Home » Africa: Tourism Icon Ikechi Uko Reveals Challenges Faced When Intra-Africa Tourism Vision Was Mocked and Rejected, Unveils Strategy for Boosting Domestic Tourism in Nigeria

Africa: Tourism Icon Ikechi Uko Reveals Challenges Faced When Intra-Africa Tourism Vision Was Mocked and Rejected, Unveils Strategy for Boosting Domestic Tourism in Nigeria

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Ikechi Uko

Ikechi Uko, a prominent figure in the Nigerian and African tourism sector, celebrated his 60th birthday with a conversation highlighting his significant impact as a travel consultant, promoter, and tourism development expert.

In an interview with Ivory Ukonu, Uko expresses his unwavering passion for transforming the African continent into the world’s premier tourist destination.

According to thewillnews.com, the excerpts delve into Uko’s colossal presence in the tourism industry and his commitment to driving its growth and development.

You have made the travel industry popular via your annual AKWAABA Awards and exhibition a thing to reckon with. How did it all start?

Travel award was the first thing I ventured into in 1996. The AKWAABA exhibition was born during the 11th edition of the award. That year, it was renamed Travellers’ Award and Exhibition. There had been several attempts to organise a travel exhibition in Nigeria and they all failed.

And so, one day, the management of Eko Hotel and Suites, Frank Nneji of ABC Transport and British Airways, all called me for meetings separately, as if there was a conspiracy among them, and told me that they think that I am the only Nigerian who can hold a successful travel exhibition. They believed I have the network and capacity locally and internationally. I tried to evade it and told them I only knew how to host travel awards and not exhibitions, but they insisted and asked me to understudy how exhibitions are done.

British Airways volunteered one of their staff, Folake Ani-Mumuney who is currently the Global Head Marketing and Corporate Communications, First Bank of Nigeria Plc, to assist me with my research. I had attended several international exhibitions and knew what to expect but I chose to spend one year to educate myself more on it. The following year, we held the Travellers’ Award and added an exhibition to it. It was bankrolled by Eko Hotel and Suites.

READ: Africa: Former NCAC Director Runsewe Highlights the Vital Role of Tourism in Nigeria as Global Stakeholders Gather to Honor Amb Ikechi Uko’s Contributions To African Tourism

The next year we decided to globalise it and chose a name that was globally appealing. Because it is held in Lagos, Nigeria, we decided to choose a word that is welcoming beyond Nigeria. We chose AKWAABA, an Akan word for welcome, promoted first by Cote D’Ivoire and later adopted by Ghana. It worked. So, the Travellers’ Award became relegated to the background and the AKWAABA Awards and Exhibition became the dominant event.

So, you completely buried the Travellers’ Award?

Well, it metamorphosed into Africa Travel 100 Awards. AKWAABA Awards and Exhibition is a continental event. The Travellers’ Award was supposed to be a domestic affair. However, between 2006 and 2011 we didn’t do any domestic event except the global AKWAABA Awards and Exhibition. Then in 2011, we began another domestic event, Abuja BANTABA. We chose Abuja for the domestic event because AKWAABA is held in Lagos. We also began another event in Ghana, the biggest Travel Expo in that country. Our most recent is JABAMAH, a Travel ‘Bleisure’ event that seeks to have a serene business environment laced with leisure activities in Nigeria.

READ: Africa: Aviation, Tourism, Stakeholders From Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Seychelles, Others Celebrates Akwaaba Founder, Ikechi Uko At 60

You have tried to make Nigeria a tourism destination through these events, no doubt, but this has not really translated to Nigeria becoming a tourist hub. Why is this so?

First off, yes, I have played my part. Someone once told me that she has never seen anyone single handedly drag tourism and make it alive like I have done. Yes, people give me credit, but I have not done anything single handedly. Covid 19 was in 2020 and the industry literally collapsed but we, a group of likeminded people and I decided that we were going to revive the industry and keep it alive and the only way we could do so was with domestic tourism. So, in June 2020, we launched the seven wonders of Nigeria conferences. Every tour operator in Nigeria signed up for it and this translated into businesses for people and these destinations. So, do I agree that this has not translated to Nigeria becoming a tourist hub? No, because the biggest tour companies in Africa are Nigerians. We have become a hub for outbound tourism, we are global players in that regard. What you and most Nigerians want is for us to become a hub for inbound tourism, you want more people to come to Nigeria.

