BY Judith Ufford

The Cross River State,Governor Liyel Imoke hosted President Goodluck Jonathan in the idyllic natural environment of the Obudu Mountain Resort recently. With all the fun and relaxation over, it’s back to work for Senator Liyel Imoke.

In the stately Government Office in Calabar, Imoke talks about Mr. President’s visit, and the possible impact the visit would have on the people of Cross River State excerpts…

The President was at the Obudu Mountain Resort recently, and it elicited talks fromall quarters. What was the real reason for the visit?

President Good Luck Jonathan was at the resort for a retreat. He had a backlog of work and believed that the best place to have all of it sorted out was at the resort.

•Gov. Liyel Imoke

Cross River State seems to be fast earning a reputation as a land of ‘firsts’. Could the President’s visit by any means be recorded as another first for the State?

To the best of our knowledge this is the first time that a President would have spent a vacation in Nigeria, outside of his hometown. In the past, most vacations were spent outside the country. Yes, this would be the longest period that the President has stayed in Nigeria outside of his quarters in Abuja. We on our part were very pleased to host him, especially as the resort is Nigeria’s premier holiday destination. This also shows that the Obudu Mountain Resort has all it takes to host the President as well as several Heads of State.

There have been talks that the President’s visit could mean a breakthrough for tourism in Cross River State. Do you see it that way?

In a lot of ways it is. The President and his wife’s visit speak volumes. First, it talks a lot about the safety of this area. Secondly, the President wanted privacy and he got it. Very few places in the country can offer this. Also the Obudu Mountain Resort has tremendous facilities. The Presidential Villa, for instance, was purpose built to cater for presidents. For the first time in seven years, the Villa has fully utilised that facility, and other facilities of the resort, which in itself is a breakthrough. It is a very exciting time for us.

What is the potential for domestic tourism and regional tourism given the strategic location of Cross River State on the regional map?

Nigeria boasts of 150 million people. If one percent of this population take their vacation within Nigeria, that is indeed huge. We do have a booming tourism industry within the country.

We also have a growing middle class who may not want to go to the UK or the US because they have been there several times, and are looking for places to go in Nigeria. Personally, I am always fascinated when I go to Ghana, for instance, and see loads of Nigerians there. What is it about Accra, I wonder? Perhaps there is a huge influx there because many Nigerians have not yet discovered Obudu.

The West African region is a huge captive market to focus on. The African American Diaspora is also a captive market. Calabar is one of the greatest slave trade areas. Fewer slaves left from Accra. However, it is necessary to collaborate with the private sector to achieve some of these objectives.

The Marina resort, for example, a historical tourist site located in Calabar was built with public funds but have now attracted private sector investments up to the tune of about N100 million.

The Cross River State National Park is just by the resort and is quite huge, stretching all the way to Akamkpa Local Government Area, which is relatively close to Calabar. Could increased patronage of the Ranch fuel patronage of this park as patronage has been said to be relatively low thus far?

The National Park has the rarest species of animals in the world, and is one of the 25 most bio-diverse on earth. The Mountain Gorilla, for instance, is a unique feature of the park. It cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

The park also extends to the Cameroun border and boasts of other animals such as elephants, buffalos, and a whole range of monkeys. On patronage, the aim is to attract a beautiful serene environment away from everywhere. In this regard, there are coaches dedicated to bringing people from Abuja to the resort. We also anticipate that the rail line which is being proposed from Calabar, all the way to the North East, will be routed through Obudu.

However, access has become a big challenge. The resort, for example, is about 400 km away from Calabar and 500km from Abuja, over 1,000km from Lagos.

With this in view, there is the option of access by air, and so, the upgrade of the Bebi airstrip, about 40 minutes drive from the resort to a world class system, will be concluded in about two months.

We are working on an arrangement where we can get in charters. However, our most critical constraint remains road infrastructure. The challenge is the six hour drive on the federal roads. When you drive for six hours you are bound to be exhausted and that most definitely eats into your vacation. If the roads are fixed, then the journey can be cut down by two hours. It would be a beautiful journey of four hours of pleasure as it is a scenic drive.

A very unique feature of the resort is the cable car, said to be the only one of its kind in West Africa. Unique as it is, it is said to have attracted a huge debt burden to the state. Could you shed some light on this?

Yes, in trying to promote tourism, huge debts were incurred but this is not unexpected. Investments were made by government, and we realise there is need to transit and create partnerships with the private sector for management of these assets. Yes, significant debts were incurred and as it stands, the cable car does not carry enough people or generate enough revenue to service the debt.

However, it is an added attraction, as is the water park next to it, which also cost quite a bit, but nevertheless these are outstanding attractions. It’s just a matter of time – government – and the people of Cross River State will ultimately derive benefits from these features.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.