ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA who was at the recently held Accra Weizo 2016, a travel trade conference and exhibition designed to promote travel business in West Africa, writes on the event.
July 15 marked the second edition of the Accra Weizo, a travel and tourism trade conference and exhibition designed to boost tourism business and the economy of West Africa countries. Aside from this, the event was also aimed at making the region a single destination through inter and intra travels among the 16 countries of the region just as envisioned by the founding fathers of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) in 1975. Organised by Africa Travel Quarterly (ATQ), organisers of the yearly Akwaaba Africa Travel Market in Lagos, it debuted last year with support from Ghana Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts and Tour Operators Union of Ghana (TOGHA), La Palm Beach Royal Hotel, Accra, alongside other organisations. The event was targeted at bringing the various operators in travel and tourism as well as allied sectors from both the public and private sectors together to seek ways of making West Africa a single destination. At this year’s event, the ceremony brought together different operators from across ECOWAS to brainstorm on the theme, Seamless Travels in West Africa. The conference hall of La Palm Beach Royal Hotel, venue of the one day event was all primed and colourful to play host to the hordes of participants who attended the event.
The need for Accra Weizo
The event started with morning tea/ coffee session, which afforded the participants the opportunity to interact and network, thereafter, the conference session commenced with the head of ATQ, Ikechi Uko, giving a welcome remark in which he focused on the reason that informed the creation of Accra Weizo in 2015. Uko said: “The stressful nature of travel within West Africa is the reason for this event.” He also lamented the fact that 40 years after, the dreams of the founding fathers of ECOWAS, which is essentially that of making the region a single destination, with easy of movement and transaction, of is yet to be realised. Whereas other regional blocs within the African continent which started few years ago are making the much desired impact while West Africa still remains largely divided and under achieving destination with less connectivity, networking, business and long haul travels. However, he said: “We need to turn West Africa economy into the biggest economy in Africa.” The only way to achieve this, he said, is for the countries to come together and sign on to a common course. “Taking a cue from East Africa, which has set up the East Africa Tourism Platform (ETAP) I decided that we need to talk to each other and work together because there are a lot of similarities among us,” he disclosed even as he wished the participants an exciting time: “I hope you will be enriched.” With that Uko set the tone for the discussion as the Regional Coordinator of EATP, Carmen Nibigira, stepped out to speak on: West Africa as a destination – The East Africa experience.
Intervention from East Africa Tourism Platform
Nibigira, who was the former head of Burundi Tourism Board, spoke extensively on the workings of EATP and how the region can take a cue from its work to engage with the government and the various operators and stakeholders so as to form a synergy that will mobilse the region into one powerful force. According to her, EATP’s vision is that of putting in place a vibrant and direct single tourist destination providing exceptional experiences. With the creation of EATP in 2012, she said: “We are the private sector voice set up to bring about interactions between the government and the private sector.” She also some of its achievements as an advocacy body, which intervenes in various aspects especially that of policies, standards and code of ethics, sharing of information, promotion and providing network opportunities and establishing a strong brand for the region. Perhaps one of the most outstanding outcomes of its interface with the various governments within the region is that of making them elevate tourism to the front burner as economic activity and allocating 10 per cent of their national budgets to tourism.
Also, EATP saw to the creation of a single visa regime, which allows tourists access to the countries of the region besides the country of entry. But for now it is only embraced by three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania while effort is on to get the remaining countries in the region to sign on to it. Nibigira insisted that the private sector operators have to come together to engage with their various governments as tourism is private sector driven: “If we don’t come together to solve some of our common problems we are not going to go far.” While wishing the West Africa region to rise up to the occasion, she said: “We want to see this happening in West Africa and the whole of Africa as we believe that West Africa is a big market for us just in the same way as we are a big market for you as well.” Also, she admonished thus: “When we positioned ourselves as a continent there is a lot that we can do together, the solutions are within us and information sharing is essential. As a private sector you need to position yourself as important so that the government can sit with you.”
