Deola Akeju stood under the gushing waterfalls of Ikogosi in western Nigeria, laughing with her friends and other travellers as they explored the forest’s pools and streams.
She is one of a growing number of Nigerian holiday-makers keen to explore their country, one whose unenviable reputation for violent crime and corruption largely deters international travellers.
Nigeria thus loses out on tourism revenues to other countries perceived to be safer such as Kenya, Ghana and the Gambia.
Small, social media-savvy companies like Social Prefect Tours (SPT) and TVP Adventures are hoping young professionals like Akeju will form a burgeoning market of tourists wanting to discover the natural beauty and culture in their own backyard.
“At first you would not think there are this many exciting places here, but when you travel you realize that … there are a lot of fun places, so it is a very good experience to see the beauty of the country,” said Akeju, 23, who works in IT insurance.
From lush forests sheltering waterfalls and warm springs in the west to the Alpine-like mountains of the east, from festivals to historical sites, attractions are in no shortage in the west African country.
But unlike African tourist destinations such as Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania, Nigerian governments have invested little in nurturing the industry.
“The government is more focused on other sources of income and has not really developed the tourist sector,” said Chiamaka Ntia, SPT’s founder.
“People as well are not really informed that there are places that they can go to for leisure, for holiday and also, these places are not properly taken care of, they are not up to standard when you compare … to those other African countries.”
VISAS ON ARRIVAL
Nigeria brought in $1.09 billion from international tourism in 2016, the latest year available, according to the World Bank. By comparison, Kenya received $1.62 billion that year, Tanzania got $2.16 billion and South Africa $8.81 billion.
Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed has said the government has implemented policies – including the introduction of visas on arrival last year and efforts to improve the ailing power, road and rail infrastructure – to make Nigeria more attractive for overseas travellers.
“There is no doubt that Nigeria is fast becoming a destination of choice for international tourists,” he said in August. His ministry, however, said an uptick in tourist numbers was based on anecdotal evidence since it lacks data.
Despite the minister’s assertion, problems persist for Nigeria’s tourism industry.
“The downside will be the roads, not so good roads, they are not that great at all,” said Chinedu Ahanonu, a Lagos-based training consultant in her thirties, also on the SPT tour.
Infrastructure is a major challenge: as well as decrepit roads, trains are a rarity and flights are notorious for delays and cancellations.
Travel can also be dangerous. Many roads are plagued by kidnappings and accidents, police are more likely to ask for money than offer a service and deadly communal clashes have erupted across much of Nigeria’s hinterland states, particularly this year.
Despite those hurdles, the travel firms say they focus on safe, accessible spots. For Ahanonu, the effort is worth it.
“It is so much richer, because, you know, it is like finding a diamond inside the rough, in your own place,” she said.
By Seun Sanni and Nneka Chile, Felix Onuah