Abe Igi takes shine off National Theatre

By Tope Templer Olaiya, Assistant Lagos City Editor
The National Arts Theatre, Lagos, which is presently a subject of controversy, means different things to different people. While many visit the cultural edifice on weekends and public holidays to be entertained with movies and stage productions on offer, some find the lush green grass that beautify the theatre ground irresistible as a good spot to stand and stare, reflect or court for love.
Fun seekers returning from work on the island and who want to escape the maddening traffic gridlock of a regular weekday in Lagos, visit the theatre to spend idle time gulping bottles of soft or alcoholic drinks. To majority of visitors, it is difficult to be at the complex in Iganmu without attempting a stopover at the popular spot known as Abe-igi.
Named after a grove of sturdy shade trees, the spot is located directly opposite the sprawling complex. It consists of a row of kiosks, which originally served as ticketing booths during the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, hosted by Nigeria in 1977.

Abe Igi booth at the National Theatre, Iganmu

Abe Igi booth at the National Theatre, Iganmu

Lush and majestic, the trees stand tall with their massive branches giving shade to those underneath. Planted to give shade and beauty to the nation’s premier theater, it is hard to imagine how many movie stars the shades of these trees have produced in the country.
The regular convergence of artists and resulting activities attracted food sellers, hawkers of different items and itinerant musicians to Abe-igi. Eventually, the place rose from being a meeting point to a full-scale leisure spot, after its transformation in 2006 when the management of the National Theatre entered into a mutually beneficial partnership with the Nigeria Breweries Plc.
On the surface, it seems a very good deal for fun seekers, but there are growing complaints that the Abe-Igi should not be limited only to the sales of Nigerian Brewery products, as not everybody is a fan of firm’s brands. “There are those who prefer the competition. It is quiet different from what it was when they had the liberty to sell all brands of beer,” stated Abidemi George, one of the kiosk tenants.
While the Abe-igi congregation are immune to the transformation agenda that seeks to convert a chunk of the 37-year-old Lagos landmark into a five-star hotel, other government agencies are still in a battle of wits over eviction notice handed months ago by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke.

Decay at the National Arts Gallery housing the Artistes Village

Decay at the National Arts Gallery housing the Artistes Village

Mostly pained by the present unstable situation are artists who occupy the space designated as the Artiste Village, at the former head office of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). Dotun Alabi, chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) Lagos and co-ordinator of activities at the Artists Village is not happy at the crowd Abe-Igi is attracting to the nation’s foremost cultural monument.
“It is because the National Theatre lost focus in terms of programming and venue management that Abe Igi grew in significance; if you are talking in terms of enterprise, more business is done under the Abe Igi than in the National Theatre itself. What NB is projecting isn’t good for the image of arts; it is simply reinforcing negative stereotypes for the arts.
“At the moment, Abe Igi has become a full blown joint, which is not very good for artists because it brings wrong and undiscerning audiences. Its audience is just a beer drinking one and of guys who book appointments with their girlfriends. The only time there are activities at the National Theatre are during festive periods,” he said.

Main bowl of the National Theatre

Main bowl of the National Theatre

The culture enthusiast added that although unplanned, Lagos, like most cultural capital on the globe boasts of a creative hub where artists with specialized skills in all art forms can be patronized. Artist Village is a place where ideas in arts are muted, incubated, nurtured and developed to feed the theatre, driving a special kind of audience that are discerning from generation to generation.
“The Artist Village cannot be displaced to make room for hotels and shopping malls. If that happens, that will mean the gradual death of the national theatre as artists and practitioners will be scattered everywhere, therefore denying us of the synergy and creative energy that an Artist Village creates,” he added.


Maximizing benefits of tourism sector in Nigeria


Protea Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos

Protea Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos

WITH the opening of at least one hotel every other month, influx of international hotel brands, and high employment capacity, the hospitality sector seems to be the only thriving sub-sector in the travel and tourism industry in Nigeria and clearly depicts the obvious – that Nigeria tourism is globally competitive.

In July this year, Nigeria’s first six-star hotel began operation in Abuja with the take-off of AES Luxury Apartments. The Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, who declared the facility open, commended the owners and managers of the hospitality outfit for its high standard. Duke said the emergence of AES was particularly timely as patrons seek secure, yet opulent, alternatives to the few and often overcrowded five-star hotels in the city.

Underscoring the fact that the country’s tourism sector is globally competitive, President Goodluck Jonathan, last month unveiled a new “tourism identity” as part of efforts to develop the tourism sector and diversify the nation’s revenue sources. The new identity, Fascinating Nigeria, was launched at a dinner held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, to showcase the country’s rich tourism and cultural potentials.

The president, who was represented by the Vice President, Namadi Sambo, said the tourism sector, if properly harnessed, could generate income and attract investment to drive the country’s economy. He revealed that the Federal Government has placed greater emphasis on creating an enabling environment for harnessing the country’s vast tourism potentials and resources and subsequently increase the budget of the Ministry of Tourism.
“This is because tourism, another huge revenue source, is a means by which potentialities shall create employment and wealth for our teeming Nigerian youths. The cultural diversity, historic sites and slave routes together with the large Diaspora population provide an opportunity for success, when packaged with festivals and events for presentation to the international and regional tour operators,” he added.

According to the president, Nigeria has a lot to showcase to the world. “Our movie industry is second in the world only after Hollywood, our football team is the reigning African Champions, our festivals are unrivaled on the African continent and our music is reigning supreme globally. We are ranked as one of the best places to do business and we are one of the fastest growing economies and an investment destination,” he said.

