Tourism has become a crucial vehicle for the transformation of West Africa and a reason why African continental aviation industry has yet to leverage it for its development.
This failure to improve connectivity among African countries was the reason the Sierra Leonean Minister of Tourism, Memunatu Pratt believes there is still much work to be done by all stakeholders in the tourism sector.
Pratt who attended the just- concluded Akwaaba Travel Market held in Lagos, said that African airlines can profit immensely if the potential in tourism are properly harnessed.
West Africa lacks adequate connectivity to boost tourism?
We have a huge interest in IT but even at that, you have millions of people that cannot be reached, so you still depend on traditional methods of the media.
But for West Africa, generally, we have wasted a lot of time in connecting the sub region. I remember as far back as 1975 and up to 1980, there were projects to link West Africa like the railway. We were also talking about how we missed the West Africa Air transmission connectivity because of issues like the civil wars in Sierra Leone and even Liberia, which affected Guinea a bit and disrupted quite a lot of processes. We must also thank Nigeria for the sacrifices it has made to the three countries.
These periods were critical and could have been used to connect the sub region. So what we have now is that we have a region which is poorly connected by rail, air and even by sea. I mean, you go to many countries, you can just use your ferry to go to many different places. Coastal areas are not barriers but we have missed that. If you go to countries like Seychelles, it is made up of about 115 islands, but you cannot even feel it because at every moment there is a boat going and coming.
There are domestic aircraft there and then there are wonderful ferries put together by the business sector. So if a country like that can be able to achieve it, what about West Africa? I’m using this comparison to say that we have not been able to do much to be able to explore and exploit what we have. If you take the hold of West Africa, all the cities are sitting on the West coast. What is wrong with putting cruise ships on those places which would create jobs and connect people?
West Africa has got huge natural and heritage resources that can market the whole of this region. My point is that the vision as a region to use West Africa as the backbone of developing the economy has been missed but it’s not too late yet and events like Akwaaba can be used as a spring board to get there.
I was appointed minister in 2018 and thank God my president took tourism very seriously because he knows what it takes for us to do well. But the fact remains that I am very much aware that tourism can be a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, promoting peace and security.
Airlines can take advantage of tourism potential?
One of the things we are not good at is marketing. Marketing of our natural resources, our natural sites, natural product has not been much. Our marketing has just been towards maybe the domestic and then maybe consumer and trade related. But we have not been able to market West Africa wherein people can be able to know what is there. We know the tour operators are doing well, but I think an integrated approach will make a lot of difference.
Today people are talking about an ECOWAS visa where if somebody comes to Nigeria, they can go to Accra, Lome and other countries. We have to think in an integrated fashion. So marketing is one, but then also trying to put together the facilities and opportunities that are available. It also has to do with a lot of airline arrangements. If somebody comes with an ECOWAS visa for instance, maybe the person can be given some flight ticket discounts and what is important is that it drives businesses.
You see people coming to do hotels, coming to expand entertainment facility, sponsoring local artists, sponsoring the film industry. It all drives the process of development of the economy. So marketing should be strategic and integrated.
But unfortunately, all of us are not on the same level in our different countries in West Africa. But we can start the advocacy and try to provide the kind of ownership that is required and get people to understand that this is the way to go, at the level of government, civil society, media and then also the private sector. I think that should be a good way to go.
By Chinelo Obogo