Why not? Why can’t Nigeria be like Dubai so that people can also make it their favourite destination?

We do not have those kinds of facilities to cater for that now but there is something happening now that most people are not noticing. There is ‘Detty December’ which causes a lot of traffic throughout the month unlike what was obtainable in the past when in the month of December, there was always a free flow of traffic. There is an influx of people coming into the country at that time of the year and billions of Naira are spent in Lagos alone. It has become so big that people now work towards being a part of ‘Detty December’.

READ: Africa: A Daughter’s Heartfelt Celebration of Ambassador Ikechi Uko’s 60th Birthday at Lagos National Museum Surprise Event

The tourism that Dubai has is just an idea that they put in the air, ours is even tangible – music concerts, parties, shows etc in December. Having said that, do you know that the man who built the tallest building in Dubai hosted me and told me that he wants to come build the same thing in Nigeria and wants to work with me in that regard. The man was supposed to build at the Centenary City, Abuja but the government stopped the project. So, the guy moved on and built in other countries.

Why did they stop the project?

I don’t know, I am not a politician, but these are some of the drawbacks you see in the tourism sector. That was an opportunity to create a major tourist attraction. A waterfall is no attraction if there is nothing to it. When I go to Victoria falls, the biggest waterfall in the world, located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, I do helicopter rides, I do all kinds of activities there because the tourism potentials of the place have been maximized to the fullest by the authorities. I don’t just go to the waterfalls to see only the water, there are other things to do there as well.

Here for instance, say the Obudu Cattle Ranch in Cross Rivers State, you do not have anything that is as beautiful as that place elsewhere. It is a place where you can literally touch the cloud. But there are no flights to that place every day. We are a country that has been spoiled by oil wealth. Imagine if we had a responsible government that will harness the vast opportunities in tourism. They believe tourism is about cultural performance, tourism is big and is a huge revenue generator for other countries. But I am happy that there is a whole generation of young people who have taken it upon themselves to promote and champion the real tourism cause. They are on fire. I am glad that I am making an impact in that direction. Outside those championing the real cause of tourism, every other person who claims to be an operator in the tourism space is either selling flight tickets or running a hotel.

That is not all there is to tourism. The late Prophet Temitope Balogun Joshua was the biggest tourism attraction in Nigeria. Presidents of nations visited that church when he was alive, and Abuja wasn’t even aware. Former Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha had a good concept for tourism but because he couldn’t coordinate it properly, people felt he was wasting money building statues all over the place. The dune that people rush to go see in Dubai, we have three places like that in Nigeria. There are animals that are found only in Cross Rivers State and not elsewhere. Do you know that Dolphins visit Nigeria every year when they migrate? You can watch Dolphins in South Africa and Kenya but in Nigeria, they get caught and eaten for dinner in Bayelsa State. We have simply not organised our tourism well enough. Hopefully we get a government that understands the huge tourism potentials in Nigeria and properly harness it.

There is also the issue of security. Isn’t that enough to hamper tourism?

I belong to the school of thought that says that security in Nigeria isn’t a problem for tourism to thrive because we are not the most violent destination in the world. We are not even in the top ten and tourism still thrives in the countries on this list. There is insecurity in Nigeria but we move around in large numbers and that helps.

And Nigerians love to travel

Obligatory travels as I like to call it. Tourism despite not being fully harnessed are the biggest employers of labour. The hotels are the biggest employers in Abuja, land transport is one of the biggest employers of labour, restaurant business is everywhere in Nigeria.

Do we really have a five-star hotel in Nigeria?

Most hotels we give five-star ratings in Nigeria are most probably three-star hotels in other climes. I have seen a three-star brand in another country come to Nigeria and charge more than a four-star brand because of market positioning. Anyone can position its brand, but I think Hilton Abuja is a five-star hotel by every standard used in classifying a five-star hotel.

What are those standards?

