Everyone has seen the Director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) Otunba Olusegun Runsewe, in full traditional garb. Very few know that he is a veritable sports enthusiast who takes his physical fitness very seriously. Standing well over six feet without his cap, in full sports gear and newly broken sweat , he joins Morenike Taire for a chat after a round of golf at the delightful IBB golf course in Abuja (the best in West AfricaÂ and one of the best in Africa), he could easily be mistaken for a tourist rather than their chief host.
â€œOne must always make time for fitnessâ€, he prescribes as a preamble before dashing out for a round of lawn tennis. He exudes charisma and his popularity is palpable as calls of â€œOtunba, Otunbaâ€ rents the air as he passes from left and right. His skills in culture and hospitality are evident.Finally, Otunba Runsewe tells ALLURE what makes Nigerian tourism tick. Excerpts:
Other countries have their icons such as the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the pyramids of Egypt. What do we have?
We have to appreciate one fact. We started appreciating tourism a little bit late. Letâ€™s take a country like South Africa with 58 million people, they are generating 66million dollars per annum in tourism and any economy that generates such money develops economic strength of its people. Now, youâ€™re talking about landmarks.
We have some definitely but theyâ€™re not well celebrated. When youâ€™re talking about landmarks you first and foremost have to think about the strength of your people. You have a monument like the first prison in Africa which was located in 1901 in Lokoja. All the missionaries who came all the way from the Western parts who died in the North were buried in Lokoja.
Also we had the first primary school in 1836 also in Lokoja. When you say tourism strength are you talking about ecotourism, cultural tourism, etcetera? To come back properly after this introduction to your question, when you talk about land marks, when we were growing up we had Cocoa House, but when the Cocoa House was on we had other landmarks too but they were not celebrated.Â Today we have Olumo Rock, today we have Tinapa, we have the Igunnu festival, we have Eyo, and we have the Black Heritage. All these are landmarks. It depends on our attachment to them. Until I became the DG of tourism there was no celebrated tourism. We must celebrate these things which are what weâ€™re now doing. Iâ€™m giving you small landmarks which are part of the strategy weâ€™re using to promote tourism.
Were you in Lagos recently for the Eyo festival?
I was outside Nigeria but let me tell you that I was extremely impressed when I saw CNN giving it a whole report and I saw the most colourful traditional outfits. To me itâ€™s one of the contents we need to celebrate and we need to take very seriously. What weâ€™ve done now is; Eyo becomes a program that comes up at a particular time of the year where international, local, foreign, etcetera can come in to help build the economic strength of our people. If they want to buy Lagosians will sell it to them.
I think thereâ€™s a bit of a problem because while the international community generally approves things like this, a lot of Lagosians were hesitating to go because they consider it to have traditional connotations
You mean demonic
That was before. I managed one of the very first festivals, The Abuja Festival. Previously, before some particular masquerades come out you have to perform rituals. All these things are things of before. Weâ€™re now talking of modern festivals. Eyo is now a modern festival. All those things that happened that time have now been reduced to the barest minimum or no longer there. What I can tell you is that there are new innovations, new approach to all these festivals unlike what obtained before.
What are you doing to make sure these things are carried on even after a change of baton in government?
The truth about this is that we have a problem with continuity but I can tell you some of these pronounced approaches_ take for instance the Agwugwu festival_ have come to stay. Thereâ€™s no way anybody can change certain things. We have now started to realize the benefits of these festivals to our economic development.
Some people are complaining that to move within Nigeria is difficult. Obudu for instance. There are people who want to go but they say itâ€™s expensive, rather than go there why not go to London or somewhere in Europe?
Obudu is a unique product and thereâ€™s a cable car there and did you know that this cable car is one of the longest in the world. Itâ€™s one of the best. That has definitely reduced the level of fear of people who come to Obudu unlike what it used to be. I agree with you, we could have been better on a rail line which is part of weâ€™re discussing.
The governor of Cross Rivers state can tell you heâ€™s very open to modern development. Weâ€™ve had useful discussions with him and heâ€™s ready to develop tourism. Tourism is not a totally locally preached product. It has a lot of international input, that is, investment and we expect a lot of foreign investors to come into tourism. The governor is ready and very open to that. We have a reasonable level of things coming up.
