Pelu Awofeso is an award-winning travel writer.
Pelu Awofeso, winner of the 2008 CNN/Multichoice journalism Award (tourism), began travel writing 11 years ago. From the business of it to the art, he shares his experience on tourism in Nigerian in this interview
Two years ago, Waka About went online, promising to present travel readers with content that is both factual and fun. How has that journey turned out?
We kept to that promise and our readers can attest to that. Initially, we started with emailing PDF versions of wakaabout editions to subscribers and readers on our email list; later on, we created a blog, a Facebook group, a Facebook page, a twitter account and finally the website—in that order. We realized in good time that the world was moving online and we thought it best to engage our readers on the social media terrain. It’s been an eye-opening, fulfilling experience to say the least.
You are one of the few niche publishers who does both print and digital. In this constant debate on the future of the news print, what lessons can you share about Waka About?
Print publications still have their place in the scheme of things, though it’s very clear that copy sales are falling as more people follow the news that interest them online. To share our experience atwakaabout: it has helped us to monitor our analytics/statistics better, which was something we could hardly do with print editions. With our online platforms, we can tell at a glance in which part of the globe our readers are located; we can tell which stories/links are being read or shared the most; and there is nothing better than these insights for planning purposes. Digital is a whole new, fascinating experience.
How have advertising revenues turned out for both, which are advertisers more inclined to and how has this affected editorial decisions?
We’ve had fairly good advertising revenue with print, though it could be better; for online, we are not where we should be yet. But with time, we’ll get there. What we have decided is to keep our editorial content as rich as can be with the resources available to us and hope that someday soon, our originality and exclusive travel- and culture-based stories command advertisers’ attention. Without meaning to be immodest, wakaabout remains the best travel publication about tourists attractions in Nigeria published in Nigeria by a Nigerian.
THE BUSINESS OF TOURISM
Now, talking about tourism in Nigeria, there is the much touted line that tourism can greatly contribute to the nation’s GDP, via internally generated revenue and job creation. True as this may be in theory, would you say that government, both state and federal, are investing adequately in the industry to bring about this reality?
In recent years, many state governments have seen the wisdom in investing more in their tourist assets, especially the states down south. But I notice that though the spirit is willing, the body literally isn’t. I get the impression that bureaucracy stifles many a good intention. The governments always seem to think that the tourism projects they must fund or institute have to be grand and must have five-star status. From the feedbacks I get from foreign tourists I have been opportune to relate with here at home, not every tourist wants exclusive, business-class treats—most times, they just want a tidy decent room to sleep in, same for the bathroom. On the whole, they appreciate the most ordinary of our home-grown delights. I have guided a few tourists in Jos and in Lagos, and most have been attracted to the everyday lifestyles of Nigerians—the local markets, the local delicacies as well as the creative arts of Nigeria like musical CDS, home movies, literature and paintings. I have sometimes had to courier Nigerian music across the border on request. These tourists were okay with being chauffeured around in the regular city taxis as opposed to the comparatively expensive Car Hire vehicles in their hotels. I once was with an Estonian, who fell in love with Nigerian traditional dresses and bought quite a lot to take back home. She tasted (and loved) suya as well as other local delicacies. There was also this South Africa couple I had the pleasure of guiding sometime last year; we arranged for them to visit the Akran of Badagry, and they were totally speechless by the level of royal welcome they were showered with. They couldn’t stop talking about it for hours afterwards. These are creative, simple ways to make visitors fall in love with a place. Just imagine the ripple effect if we had several thousands of tourists having these everyday experiences. I have said it over and over again that one of the easiest jobs to create for the tourism industry is tour guiding; there is a huge gap in that area that Nigeria needs to fill. I am aware that the government in Cross Rivers State did this many years ago, but I am not sure what has become of that presently. My CNN Award story on Calabar (City of God) was written after a guided tour handled by one of these trained tour guides. Many graduates can be trained to take up this venture. The returns, individually and collectively, will be well worth the investments. Badagry is a good example of where this initiative is still working, and this is purely self-driven initiatives. No government input.
You have gone beyond the news into creating experience tours during the holidays and festive seasons. What would you say about people’s attitude towards tourism, comparing the ratio of local to international tourists?
Most of my guided tours in recent times have been focused on Badagry, the historic slave town in the Western tip of Lagos. I’ve taken tailored, personalised and group tours to Badagry in the last three years and all have been successful. We take Nigerian tourists there by the bus loads and we meet others who are doing same. Contrary to popular opinion, Nigerians love their heritage; what they need is for the right service providers to package the tours properly and sell it to them. That’s what my team and I do, and it’s been worth the while.
