Chief Edem Duke cuts an impressive figure as Nigeria’s tourism minister. He is tall, imposing and at least on the day of his meeting with New African, was wearing a Stetson hat. This is a man with a sense of image and style. Just as it is true of the man, so it is true of the message.
Edem Duke wants to present Nigeria as a country of multiple interests and heritages that will interest tourists from many destinations and with many convictions. He believes Nigeria has a lot to offer, given its diversity of religions, tribal stories and environmental geographies. The only problem, for this persuasive master salesman of his country, is that his own colleagues have not given tourism the professional treatment it deserves. Now, he intends to bring that to his ministry.
He says: “We need to communicate the fact that tourism, culture and national orientation is as professional as medicine and engineering, that it has the intellectual components, that it uses itself as development, that it engages science, evaluation, technology and ICT, so that our colleagues in other ministries and those who are responsible for appropriating money for the growth and development of ministries and agencies will not look at tourism as a poor intellectual cousin of other ministries. These to me are critical for the take-off of the sector. So there is a knowledge gap and this we are addressing.”
The language of professional management comes easily to a man who headed up public affairs at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, before moving on to the hotels and tourism sector, where he was a highly successful entrepreneur. Indeed, he still owns hotels. So this is a man who knows how to make things work. The country’s tourism sector will test his skills.
He says of his own skills and career, “I have operated in corporate Nigeria at a very high level including in the private sector and I understand the institutional requirements of administering, of being in a business, department or ministry. So, my own plan, having developed the agenda, was to forward it to departments and agencies via the ministry. We now need to communicate our agenda to the economic management team, to the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of National Planning, the budget department.” Duke believes tourism will only obtain the priority it requires, if its proponents actively communicate its importance and needs. Historically, tourism has lagged behind in priority and prestige, he says.
Indeed, Duke says he has actively tried to interest the President in the importance of the tourism opportunity. Its contribution to GDP can be greatly enhanced with further investment. The impetus for the new and more confident tourism sector envisaged by the minister will have to come from the private sector. He is an advocate of individuals leading the way, putting their own money on the line. “I want to allow individuals to create opportunities to make money. The private sector must also renew itself in different ways. There must be capacity, and they must be able to access the finances that will help them to promote their business. If they come to tell us that they want to invest in hospitality, we will be willing to go to government to say this is critical for the development of hospitality and so on. If there are issues around infrastructure, we should be able to say to our collaborators and partners in ministry work that there is a huge potential in tourism in certain parts of the country. We need, say 10 kilometres of road in order to open up that particular area. These are the kind of incentives that we will be able to work with.”
In this sense, Duke is a particularly modern and forward-thinking minister. He wants to bring his fellow ministers with him in a crusade to raise the profile of Nigerian tourism. One way to bring tourism to the forefront of the minds of Nigerians is to encourage them to take their holidays internally, visiting the country’s own beauty spots before going elsewhere. This not only stimulates local employment, but also conserves foreign exchange reserves. He says, “Our focus is to develop domestic tourism.” Nigeria has some 150 million people, and the minister says, “The potential for having people move around this country is enormous. The potential of getting our traditional rulers to move around the country, visiting their brother traditional rulers, the potential of Nigerians taking their leave days within the country, is very enormous.”
One strategy this master communicator advocates is a government-supported promotion to encourage domestic tourism. “We are hoping that if we are able to get the kind of support that we are anticipating, we will launch a Travel Nigeria 2012 programme. This will be an advocacy platform for us to get our legislators and other government functionaries to spend part of their holiday within the country. The campaign will last till 2015. There will be a campaign to visit Nigeria in 2014 in order to try to address the prospects of domestic tourism.”
This campaigning, spearheaded by the minister, will thus have two key goals. One is to keep Nigerian tourists within Nigeria, the other is to attract foreign people, especially those with a cultural affinity with Nigeria, to Nigeria. Duke talked particularly of attracting people from the Caribbean to Nigeria. “We are going to deploy very aggressive marketing to market Nigeria within Nigeria for Nigerians and to market Nigeria outside of Nigeria to Nigerians and Africans in the diaspora. We have identified parts of the world where that marketing initiative will be deployed.”
The problems facing such a marketing campaign cannot be minimised, agrees Duke, although he argues that the country has poorly managed its media and the way it is presented. He agrees that recent instances of violence have clearly coloured international impressions of the country, but believes this should not be overstated: “It has been so over-reported that even the efforts of the security agencies are scorned. Some of this kind of reportage even emanates from within Nigeria. But the President has said that these isolated incidents will not define us as a country. In terms of their impact on tourism, we will try to learn lessons from the economies and continents that are identified as countries with a very high crime rate but where tourism is growing at a phenomenal rate. Therefore, as Nigerians, while condemning the acts of violence, we should also find ways of managing the reputation of our country.”
But this inner conviction that Nigeria is indeed a worthy and exciting country for the attraction of tourists, both from inside and outside the nation, will only win supporters if the country’s own administrators learn to value its features, and Duke cannot refrain from emphasising this point to his colleagues, who he believes underplay the tourism ministry’s role: “There are challenges within the ministries and there are challenges within the parastatals. There is evidence that some ministers posted to tourism and culture in the past saw their posting as a punishment. We have identified a lack of professionalism. There is also the issue of funding, which is inadequate. So we must seize every opportunity to advocate for increased funding of the sector. There is also a challenge in the sense that a sensitive sector like this cannot run in isolation. You must find institutional synergy with the principal ministries on critical deliverables so as to make your job easier.”
Nigeria’s tourism sector can expect to receive a major boost in terms of energy and inspiration from Duke. He is a man committed to his task, and commanding enough to take on the challenges and come out on top. But can Nigerians and global tourists expect to see Nigeria re-evaluated over the coming years, while this determined minister drives the country’s tourism effort? The jury is out.