Akwaaba… Showcasing West African tourism to the world

A cultural troupe performing at the 2017 Akwaaba INSET: Ikechi Uko

Today, the 14th edition of the Akwaaba Africa Travel Market will open at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. The travel expo, which has the backing of Lagos State Government, will feature discussion sessions on issues around travel and tourism, as well as exhibition by organisations and countries such as South Africa, Gambia, Ghana, Dubai, among others. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the founder of Akwaaba, Ikechi Uko, who is also the brain behind Accra Weizo and other tourism related initiatives across Africa, spoke on his organisation’s efforts to use these platforms to grow travel and tourism in the continent.

Weizo held earlier in the year in Accra, Ghana. What informed the choice of the theme, Seamless Travel In West Africa?

The idea of the theme is to get West Africans to travel within the sub-region. I will give you a background that discloses our potentials.

Do you know that there are over 380 million people, 40 airports, 15 countries in West Africa?

Regrettably, less than 10 per cent of the total travel in Africa happens in West Africa.

Now, out of the five per cent of global tourism that comes to Africa, West Africa gets nothing.

We are the largest area with free movement, but we get the least number of tourism and it’s just because, there’s no relationship between one country and the other; all the 15 countries are 15 tourism silos.

So, some of us that are able to deal with them, we found out that there’s a need to get them together.

What you don’t know, you avoid; what you avoid, you probably don’t like.

What you don’t like, you will hate; you can’t like what you don’t know. It’s probably what you know that you can decide whether to like or not.

Because West Africans don’t know themselves, they can’t like themselves or travel within the region.

So, Weizo is an opportunity to bring the players in the industry together and in four years, we’ve been able to achieve that.

What would you consider the highpoint of Accra Weizo this year, considering the challenges you have been through in the last four editions?

To me, the highpoint of this year’s Weizo is that finally, Ghanaians have accepted the initiative.

In the first two years, there was this idea that somebody was coming to do something here; everybody was cautious.

Second year, most of our partners, who had originally agreed with us, didn’t even turn up; they traveled out of town.

Third year, which was last year, we had the first participation by some Ghanaians.

But this year, we have a greater participation because we have shown to them that we have the capacity to deliver on promise.

You heard the GTA (Ghana Tourism Authority) say, ‘look, next year, leave Ghana for us; just do your own, which is mobilise the non-Ghanaians. Put together the content and panels.’

They also wanted to handle venue, but we said ‘no’ because we want to control our venue.

They have agreed to take care of the Fam Trip and they are going to provide local participation… that’s the ‘by in’ that was missing before.

For us, our strategic plan was that by the fifth year, we would have tried all forms and identified what works in this market.

We are the pioneers; nobody has done this in this market. So, we spent four years learning what to do to make things work. We wanted to find out, how come it has never worked here?

Is it the product, the model or the people? So, after four years of experimenting, we now understand the product better; we understand the people and we know the model to use.

Basically, we are happy that the ‘by in’ is coming just when we had finished our own preparations and experimentation.

For most participants, one of the major breakthroughs of this year’s Weizo was the fact that the event was able to set the tone for airline to discuss possible interlining within the sub-region. How important is this move for the industry?

That’s episodic; it’s just one part of it. We are looking at the product Weizo, which has generated a lifespan for itself; this is more important for us than just one episode of it.

We could say that was the highpoint and there’s no Weizo next years, then we haven’t succeeded.

So, for us the highpoint is the fact that there’s ‘by in.’ But for the event proper, the biggest achievement in its four years was what happened among the airlines.

For the first time, we got about three West African Airlines sit and say, ‘yes, we can interline.’ For us, that’s the most successful achievement of Weizo.

It’s difficult to travel within West Africa; you could fly between any two major towns in East Africa, you could fly between two major towns in South Africa, but you can’t fly between to major towns in West Africa.

If what happened at 2018 Weizo goes further it will be great because airlines would interline.

Already, software is being developed to get airlines settlement system work in West Africa, where you don’t need IATA or any foreign power; you just have West Africans agreeing to settle bills.

This is the biggest milestone of Weizo. It is the highpoint of 2018 Accra Weizo.

African countries like Ghana seem to be paying attention to MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) in their quest to grow tourism.
What’s your take on Nigeria?

The truth is that man in Ghana wants to build tourism in Ghana; that’s his principal target. And he’s asking me, ‘can you do two events in Ghana, instead of one?

