Interview

My Plans For Tourism – Sally Mbanefo

Sally MbanefoYou have been doing a lot of visitations in the last seven months or so. What has been your achievement?

Let me start by reminding you that I am coming from private sector to public sector. And in private sector you are expected to make money from air. You have to look around to generate income. Tourism environment is the same. Fortunately, tourism is getting bigger as you can see. When you visit a state you think what they have in that state is little, but by the time you look around, you see they have so much.

For example, what I found in Ondo State when I visited was so amazing. The governor is not the type that talks too much, but the amount of work he has put in place is so enormous.  In my short stay in the state, I found out that the governor is a medical doctor, the chief of staff is a medical doctor, the Kabiesi himself is a medical doctor, and so caring for people is fundamental to them.  Ondo State has the lowest infant and maternal mortality in the whole of Nigeria. They took mother and child care very seriously. And I was told people don’t pay anything. If I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t know that the state has such infrastructure in place for medical tourism. So what I have been doing is to go around to identify and authenticate our tourist sites all over the country to see that they really exist.

The first three months of my appointment, I was doing restructuring, process re-engineering, alignment of skills, mapping out training for staff, speaking to the mind of the staff all the time, setting up committees for different functions, creating an enabling environment for the staff. What I found out on entering is that there is already a blueprint on tourism, but if the people that would drive the process were not skilled, there would be no quality progress.

After completing visitation and authentication, what would be your next task?

The second stage is to prioritise. We have about 500 tourist sites. My immediate task is not to develop that 500 tourist sites, rather we have to select sites from the six geo-political zones of the country. NTDC is targeting two tourist sites per zone in the six geo-political zones for development. You may want to know where the finances for the project will come from. It is simple. It is the private sector that will develop those sites for us. From my recent outing, I have already identified that Osun, Ekiti and Ondo are my Southwest states. Osun, because of its very popular festival; it is a high crowd puller. Osun Osogbo festival is a very big deal, Ekiti, because of its renowned Ikogosi spring. And the governor has made a very huge effort to improve on it.  In fact, that is a grown concern already; they only need to improve on it. I am going to go there again to discuss with the governor, how we can turn it to a remarkable tourist site.

What do you find striking about Ondo State that makes it a potentially great tourism site?

Ondo is an amazing place for medical tourism. There are over 300 hospitals in the state; I saw two major ones.  Their equipment in the hospitals is state of the art. And they have massive space so the equipment is well spread out. And what they are working on is to put a helicopter pad, so if you are flying from Lagos you hit Akure straight and straight to the pad of the hospital. It is a perfect place for medical tourism. We are going to Spain soon for exhibition. And we have to invite Ondo State to come and exhibit on our behalf, to talk about medical tourism in Nigeria.  So these three states, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti are first priorities in the South West.

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Which sites are your priorities in the other regions?

I have not yet gone to the East. Since I am from the East, I want to do it last. I don’t want to be accused of ethnic bias. I am a southwest person at heart because this is where my whole career has been. And the southwest people are very warm and embracing. Everywhere I go, they give me a red carpet treatment. They welcome me. And they understand the import of what I am trying to do, that it is not a jamboree or party. Tourism is a serious business. I am going to these places to see. Take pictures, authenticate, ask questions; what are the problems you are having? Like for example, the Idanre hills (the mountains), they would like to put a cable car there. They will like to partner with private sector, my job as tourism chief is to create a working marriage between the private sector and public sector and in the end create jobs for Nigerians and generate revenue for Nigeria because if you create projects, you have to employ people to deliver them.

Essentially, what I am doing cannot be removed from the transformation agenda of the government. It has to be part of it. But I am not a politician. I am here to bring people together peacefully so that we can work together to achieve our collective goal of building a great Nigeria. Tourism is foundation for investment, though I am not in trade and investment but I will facilitate and create that background so that when foreigners come to Nigeria, they can look for investment opportunities in Nigeria while they enjoy themselves. Although some of them are already here for Business tourism, for those ones we are saying ‘don’t run back to your country, stay a few more days. If you are in Lagos, go to Badagry, we have offices in the six geo-political zones of the country. Though the offices had been in comatose, but we are reviving them all.’

What are you going to be doing specifically in Osun Festival, which is already an international event, but with poor packaging?

