Beautiful Carmen Nibigira (PhD) is a former Director-General of the Burundi National Tourism Office and currently the Coordinator of East African Tourism Platform (EATP). She has travelled extensively in and out of Africa for work and leisure. The ex-beauty queen spoke with OKORIE UGURU about her life, her impression of Nigeria, Nigerians and tourism in general.
WHERE did you grow up?
I am from Burundi. I was born there. I spent between 18 and 20 years of my life there. I grew up in a family of four.
What were your growing up years like?
My father was a medical doctor. When I was eight, nine and 10, my father used to drive me round for vaccination campaign because my country is a small one. So, in the summer, doctors and nurses used to go to the villages because the hospitals were not enough. He used to take me there with a team of Russian and American doctors who used to come during summer.
I was fortunate to tour the whole country for three years consecutively, including the national parks. We used to do camping there. My last trip happened a year before the civil war broke out. I left the country and returned years later. When I went to see the places I had visited before, my heart sank. They had become refugee camps.Since I had gone to school to do tourism, I said this I needed to do, not just because I love it. My academic background from master’s to PhD has been in tourism.
You have travelled extensively. What is your impression of the Nigerian man?
I will go back to when I was in school in England. We used to see the typical Nigerians as interesting people. You hustle. You wake up in the morning with a purpose. Luckily for me, the Nigerian friends that I have had are core professionals. They have never shown to me that they are crooks or steal money. I tell people that whenever you see a Nigerian in a room, you will know he is a Nigerian. Their presence is different. They are more extrovert than the normal extrovert.
More than the normal African?
Yes. Everything for them has to be in terms of size; being big is better. They expect more than other Africans. They hustle. They expect people to do things differently. In the tourism sector, they can also come out as very arrogant. They are very hard to please.
Exactly. What you want is not in terms of petty. You will hardly see any one in East Africa going to a hotel and saying I want two bottles of champagne. But for Nigerians, it is normal. For me, they are an interesting people, very daunting and very aggressive in everything they do. I like the fact that when you set out to do something, whether it rains or shines, you go out to do that thing. You channel that into tourism and be the leading destination in Africa, and you have the money.
You seem to believe that there are two kinds of personalities: the lively, sociable one and the introvert who would just stay in one corner…
Yes, you know in our industry the two have to go together. Anyone I know in tourism, you have to have that personality of going out to people, welcome them and give them the best you can. The knowledge is the anchor.
How did you win the pageant that made you a beauty queen?
It was a normal thing for me. The day of the contest was a Friday. My friends were like, ‘Wow! This is happening!’ But I never acted as if there was something. After the contest, I was back to my natural self. I was like that was one event; let us go to the next chapter.
How do you relax?
I am so blessed when I look at my life. I stay in hotels. People save money to go on holiday but that holiday destination is my office. This is where I spend most of my life. I host events. I travel. When I want to relax, I spend time with my children; two of them.
I don’t really go out. I am not a night person. On Saturdays, we go for the normal stufff—ice cream, movies and so on. I love reading. When I have time to travel for leisure, I like to go to places where I have never been before and spend time with myself. I take time to invest in myself, go back to the core of who I am.
In terms of tourism, the East African sub-region is doing better than West Africa. What do you think the West African sub-region should do to build tourists traffic?Nigeria, for example, is more of a business tourism destination than a leisure destination despite the abundance of huge tourism assets. What do you think should be done to improve theTourism traffic in the region?
I will pick on the key words you used. You said East Africa is doing better, and then you said Nigeria, and then West Africa. Let me reverse it. East Africa is not doing better. We were forced to work together and find solutions together. So, when you talk about East Africa, it is five countries looking for solutions when we know very well that we cannot work in isolation. As individual countries in East Africa, we are too small, too fragmented and too small economies to stand alone.
So, we are interdependent. We need each other. We cannot survive unless we work as a regional block. Looking at the size of Nigeria with a population of about 170 million, this is the population of the five countries in East Africa. The scale and the size matter. If you look at the geographical position and the population you have, you now go beyond borders. You cannot solve the issue by just looking at Nigeria. Of course you have your domestic issues that you have to resolve, but you will be doing more if you go beyond the borders.
I salute the fact that in Ghana I don’t need a visa before coming. I can apply online and also at the airport I can get my visa. My visa is $150 for 30 days, for just one country when in East Africa we do three countries for $100 for working on borderless borders principle. Do we see the business of tourism not only for the trade or tourism or travel but connecting Africa? That is the bottom line.
I like the conversation of Africa for Africans. No one else is going to build tourism, bearing in mind that tourism was not designed for us as Africans. Look at any major hotel which has been done in the last 30 years, the local market was always ignored in the design of the product. So, if we really want to change the narrative, we need to change the conversation.
It is not about Nigeria; it is Nigeria within a bigger geographical group, because as long as you still need a visa to enter Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, as long as I still have to fly from Nairobi to Addis Ababa or anywhere and the price of the ticket is just ridiculous, as long as the hotel doesn’t really give value for money, and we are not competitive in terms of price and products, we still have a long way to go.
It is not about East Africa doing better, or Nigeria or West Africa, it is about the conversation of how do we position ourselves as a destination, whether on a small scale of a small country in Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, or Nigeria as the biggest economy in Africa?
The African Union met to discuss the issue of common visa. What is your opinion on that?
First, I think what is being discussed is the e-passport; that number one, they are going to issue, by 2018, an African passport. The idea is great. Two things which are still of concern to me are the cost of the visa and the bilateral agreement. Some countries are still reluctant to enter into agreement with other countries. Two, the cost of travel. For me, the passport is a tool.
It is an enabling factor. What now is of concern is why should I now come from Burundi or Kenya and pay $150 to enter Ghana for 30 days. When I get to Nigeria, it is $290 for one month seven days. Those are the things.
We need to understand that it is not just about the passport or visa. When we lock ourselves in and say we cannot come to this country, what are the things preventing people from seeing our country?
A typical example: three days ago, I landed in Ghana and paid $150 to the immigration at the airport, $I50 plus one night stay in the hotel. That one night stay would have created a job for a waiter, someone working in the housekeeping. I could have created six jobs. I spent $250 on souvenirs; $150, for me, should be a deterrent. I hear from you that Nigeria is simply different, but the daunting experience from your airport is something else. We need to make it that what we sell and the message we package is a whole seamless experience.