Recently, I travelled to Kaduna on a sightseeing visit in the company of four friends. As we rode into the outskirts of the capital, one exclaimed:
“I didn’t know these people dress like this—as in, wear shirts and jeans. I thought they’ll be in kaftans and hijabs.” No sooner had she finished than another expressed his own surprise:
“I didn’t imagine the city will be this fine”.
And so with their preconceived perceptions shattered, my friends loosened up. The atmosphere in the car turned from frigid to fun. In the course of the day, we explored the markets, shopping for fruits and food—carrots, garden eggs, potatoes and onions—and exchanging friendly banter with the traders, who were all too willing to let us have a good bargain, smiling all the way. To cap it all off, we had a great time taking photos on Ahmadu Bello Way as vehicles zoomed back and forth.
My friends, with all due regard to them, are part of the reason that domestic tourism has remained grounded all these years. They represent a large number of Nigerians who only travel to a different state or region when it is mandatory; they refuse to travel within Nigeria for leisure.
“The infrastructure is not up to scratch and the roads are death traps,” is one excuse they’ll provide. But the truth is this: in the past year, I have travelled on more good roads than bad around the country. From the south-west to the north-east, more roads are being tarred by the month.
Such misinformation is at the heart of what has kept domestic tourism at ground zero. It doesn’t help that most Nigerians in the southern parts of the country believe that the entire northern region is unsafe, no thanks to the attacks on civilians by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, in recent years. Each time I post an update on my Facebook timeline that I am headed to Katsina, Gombe or any northern state, I get a lot of comments urging me to “be careful”. Much as I appreciate the concerns of friends and family for my well-being, you would think that I was on a mission into a den of lions. All of these anxieties are totally unnecessary. A few northern states aside, the whole of Nigeria's northern region is SAFE. I repeat: SAFE.
Southerners commit another major blunder by categorising all northerners as 'Hausa' or 'Fulani'. An indigene of Taraba State whom I met recently grew visibly angry at this misrepresentation.
"Where I come from, there are at least ten different tribes in each local government, all of which have their own language and dialect," he said. “I am from Michika and we are not Hausas.” I won't be surprised if a similar ideology about southerners is pervasive in the north.
Another characteristic of Nigeria’s tourism is that it is appreciated mostly by foreign visitors.On another visit to the north, this time to Bauchi, I got talking to a resident about the Yankari Resorts and Safari, the latest addition to the famed Yankari Game Reserve.
“The Resort is always packed with foreigners, especially in the swimming pool,” he told me. “Sometimes I wonder what they are all doing there and why they enjoy it so much.”
A friend of mine, who was with me on the Bauchi trip, put this irony in perspective:
“Nigerians travel abroad to view modern shops and buildings while the Westerners travel to Nigeria to appreciate the nature,” he said as we travelled by road from Kaduna to Bauchi through Saminaka and Gumau. He was right; I only had to look out of the window to see that natural beauty – from awe-inspiring rock formations to grassy plains – on both sides of the highway. It is time we begin to change this reality — for our own good and for the good of Nigeria.
To mark Nigeria’s Centenary and to also inspire Nigerians to travel more within Nigeria and help gather some steam for domestic tourism, a group of writers, photographers and bloggers, of which I am part, have floated a social media initiative called “Travel Next Door” (@travelnextdoor). Early in February, the group published a list of 100+ places to visit in Nigeria on its website (www.travelnextdoor.com).
“Our plan and desire is to inspire one million Nigerians to travel locally,” says photojournalist Rebecca Richards. “The whole idea is to use the art of travel as a tool to learn something new about our fascinating country, to travel for leisure for a few days and to make new friends whose friendship will endure for many years after the centenary celebration. By doing this, we will be helping to grow the local tourism industry and shine the light on the country's amazing attractions, north, east, west and south.”
I have seen many of the attractions on the list myself and my experiences were life-changing. Travelling around Nigeria as I have done over the last 15 years has enriched me in a way I cannot quantify. I have been exposed to Nigeria’s raw beauty, both human and natural, and I have come across the hospitality of everyday Nigerians. When I missed my way, strangers would help to guide me in the right direction. When I wanted to enjoy local delicacies and wasn’t keen on going to the hotel restaurant, strangers have invited me into their homes and cooked for me. When I needed to buy souvenirs at the markets, and couldn’t haggle in the local language, strangers came to my aid and helped me get a good deal.
Nigeria’s appeal is not in man-made facilities, though these are essential, it is in its various cultures and geography. There are countries which would gladly swap places with us it if were possible, so it is a disservice to ourselves to refuse