I am going to Osun in January to work out a working partnership with the community. How can we give it greater international exposure? How can we package it better? so that the tourists will know the history, the import, and the essence of the festival. We can package the festival in a more professional way. What does it mean to the Yoruba people? Raise it to the level of international standard. So that when the visitors come, they can relate with the information and facts about the festival. The NTDC will attempt to have a very big presence in the festival. But it is not NTDC’s show; our job is to find out what we can do as an agency of the government to make it a bigger and better organized event.  So it depends on what the people offers to contribute. We are very willing and able to provide necessary support. We have staff force in the Southwest states; all of us will be ready to work to make Osun better.

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What are the plans for the sites in the northern regions?

In the North, we are also doing Kogi because it is the first capital of Nigeria. I want to go and see what the governor has done. Abuja is very key to me. I have a special project for Abuja. People have often said that Abuja is mainly a conference centre. I want Abuja to be more than a conference centre. That way, Abuja would spread out with wings and have its tentacles attached to the states around it. So if you are bored, you can go to Nassarawa, Kogi or Kaduna. There are different tourist sites of interest in most of the northern parts of the country. I would identify those ones we would prioritise when I begin my visit.

I am calling on private sectors to come out and adopt a site. All the oil and gas companies must adopt tourism sites that need development in South–South, develop it, brand it and bring it up to international standard. It is their corporate social responsibility. Then the telecom company must adopt sites across the whole country, they are so successful. And as far as I am concerned they are not giving back enough to their community where they operate. Their impact on the communities must be evident; we don’t have to be scratching heads to remember what their contributions to community development are. We have started this discussion with the oil and gas companies. And we are going to extend it to diplomatic community, telecom sector, security agencies and other relevant institutions.  All hands must be on deck to build Nigerian tourism sector to global standard.

Why do you prefer to promote domestic tourism?

I have worked in oil and gas sector, in the manufacturing sector and in the financial sector. I have even run my own micro finance bank. I understand grassroots and that is why I talk about grassroots tourism. Tourism is not for the rich or the elite; tourism is for everyone. When you go to tourist site you meet some of the local there. So grassroots tourism is essential. The money we are looking for is not in Europe or America; it is here.

So we need to develop our domestic tourism, put the infrastructures in place before we advertise our tourist sites to visitors from abroad. Otherwise if you tell tourists to come and see our sites, and they arrive here and there is nothing on ground, they won’t come again. That is why I am going around to identify and authenticate our tourist sites all over the country to see that they really exist. Go to the airport to see the number of people that arrive everyday, they are all expatriates, people who are looking for serious business, not traders. So what does this tell us? It says there is a huge potential for tourism in this country.  But we need to build our infrastructure.

Nigeria has no reason not to be good in tourism. Somebody said maybe we should take the oil away, then we would have no choice but to make tourism work, because we have become lazy on account of the good fortunes that God has thrown on our way.

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Is it that revenue generated from tourism is marginal or we do not have proper accountability and transparent system?

It is not accountability; we do not have data. And that is one of our major projects. If you can’t get accurate data, you cannot project. At present, our data is unreliable. So one of the first things that I did when I came was to reach out to other organizations that are involved in data collection to see how we can collect data in a uniformed manner, and we realised we cannot do this without the support of technology. But we needed to do it at little or no cost. So we are doing border survey now, by sending our staff to all our borders, land, sea and air. Before, NTDC used to do this on quarterly basis. For me, that is not good enough, because you cannot take quarterly information and then use it as a basis to multiply for the rest of the year. What sort of data is that? That was my first challenge for me when I arrived. So what we are doing now is creating technological driven way of accessing information that is more accurate on daily basis. We are working with immigration, customs, The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and other agencies that collect data.

How is CBN helping you?

CBN has computerized infrastructures that we don’t have. They are so huge. They provided links; they even gave some laptops so that we can connect to their database. As we get information we key it in. So we collaborate on information sharing. When we break the information down, we can even get those that come for religious tourism, medical tourism, business tourism, and leisure tourism. Our staff have been to TB Joshua to collate data on spiritual tourism. At this point, I need to really acknowledge the support given by Heritage Bank. They have been really supportive. They have been a fantastic private sector partner.

There is a charge of corruption regularly levelled against civil servants. How are you dealing with this?

When I came in I have been addressing the subject of culture, the culture of expecting handout, the culture of revenue generation, the culture of not what would the government give me, but what would I generate for the government and take what is due to me because whatever amount we make, 80 percent must go back into the treasury. I made my staff realize they need to be thinking that way. These are the fundamentals that I have made concerted effort to pass across to my workforce within the first three months.

In addition, I would not advise anyone who is not comfortable to take government appointment so that there is no temptation.  You must ensure that you are well accomplished and money is not a problem, so that as you enter government you are focused.

– Guardian Newspaper