The West Africa angle
Nibigira’s stimulating and enlightened presentation was followed by a panel discussion led by some of the key operators from West Africa, the list include the President of the Nigeria Association of Tour Operators (NATOP), Nkereuwem Onung, Vice-President of The Tour Operators Union of Ghana (TOUGHA), Kwesi Eyison and the President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bankole Bernard. Mrs. Nigeria United Nations and Mrs. Tourism United Nations World, Mrs. Ebelechukwu Enechukwu, moderated the occasion. The three discussants agreed in the light of Nibigira’s presentation that West Africa’s travel industry is yet to get off the ground, insisting that there is need to forge a common ground by the various governments and operators in the region. Bankole committed himself to playing a role in pushing for common ground in the region. ‘‘I am going to be committed to this integration,” he said, however, “it is a huge challenge for me and for us in West Africa. We are going to have to harness what we have and we have everything and the opportunity but we are not making the best use of it. “I want to come back next year and see it bigger than this and when we continue to talk about it more people will take notice and get involved.” While on his part, Onung said Accra Weizo was a defining factor for the region and it should be seen as the catalyst for the integration of the region but he insisted that the starting point is to elicit first a commitment from the people of the region that they want integration and are ready for it. For Eyison, “we should be able to build a strong intra and inter tourism traffic in West Africa,” even as he stressed on the need to have a hosted buyers exposition as done by other countries, insisting that “these are things that we can do easily without much effort.”
The South Africa Tourism angle
Next to take to the podium was the South Africa Tourism Trade Relations Manager, West Africa, Mohammed Tanko Kwajaffa, who took the participants through the whole gamut of the operations of South Africa Tourism, which has responsibility for the development, marketing and promotion of the country’s tourism industry across the world. According to him, the West Africa office by SAT is the first outside of South Africa in Africa and this, he said shows the measure of premium that SAT places on the West African market particularly Nigeria, which he said is the biggest market in the region. He disclosed that SAT operates 11 offices across the globe but recognised West Africa as one of the fastest growing markets hence it has made it a focal point by showing its presence in the region and embarking on various activities, which are geared at stimulating the market and generating traffic for South Africa. Kwajaffa said SAT had well defined mode of operations with its focusing on three broad areas, which are trade partners, consumers and stakeholders; revealing further that “we ensure that there is a good network opportunity to engage with these various interest groups.” Kwajaffa parting shot was: “As much as we market South Africa we also want to see West Africa grow and we believe that the opportunities are here as well. The sooner we look at Africans travelling within Africa, the better for us all.”
Governor Ayade and Carnival Calabar step in
It was time out of some sort with revel lers from Carnival Calabar stepping on stage to entertain with a commanding performance that caught the imagination of the audience through their scintillating moves and gyrations. They got the audience all excited and asking for more. A request that was appropriately responded to by the governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, who was represented by the Executive Secretary of the Carnival Calabar Commission, Austin Cobham. Ayade by this ovation, extended a formal invitation to all the participants to this year’s edition of the carnival, which since its debut in 2004, has grown to become the biggest street party in Africa. The governor who clinched the tourism man of the year – West Africa and Nigeria awards, expressed delight over the event and declared that the state is proud to be associated with Accra Weizo, adding that: “It has become one of the most important tourism platforms in the world. “We were here last year and made huge impact and impression on the people and we are here again this year, which shows how successful and important this platform is because we see it as a necessary platform for Africans to achieve unity in the globe.”
Airport operations in West Africa
The last presentation for the day was that by the Vice-Chairman of Skyway Aviation Handling Company Limited (SACHOL), Chike Ogeah, on integrating airport operations in West Africa. In a well researched and delivered paper, Ogeah drew attention to the fact that aviation is a global business with acceptable global standards and norms when it comes to operations. Therefore, West Africa, he said should strive to operate within the globally recognised standards even as he focused on the various segments of airport operations, stakeholders, facilities and activities while drawing examples from Nigeria. He concluded by admonishing that for “passengers to have a seamless experience the entire airport operations must be interlink.”
The afternoon session came to an end with a sumptuous lunch at the Ghana Village restaurant of the hotel. It was a lavish buffet with the people treated to a wide selection of local Ghanaian delicacies. This savoury moment was spiced with another colourful performance by the Carnival Calabar revellers.
The evening session was more of a night out affair, which turned out to be quite entertaining. Held at the garden foyer of Ghana village restaurant, it was a cocktail session blended with music and then the final performance by the carnival revellers closing out the night.