For Obudu right now, we can do better than weâ€™re doing by providing a better transportation system and thatâ€™s why weâ€™re introducing 300 new buses so that at the end of the day these buses are mainly for tourism not for regular commuting- no. Strictly for tourism. I believe that will give us a new look and a better approach.
Further than that, what are your expectations in general for Nigerian tourism?
We can turn tourism into our main source of revenue.
We can. 25 years ago, nobody gave Dubai a chance. It was a desert but when their then crown prince saw that there was danger for them he brought in some of the best Geologists in the world to check and test run the oil wells. By 2050 the oil will reduce. They took advantage of a whole lot of opportunities. Do you know they donâ€™t produce anything in Dubai but everything is sold there because the environment is right? Free Trade.
My vision is for Nigeria to be the most preferred tourism destination in Africa.
What does Dubai have that we can emulate?
Dubai has a lot of things to emulate. Dubai has the will to promote tourism, Dubai has the opportunity, and they have the time to convince their people of the benefits of tourism. Dubai also has a good transportation system, good hotel, and environment. All these bring about making tourism easier to promote and thatâ€™s what they have which I believe we also have but probably did not identify them on time or capitalized on them. We can have a change.
Which is your favourite Nigerian destination? Which is your favorite out of Nigeria destination?
Theyâ€™re all my favourites. My job is to promote all of them (laughs). Definitely, Iâ€™m not going to leave one for the other.
What of outside Nigeria?
Well, outside Nigeria, any place or country that promotes tourism in its totality would be an area Iâ€™d love to go to.
Can you give an example?
You mentioned Dubai earlier on. I like to go to Dubai. I like to go to South Africa. I like to go even to London. Any country that does well in tourism, itâ€™s my desire to go there because anytime I go I add one or two more things that we can add to our own structure to make Nigeria a better tourism destination.
A lot of people talk about how tourism will be a big earner and everything but we really donâ€™t know how. Can you explain this?
The truth about it is itâ€™s not easy for people to come straight and appreciate the benefit of tourism.
How do the visits translate into naira and kobo?
Of people coming here?Â Of course, everybody that comes stays in an hotel uses transportation, eats, drinks and everything. That would be the main thing. Business tourism is different. Itâ€™s strait jacketed_ do your business and go back. Weâ€™re talking of people that will come and shop, entertainment, who will go round to our theatres, to our film houses, discothÃ¨ques and everything. Spend money. At the end of the day it empowers our strengths. If you go to most of the night clubs in Abuja, white men dominate them. Iâ€™m so happy about that because they enjoy themselves but they empower our economy.
So, given a choice between going on holiday here at home or abroad, which would you pick?
At home, of course. Iâ€™m the one working to develop our tourism and I must make sure itâ€™s done very well so if I now choose another destination outside my own it will be difficult for me to promote what I want to promote. that does not stop me from going to exhibitions. Tourism is one product you cannot sell on the abstract. You cannot sell it on your own. You need to sell it by moving from one place to another.
What of the cultural aspect? Thereâ€™s something that has always bothered me. For instance, thereâ€™s this place in Badagry_ the point of no return and all. Iâ€™ve always had a problem with celebrating that. What is its value?
You see, the marketing of these destinations depend on your approach or your ability to convince your target audience. Let me give you an example. We have the Ikogosi spring waters where the hot and cold waters mix.
It has not been well celebrated. If you get that in India for instance, the whole world will know thereâ€™s something to see.
So what we need to do with such products is to identify it and then draw up a strategy of marketing it. The beauty of tourism is you donâ€™t use the same strategy to promote all products. You have different strategies for different products, so that is one product that needs its own strategy to develop.
Does it not have a negative connotation because of the slavery thing?
Thereâ€™s nowhere in the world that thereâ€™s no history of people. If slavery is part of what weâ€™re selling, why not?Â There is no river that has flown all through without having history of something being inside. Itâ€™s a river.Â We must identify the product and sell it properly. The more people come the more they can be part of it.
People say youâ€™re flamboyant. Is this true?
Once youâ€™re a public figure youâ€™re perceived in different dimensions by different people. I love our traditional dress. I will borrow from the late chief MKO Abiola : once you climb your fatherâ€™s throne, the younger ones are praying for your death, because the throne is only one.