Based on your experience in the business side of tourism, would you say that Nigerians take out time to appreciate the tourist destinations in the country?
The figures and enthusiasm are not encouraging as yet. Most still prefer foreign destinations, and that’s partly because the tour operators have not sold Nigeria to Nigerians as they should.
Are you satisfied with the level of investment in the industry?
The hospitality industry has benefited from huge foreign and local investments, which is heart-warming, but disappointingly the various local attractions, which are limitless money spinners in themselves, have not received the same attention.
What are the most critical forms of investments needed to grow the industry in the states and at the federal level?
I’ll simply say Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs). Critical sectors of the Nigerian economy have benefited immensely from that arrangement, including the aviation industry. The same can be applied to tourism, and I can see it taking shape already.
From your experience, from travel writing to tourism business, besides government, how do you think entrepreneurs can take advantage of the business potential in the tourism industry? Is a business with low or high entry barrier?
A Yoruba proverb I know says: “If you are not able to build a house at once, you first build a shed.” I reckon that many potential businesses open to investments and entrepreneurs have low and high barrier entry levels. Everyone is at liberty to enter a business based on the level of their finances. You can start small and grow a business, that is what I have done and that is what many young business people are doing or have done. Chief Aliko Dangote or Mike Adenuga didn’t start out as billionaires—they started their businesses from scratch. See where they are today. To answer your question more specifically, I would say that graduates could easily create employments for themselves in the tourism trade by simply being creative and with minimum financial commitment. Again, I have to talk about my tour packages to Badagry: for that, you need nothing substantial— an e-flyer and the internet (both of which cost next to nothing these days), a passion, some planning and a lot of marketing drive. The flyers can be sent out to friends and contacts online (advertising promotion), who pay up for the trip in advance, which helps to pay for all the services and refreshments and a rent a bus. It’s a day-long tour, which depending on the numbers of tourists, yields some decent returns and lasting memories. The word goes round from these clients and you get calls from other interested parties, who request for information on the next tour package, and on and on the cycle continues. On the ground in Badagry, we meet a couple of Indigenes who conduct tourists round for a fee, and they get to guide many during the course of a day. They don’t need an office space to do that, just a good knowledge of their town and its history. It’s an ongoing win-win business relationship and I have done this successfully in partnership with another young Nigerian, who runs a travel and tours business. We’re taking our next excursion to Badagry in a few days on October 1 (Independence Day). So what is happening can be done in all towns in Nigeria: so imagine how many thousands of jobs can be created by raising a generation of tour guides alone, not to mention going into the crafts and souvenirs business, and a few others, which require little start-up capital.
From your point of view, what are the five hot tourism spots in Nigeria?
That’s a tough one. I have been to 30 states already, at the last count, but I have not experienced all the tourist attractions that all these states have to offer and I doubt if anyone can be everywhere in the country. But the following cities rank high in my books: Jos, Lagos, Calabar, Kano and Benin City.
Besides Waka About, your Homestead Publishing has churned out other titles from you: Tour of Duty, Festival… …, which will you say is your favourite title, why?
They are all favourites—they appeal to me differently, because the experiences that birthed them unique to each book. They all trigger distinctive memories.
What has the market response been to sales?
All my books have sold out and I always find myself struggling to meet up with demands. I am amazed at the books’ attraction to buyers, who are mostly foreign visitors.
As of today, Homestead Publishing caters to your titles and Waka About. Is there any plan to publish travel writings from other authors?
Yes. As a matter of fact, we have almost completed the publishing process for an anthology of travel stories, contributed by some of Nigeria’s notable practicing journalists. It’s an amazing collection detailing their experiences abroad while on various assignments. We thought that it would be good for us as writers to profile cities in the West for a change. Africa has been written about and interpreted by Western journos; we need to do similarly. There are other titles in the making, including a series of subject specific guidebooks and coffee-table books. There are travel stories everywhere. We are hard at work mining those stories.
So, you have won the CNN/Multichoice Tourism Award, toured all states in Nigeria and written about them, contributed to various publications both local and international, begun and grown your own publishing business, consulted and worked with both government and private institutions. What should your audiences look forward to in the year ahead?
That’s a lot for an individual to achieve. The only things I see in the future are more travel books, more guidebooks and more travel-based magazines. I am completely sold on giving Nigeria a more likeable and befitting reputation through travel literature. I made that decision 11 years ago. I am not about to quit, not anytime soon.