We have five-year MoU with you and you have proved your capacity to make an event work; you have proved your capacity to bring tour operators from outside Ghana.’ About 70 people came in from outside for this Weizo this year.

The reason is that in Ghana, the business of government is to grow tourism in Ghana.

Now, in Nigeria, there’s a lack of understanding of MICE and how MICE is very profitable.

There’s also a situation where people are in position just for relevance.

So, if they are in positions of authority and they want to create value, they will look for any project that will bring value to them, which is what Lagos did.

Lagos invited me and said, ‘we want to work with you on the things you do because, the capacity you have we don’t have as a state.’

Cross River said, ‘you have wide participation, can we work with you?’ South African Tourism (SAT) is the biggest tourism organisation Sub-Sahara Africa.

They generate billions of dollars and they have staff strength of 90.

Now, Ghana Tourism Authority (GTA) doesn’t make too much money, but they have 300 staff.

However, the other question is, does it have the willingness to back a product?

For instance, GTA doesn’t give us money; they help us with things like venue, logistics, publicity, help market the event and ensure everybody comes… that’s not money, but that’s value.

I could be hosted in any country; I’m discussing with Benin Republic, I’m launching one for the government of Cameroon in December and we’ve launched one in Gambia.

But I am a Nigerian; I don’t want to run away from that fact that I’m a Nigeria. So, whatever I do elsewhere, I have to put value back in my country.

Everyone is looking forward to Awkaaba Africa Travel market this year, what should participants expect?

This year’s Akwaaba Africa Travel Market promises to be great, as more stakeholders, influencers and experts will be attending the event, which will hold at the Eko Hotels and Suites, Lagos, from September 9 to 11.

The three-day event will kick off with the Culinary Tourism Contest, Jollof Rice Competition, with the promoter of African cuisine, Senator Florence Ita Giwa as a special guest.

Last year saw Nigeria and Ghana compete for the prize. This year, Gambia will join the competition; making them three.

There’s also the Nigerian Day, where the Director General for the Nigerian Council of Arts and Culture, Otunba Runsewe and his team will present the Nigeria rich culture to the world. This will be a replica of what the DG presented in Russia during world cup.

Aside Nigeria, which other country will be making special appearance?

This year, The Gambia will have a big day after the Jollof Rice Competition.

With 20-man delegate, including top stakeholders, Gambia is set to showcase its rich tourist attractions, starting from its cuisines to its rhythm.

The Gambians are not stopping till the influencers, stakeholders and participants see the reason they are called the Smiling Coast of Africa.

They will spice up their day with a raffle draw and the winner will have a week stay in Banjul, Gambia.

Also, the United Arab Emirates is not left out, as over 15 top tour operators from Dubai are set to attend this year’s Akwaaba.

As it already known, Dubai is a big destination for Nigerians with over 20 flights from Nigeria to Dubai daily.

Also, there will be Ethiopia Day, a taste of Dubai, Namibia, South Africa and other Destinations at this year’s show.

If you remember last year, top 100 women in Hospitality, Travel and Tourism were awarded for their excellent contribution to the industry.

Following the success of the programme, we decided to reorganise and award top 100 African Tour Operators for their efforts in promoting, marketing and selling Africa to the world.

The aim is to encourage them to continue promoting African Tourism.

The youths will have their day on September 11, as they will discuss the topic, What Drives The Youth Tourism Market: Adventure, Leisure or Entertainment.

The General Manager of Tour Brokers International, Odion Chigbufue, will give the keynote, while other experienced youths will deliberate on youth tourism market.

The Tourism Beauty Queens will spice the youth segment.

The beauty queens including, the Most Beautiful Igbo Girl Universal, former and current Miss Tourism United Nations, Miss Tourism among others will grace the event.

Would Lagos also feature in this year’s Akwaaba?

Honestly, Lagos State government has surprised us with their level of participation in the year’s Akwaaba.

In fact, if things work out as planned, the Governor will be attending the event in person. Delegates will be treated to the taste of Lagos as never before.

You have heard a lot of stories about the state; some good, some bad, but no report is better than a personal experience.

This is what the state government, through its Ministry of Tourism, is promising to do.

Most importantly, this hosting is in line with effort to make true the vision of governor Akinwunmi Ambode to transform Lagos, Africa’s most populous city and the second largest economy in West Africa.

This he aims to achieve by creating an enduring architecture for the business of tourism to thrive.

As part of the event, Lagos will be treating delegates with a City Tour for visiting tour operators, to know the city better in order to market its attraction to their clients.

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