugurated September 27th 1927 by Chief Ugadie who was a warrant officer then. He is the one that took over from Ezeowuwu, the warrant officer that started the Aba woman’s riot. His one story building is still standing and overgrown by weeds. When I got to the village I was told that during the 80s and the 90s they use to have foreigners coming from America to visit the building, but today as I speak I don’t think and I doubt if anyone knows whether that building still exist because there is no road leading to that place. A building like that will generate a whole lot of money for Ikwuano people and for Abia state.
The second one is the hanging lake in iseyin in Oyo state. There are two hanging lakes, one in Colorado in America and the other in Nigeria. The one in US according to report receives close to a million visitors per annum which means every year people visit the place. Look at it this way, if every visitor that goes there spends just one dollar, imagine the amount of money they are making. The one at Iseyin as at when I visited it, I don’t think I saw anyone around because that particular time, I was the only one who went there to climb the hanging lake that day.
The question is how many people know that place exists? Can you imagine how much government is losing for not developing that place, and creating the awareness for people to visit there? Of course a lot of people would want to visit if they are aware that the place does exist but we are not utilizing what we have.
What of the private sector?
There are challenges in the private sector because of the way we do things in this country. When I was in the university I remember a guy who came in and said he wanted to buy over Ikogosi Water Spring then and this guy was carrying cash, I don’t have the details of what happened then, but he was carrying cash that we saw and at the end of the day, he said the government refused to sell Ikogosi to him and also refused having him as a partner with the state government to develop the site.
That is the kind of challenges we have. If you walk into a community for example that has a tourist site and you want to develop it as a private individual you are going to have challenges from those who will claim that they are family owners of the particular place, land or property, you going to have challenges with the local government and the state and if eventually you succeed and you start to generate money you then see states coming around to tax you excessively.
So that’s why I insist that it is government that will do it. I’m running a museum for example and for me to run it, I don’t need government permission to do that all I needed to do was to get things that will attract the public to visit the museum and I started it so far of course the turn out haven’t been impressive but then I’ve had schools come in there to visit the museum and by the time they are leaving I realize that most of the student that came there were impacted positively.
Statistics has been an issue in tourism, what advice can you give NBS so as to make this issue a thing of the past?
It is all about record keeping starting from the airport and immigration authorities. There should be a standard whereby we would have number of foreigners coming in. At the Synagogues Church, I understand they receive more foreign visitors and tourists into the country than any other organisation in Nigeria. Now having said that I don’t know if at the Synagogue they have something of such but I know because I’ve been there to interview the man of God and I know that when you get there you have to fill a form and indicate your nationality to state whether you are a Nigerian or a foreigner so taking that example I am sure that the authority needs figures from the Synagogue Church.
Our tourist sites too should have things like that. I don’t think we do because I have visited places and all they ask you to do is to get a ticket and when you pay like two to three hundred Naira and you walk in nobody asks you your nationality. So there are no documents to state whether the person who visit is a foreigner or a Nigeria.
Do you see tourism becoming the new oil in Nigeria?
New oil, old oil. Well tourism has always been there but has not been utilised even up till now that I’m speaking it is not being utilised and I doubt if government is going to do anything. There is a whole lot of things private individuals who are into tourism are doing. They are trying to promote tourism by encouraging foreigners to come in. You see, there is one thing about bringing tourists to Nigeria and it is not really about tourist sites we have. There are other things to consider, things like security. If a nation is not secure, you can hardly attract tourists. In our own case, we are having stories of killing and kidnapping here and there. With things like that happening, even those who want to come to Nigeria will be scared to come.
We don’t have good roads. The experience I had while going to Oloko would not encourage someone to continue the journey to that place. We got to a place even bikes could not ride on the road. It is that terrible. If the tourist site can be developed and managed properly and all these things I have enumerated put in place, why not it could be the next oil that we are looking at.
I’ve been to Kenya for example I did a tour of Nairobi trying to visit practically all the tourist sites in Nairobi and at a point I ran out of cash. When ran out of cash at the Miatawangari Forest, I introduced myself as a journalist from Nigeria and pleaded that they should let me in, but they said no, that I have to pay.