Tourism Minister, Edem Duke, said tourism sector in 2012 contributed three per cent to the Nigerian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 2.6 per cent of total employment, making the sector second to oil and gas.

In the bid to add bite to the Fascinating Nigeria initiative, president of the Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria (FTAN), Mr. Tomi Akingbogun, during the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the association, said his federation was working to ensure a reduction in operating tourism businesses in the country.

“FTAN is set to partner the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on private-public investments by broadening inter-regional tourism trade and investments, but the government has to be sincere about developing this sector, first by reducing multiple taxation and other business unfriendly policies.”

While there is a remarkable growth in the sector, all is not well, as challenges, especially in electricity power supply, importation of majority of the products and furniture, and dearth of skilled personnel, and recently, security still, pose serious problems. Despite the harsh business climate, the likes of Protea, Golden Tulip, Best Western, among others, added a number to their repertoire in their preparation to take on the big players and multinational brands such as Sheraton, Le Meridian and Hilton.

Edem Duke, Nigeria's Culture Minister

Edem Duke, Nigeria’s Culture Minister

So many two-star and three-star hotels opened all over the country with established hotels adding more rooms and expanding facilities. According to a report, Calabar and Enugu saw increased hotel development surpassed only by Abuja, followed closely by Lagos. With this development, hotel room rates are falling because of the shrinking economic activities and availability of more rooms.

The influx of these international brands, according to George Lucky Esiekpe, public relations consultant to African Sun, and CEO, travelafricanews.com, is a testimony that the sector is growing. “But, it is also sad that the indigenous hotels are yet to wake up to the competition by foreign brands.”

A thriving hospitality industry provides thousands of skilled and unskilled jobs, both of which are particularly critical in Nigeria, where unemployment levels have continued to grow geometrically.

As international hotel groups start moving into the continent they view as “the final frontier of hospitality”, this raises the critical question: What is best for Nigeria? Working with local partners makes the most sense from a hospitality perspective, but who should hoteliers be looking to partner with? Is an international group with a name but no African experience the way to go, or should a hotel management company have an African track record to be most successful?

These questions are critical to tourism development in Africa, especially in countries where tourism is a leading forex earner or is fast becoming one. Providing answers is Arthur Gillis, CEO of the Protea Hospitality Group, which is by a wide margin the largest hotel group on the continent, with approximately 130 hotels in 10 countries.

Arthur Gillis, CEO Protea Group

Arthur Gillis, CEO Protea Group

In an exclusive online interview with The Guardian, Gillis said: “One of our foundation principles is to seek local partners when entering a new market. We are hospitality experts and we have never claimed to be anything else, so we partner with those people who are the legal and financial experts in their home countries. It helps us get a better understanding of the needs in each country and gives us a business plan to follow that creates hotels of the highest standard where they are needed, where they will be profitable and where they will create employment.

“That doesn’t change, no matter where you are working in Africa. There are sometimes challenges like guaranteeing reliable Wi-Fi, but as a continent we all want to create long term and sustainable growth, so we all work towards that goal.”

For Gillis, Nigeria is the priority market. Outside of South Africa, the country has the greatest number of Protea Hospitality Group hotels and plans to double its presence within five years. “We currently have 11 hotels, the latest of which is Protea Hotel Select Emotan that opened in Benin City in February.

“Investing in Nigeria makes sense in every way; the country is the most populous in Africa, its economy is about to overtake South Africa as the continent’s biggest, the economic growth forecast is extremely optimistic and it has immense resources that the rest of the world wants. That means the world travels to Nigeria and we believe we are setting the hospitality benchmark for superlative hotels and service.

“To illustrate that, currently the only superior deluxe African Pride Hotel under construction anywhere in Africa right now is going up in Lagos. It will set a new benchmark for five-star luxury in Africa and we will be opening doors next year.”

According to Gillis, the success story of the Protea Hospitality Group is a model for any new entrant into the hospitality sector in Africa. “We started in Africa and work exclusively in Africa, meaning every cent that is made from our hotels remains in Africa. We have been here for 30 years and we are by far the largest hotel group on the continent.”

Africa, for him, is still a tourism destination with its many challenges. “There is absolutely no doubt that Africa is a tourist destination and a very popular one. Security concerns have gone from pervasive to very specific regions and those, too, are shrinking. That is not to say one views the world through rose-tinted spectacles, but the reality is that Africa has had a taste of what it means to flourish economically and nobody wants to give that up. Tourism is a phenomenal forex stream that contributes to development and prosperity.

The Protea Group has been able to drive its growth on the continent in simple consistent ways. “We have three decades of experience in African hospitality. Our expertise in finance, marketing and management, as well as established supply chains and distribution channels, make money for hotel owners and convert guests from once-off visitors to loyal patrons.”

On how Nigeria can develop its hospitality industry and fully maximize its tourism potentials, the Protea group chief noted that the first hurdle has been cleared with government understanding the opportunities and revenue streams a thriving tourism trade can bring to the country.

“This has accorded the industry priority status after oil and gas. Without government buy-in, very few industries would survive in the world, so it’s a good start. That said, it falls to entrepreneurs to take those leaps of faith and commit to growing the hospitality industry. All the action won’t only be in the big cities, though.

“As with every country in the world, business travel is the lifeblood of the hospitality industry and more opportunities to develop hotels in secondary nodes will occur as regional development expands.

“The recipe for success is simple: create a world-class product, give it a trusted brand name, train staff well, install talented managers with sound financial knowledge and always remember that the reason you are there is to create a phenomenal guest experience. If you stick to those rules, you simply can’t lose.