Updated: Sunday, 31 August 2014 14:45 | By Agence France-Presse

Nigeria turns to beauty spots to revive tourism

Birdwatchers often go to extreme lengths to spot a rare species, even travelling to the westernmost of Alaska's Aleutian islands.


Nigeria turns to beauty spots to revive tourism

The Amurum Forest Reserve, where undulating rock formations surround a savannah dominated by lush and tall grass in Jos, Plateau State, June 5, 2014

By contrast, the bird sanctuary in Nigeria's Amurum Forest Reserve, where undulating rock formations surround a savannah dominated by lush, tall grass, is rarely, if ever, on any twitcher's wish list.

More than 260 bird species have been spotted in the reserve covering two square kilometres (less than a square mile) just outside the central city of Jos, including two that are endemic: the Rock Firefinch and the Plateau Indigo Bird.

A serene nature reserve offering so many species, two of which are unlikely to be seen anywhere else in the world, could attract birdwatchers from across the globe.

Yet Shiiwua Manu, who runs the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute in Amurum Forest, said visitors are rare, apart from a handful of academics.

"If I were a non-Nigerian and I was (travelling) to look for birds, I obviously won't come to Nigeria," the Oxford-trained ornithologist told AFP. "And you know why."

- 'A hard sell' -

The country has a miserable reputation as a tourism destination, even before the current Ebola epidemic and fears over Islamist violence.

Foreign visitors who are prepared to overlook health and security concerns must still contend with crumbling infrastructure, poor electricity supply and sub-standard leisure amenities.

"Nigeria has always been a hard sell to any pleasure-seeking tourist," according to British-based market research firm BGL.

Tourism generated roughly 0.5 percent of gross domestic product as an annual average between 2006 and 2012 in Nigeria, which is Africa's largest economy, BGL added in a 2013 report.

By comparison, in the continent's second economy South Africa, tourism accounts for 9.8 percent of GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. 

Experts agree that Nigeria has grown far too reliant on revenue from its vast oil sector and urgently needs to diversify its economy. 

- Think locally -

Given daily violence in the north by the radical jihadists of Boko Haram and an outbreak of the highly contagious Ebola fever, tourism may not seem like an obvious choice for Nigeria.

But staring out at striking vistas from a rocky height in Amurum as birds chatter below, the visitor is easily convinced that Nigeria has sites of stunning natural beauty.

Yet convincing foreigners to visit in large numbers can at best be described as a long-term goal. 

One place to start might be right at home, BGL suggested, noting that Nigeria's population of 170 million represents a massive opportunity.

The group also noted the huge number of prosperous Nigerians in the diaspora who could be persuaded to visit, especially if they thought there were sites worth seeing.

Domestic leisure travel is "the silver lining" to Nigeria's grim tourism story, the 2013 BGL report says.

"The sheer number of Nigerians who travel to (nearby) Ghana alone for Easter and Christmas holidays is a pointer to lost income" for the country, the report says.

- 'Home of Peace and Tourism' -

Vehicle licence plates in Plateau state carry the legend "Home of Peace and Tourism". 

The inscription recalls the area's history as the top holiday spot for Nigerians and expatriates alike.

But waves of sectarian and tribal violence in Plateau since 2001, as well as Boko Haram attacks around Jos, have wrecked the region's reputation for potential visitors, said the state's tourism commissioner Yiljap Abraham.

"The good times are already gone," he told AFP. "But we can get the good times back by working."

For Abraham, the crumbling Hill Station hotel in central Jos embodies both the city's collapse as a tourism destination and the potential for it to be restored.

Built by British colonialists, the Hill Station has a vast garden overlooking Jos that once hosted extravagant cocktail parties on a near weekly basis for the city's elite.

"Even the queen of England visited here, and she stayed right across the road!" Abraham said, referring to Queen Elizabeth II's 1956 visit to Nigeria, four years before independence.

In the early 1980s, Hill Station was taken over by a company controlled by northern politicians.

"The fortunes of the hotel dropped," Abraham said.

Stepping stones in the garden are cracked and the pool, which has been drained, is enclosed by a metal fence that would not be out of place around a prison yard.

- Grounds for optimism -

A well-preserved wood-panelled dining hall is one of the few rooms that bear witness to the hotel's celebrated past, while the large reception and bar areas are almost  totally lacking in furniture.

A woman from the tourism commission, seated alone at a table and gazing at her mobile phone, said her job was to inform visitors about the spectacular sites surrounding Jos.

Requesting anonymity, she told AFP that it has been many years since she has had much to do. 

Abraham insisted that while other regions may be "bickering about (sharing) oil wealth", Plateau would invest in revitalising tourism.

The Hill Station can be easily renovated, he said, adding that other reasons for optimism include waterfalls, exotic rock formations and the Amurum reserve.

"We need people to understand that you have something here that is a blessing," he said. "Enjoy it! Patronise it!"

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