Dr Iti Orugbani, from Nembe Basambiri of Bayelsa, is the State Commissioner for Tourism. In this interview with ROLAND OGBONNYA, he explains how the oil-producing state is going to leverage on tourism and culture for prosperity
Tourism development seems to be an old swan song not only in Bayelsa but Nigeria; the state seems to be groping in the dark. What are the immediate challenges?
Well, your observation is not far from the truth; comparatively, we are backward as a country and as a state in the tourism sector as to use the sector to earn money. In 2007, the world travel and tourism council made a prediction that by the 21st century three industries will lead the world economy, they mentioned telecommunications, information technology and tourism and if you look at our situation now, Nigeria as a country and Bayelsa as a state, we are totally dependent on oil and you can see the disadvantage.
So this is the right time for us to look at the other sectors and diversify the economy and one of the available sectors is tourism. As you also mentioned, this sector if well enhance has the potential to grow our IGR. Before now, there was no tourism policy tourism, which is the policy guide. So, we are looking at this now.
You’re a few months in office, have you been able to identify some of the challenges why other Commissioners before you couldn’t succeed?
I can’t say why others could not succeed because this is government, you can only do your part and as your successors are coming, you will always know that there will be an improvement. I will only start where they stopped. Yes, we found some challenges that are facing this sector and one of it is, that my predecessors saw the sector just as a government based sector. But I have a different view to this, I want to involve the private sector and leave government money for other infrastructure because this sector is private driven and we all know that government are not good when it comes to business.
Like we have peace pack, we are trying to lure investors, we are trying to encourage international tourism but I am beginning to think inward, we can as well give space to interested people who are local entrepreneurs to come and invest. And we are considering PPP. I want to be remembered as a Commissioner who under his watch, all the government-owned tourist sites are functional.
Dubai is the tourism capital of the world today, whereby one man’s vision turned the desert into a megacity and still growing. While the Dubai phenomenon is massive, does it give you the motivation to start something in your own domain relative to your strengths?
It is unfortunate that as we came on board we were faced with Covid-19 pandemic. We want people to see our work and judge base on our work and not to impress people with our vocabulary. As we all know, this year is almost gone and it is not our making, the EndSARS protest just came after the Covid-19. I had already invited some international investors irrespective of the Covid-19.
I heard the story of how a Britton visited the Efi Lake in Sabagreia and took back with her leaves from the vegetation around the Lake to the UK. So beyond the fishing which comes up every ten years or so, there can be other sources of attraction from within the area. This is replicable in other lakes, the mangrove and swamp forests etc. What seems missing here is the publicity of these invaluable assets in the state. What is your take?
Yes, like two months ago, a university lecturer approached me that they want to carry out research work at some of our tourist sites but because of this COVID-19, he could not finish the paperwork because he resides in Port Harcourt. I want him to access all our tourist sites and make a short note on all of them. And in tourism, you must market yourself and in that line, we are making arrangements to create a website for the ministry and in that website, we will upload all our potentials.
The state boasts of some of the richest foods and delicacies in the country. From opuru fulou, KKF, yellow soup, native soup, pepper soup in different varieties including buru Indi, kiri-igina (the fastest soup cooked without fire), to roasted plantain, edible worms aka Bayelsa Suya, Kpokpo garri and breaking groundnut, epiti, etc. What do you think we can do to sell these products internationally and attract tourists?
A: Definitely, our ministry is building an enabling environment and encouraging the private sector in tourism. Some private sectors have summited a proposal to have some part of peace pack to organise events for the state on food festival and it is during this food festival that they will exhibit all the food in the state and it is to our interest and we are making arrangements with them.
The Ox-Bow Lake is one peninsula waiting to exhale. It is also designated as a games reserve. How can this facility be turned into a massive centre of tourism with a zoo and water park?
A: Our plan for Oxbow lake is superb. We want that place to attract both international and domestic tourists.
The Council for Arts and Culture come out tops in almost all festival of arts and culture they participate in, yet their potential seems to be utilised minimally, especially here in the state. Are there any strategic plans to turn this Council into a big money spinner?
That is a parastatal in the ministry. We have about seven of them; there is also a department of art and culture. We have had several meetings to see how well we can utilise that council. Bayelsa should be expecting good things from this administration and the ministry, we will not disappoint them.
We are preparing a calendar called BCF (Bayelsa Cultural Festival calendar) we have started establishing contact with various local governments to take the most important festival in those local government, which government will assist during the festival.
The governor by his position is the number one image-maker of the state. In what area can he excel most as a cultural ambassador of the state?
The Governor is a man at home with culture and he has a passion for the tourism sector to grow. You can see that in all his outings, you hardly see the Governor putting on a white man’s cloth, he is always on traditional and that is the best way for one to sell his or her culture.