They led me to the overall boss who told me that every visitor pays because there is an automated system that once you cross the gate and you go its recorded that somebody had entered. He agreed to pay for me. The point I am trying to make here is that in this country, we don’t have such a system. Here if the entrance fee is N500 and you can tip the guy at the gate with N200 or so he lets you in. if money it keeps going into private pockets like that, government will not make enough money to be able to manage the sites.
Do you think Nigeria Tourism can grow beyond what it is now?
We can meet up and we can actually surpass it so to say but it is all about us willing to do it. Before the discovery of our oil for example we were good in farming like cocoa, groundnut and other things and we were producing them in large quantities and we were actually exporting them. If we could do it in the sixties we can do it today and even do it much better.
There have been so much progress and much talks on tourism even on the internet and you see each state now compiling list of their tourist sites. When we move from the point of just compiling to developing them, then we are ready to grow. There is a case about a particular governor in the eastern Nigeria who I understand demolished a tourist site a historic tourist site. When things like that happen you discourage people who want to invest in tourism because you make them feel that money is not coming now and that money will not come tomorrow. It is not true and it does not work like that.
In the last five years, how many states and countries have you visited?
I went fully into tourism in 2013 and that is actually five years now and I have visited 23 states. I have visited Abia, Imo, Enugu, Ebonyi, Anambra, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Ogun state, Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti, Taraba, Abuja like that. Twenty three of them. I have been to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic and in all I went for tourism. I need to do more of Nigeria because what I wanted to do and my initial plan was to focus on Nigeria. I’ve not covered most of the states in the North because of the insecurity there though I have friends who keep telling me that I should come the place is safe. Yes I believe it is safe but I have not covered most of them.
Again, I have had invitation in fact, I have a Chinese friend who had been on my neck to visit China that is because he runs a Zoo in China and I consult for him from Nigeria. I’m having plans to start my own Zoo in Nigeria and I am looking for partners to do that. I am trying to do a different kind of Zoo. I have visited close to 15 Zoo so far. I’m trying to improve on what I’ve seen in those Zoo so I’m planning to set up what I call a Zoological garden not just a Zoo because I am going to incorporate a whole lot of things that do not exist in other Zoo to make it unique and inviting.
What do you think the industry should do to attract inbound tourism?
Well, it is about emphasizing on the things we have and making people appreciate what we have. For example if you come into my museum I have set out photographs to ask questions and I have received 100 people there and I think it is just two persons that have been able to provide an answer to it. Must people that have come in there and could not provide answer are like wow I am going to tell my cousin to come here and try this so that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Government and private individuals should try to create awareness about the place and the importance and reasons why they should visit that place. Once we make people develop interest in most of the sites we have, we are going to have a situation where more people will want to visit those site and explore.
As someone who is always on the move exploring, gathering information and verifying fact on our sites, you also own one of the best libraries in tourism and others, still train women on skill acquisition, how do you fund all of these?
The funding have been an obstacle quite alright but then because I’m not doing something to make money I’m doing it because I feel it is something I need to do to improve the society, I don’t actually feel the pain most time.
The skill centre you talked about, I started it because I had an experience in my office where a woman had come to ask for help and I did not know her from Adam when she walked in, requesting I should help her financially I looked at her, she was tall, elegant and beautiful and to me I was like how will this beautiful woman work around begging for alms when she could at least use her hand to do something for herself. So I said madam I don’t have money to give you and the next thing she did in my office was she moved down to the other side of my office and she raised her skirt up no pant under and she said ‘sir this is what I will give you if you can help me.
That created fear, panic, I looked at it as a set up and I wasn’t sure of what was happening. I ran out of the office. She stayed for a minute or so and she left. The next day she came again and when she came this time she stood outside and called me outside to meet her, I went and she said sir please help me I have five kids and my husband is late and I don’t have money to feed them and she said she was sorry about what she did the day before. I started asking her question and at the end I discovered that she does not have a skill and she could not do anything when the husband was alive, she also said her husband was a pastor and she also was a pastor.
So I encouraged her to learn a skill. So that’s where the idea came from why don’t I look for something to do to help her and other women who probably will find themselves in that position so I started the skill centre, spoke to my wife and she accepted the idea and we started the skill acquisition in February 2016 and we’ve trained over 3000 women for free.