The number of facilities required of a five star, it is multilingual, it has a clinic, a specialised restaurant etc. Those are the things you use to check hotel classification. It ticks all the boxes. Eko Hotel also ticks all the boxes. But it is in service standard that people can say Lagos Marriott is a five-star hotel. But does it have more of those boxes than the other hotels? No, it doesn’t despite being a powerful brand. Before Lagos Marriott, Victoria Island was the headquarters of hotel brands but not anymore. The Lagos Marriott recalibrated the hotel environment on Lagos mainland by bringing quality and high value into the environment.

You are a recipient of many tourism awards both within and outside Nigeria. Which of these awards would you consider to be the most significant?

Three stand out. The award by the government of Rwanda. I also got the privilege to name a Gorilla there. This was in 2014. The publisher of Africa Travel Times based in New York, he is dead now, recognised me as the ambassador of tourism for Africa. Then I was given an award for African man of the year in Ethiopia in 2017. The government of Gambia gave me an award in 2010 for promoting tourism in Gambia. So the international awards mean a lot to me. Probably the one that excites me the most is the one from the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. But. They decided to honour students from the department of Geography and chose one person from each generation, starting from the 70s.

I was chosen for those who graduated in the 80s. I was invited to speak to the students and motivate them. I wondered why I was chosen to come back to the school to talk to the students. I am not the most successful graduate from the school. But the lecturer told me that I am not a politician, I am not in the oil business, I am not a criminal, I live in Nigeria, I don’t work for a corporation but each day, the students read about me because I was able to create something out of nothing with the knowledge I got from the school and from the Geography department and that is how I inspire others.

You know how it feels being an average student and they call you back to honour you for your outstanding achievement. That was a lot for me. And that made me decide to mentor as many people as I can in the area I play and since then, I have received a lot of awards from young people. All that happened because I was doing what I was doing all over Africa and getting accorded with utmost respect by governments of these nations. I introduced intra-Africa travelling, not single handedly though, about three of us who believed that Africans should be able to travel within Africa. We made it happen.

In those days when I would speak to other African nations at exhibitions or conferences, that we can collectively make this happen – get Africans to travel within Africa, I was mocked, called all sorts of names and chased out of their exhibition pavilions. They were only interested in European tourism. Eventually three people from Zimbabwe, East Africa, South Africa and me from West Africa bought into the vision. Now everyone is doing intra Africa tourism. One day a guy from Rwanda who threw my vision to my face told me that I was way ahead of the times with my vision. He confessed his admiration of my tenacity to not give up all the times I was mocked, and my vision rejected. And that today, the story of tourism in Africa cannot be written without my name occupying a pride of place in that story. The rejection I got and how I withstood all the resistance, makes me wonder where I got the capacity to turn the vision into a business. I built a business out of that vision, and I got recognised for my efforts by African governments.

What would you consider to be your biggest achievement?

Connecting Africa to the Diaspora, specifically the Caribbeans. The Caribbean tourism organisation attended their first ever event in Africa during one of the AKWAABA Awards and Exhibition. I felt that until Africans connect to the Diaspora, tourism won’t work well. It took me 15 years. In 2019, I was able to make that connection. That is a huge milestone for me.

What is the story behind your signature look, always with a scarf around your neck?

I have to always wear a scarf. It is a way for me to create an identity for myself. The scarves come from different countries of the world. In those days when I attended the World Travel Market or international expos, I always had a Nigerian scarf with me to identify me as a Nigerian. As time went on, people from other countries began to gift me scarves from their own country. When I am in Nigeria, I wear scarves from other countries but when I travel out, I wear home-made scarfs that identify me as a Nigerian. I now have so many from different countries that I no longer accept them as gifts.

How do you remember the country a scarf originates from?

It took me time to learn them.

And the hat?

As a young boy, I liked wearing hats. I didn’t know why but I liked it. I like the Niger-Delta hat even though I am from Abia State, but I considered it too big and decided to go for a small brim hat which wasn’t popular when I first started wearing it, just to stand out. I made it part of my identity. I don’t carry complimentary cards. In my field, everyone remembers the tall man with a small brim hat and a scarf regardless of whether I am wearing native or English attire. And it worked.

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