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Cablegate: Tourism in Nigeria: For the Birds

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 LAGOS 002293

SIPDIS


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON NI
SUBJECT: TOURISM IN NIGERIA: FOR THE BIRDS

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED


1. (SBU) Summary: If a tourist came to Nigeria to look at
endangered species (or for any other reason), he or she would
be the most endangered species of all. Nigeria has
practically no tourist industry, but there is no inherent
reason why that should be the case. While we might have
doubts about anyone who came to Nigeria for its urban charm,
from the standpoint of wildlife there is much to see, and
ecotourists needn't fight the crowds. Last week a Lagos
officer joined a group traveling around the country to assess
the potential for bird and wildlife tourism. The group
included the owners of a bird tour company, a producer of
wildlife programs for the Discovery channel, and Phil Hall, a
long-time naturalist in Nigeria and the country
representative of a foundation that has supported wildlife
conservation and national park management for many years. A
BBC correspondent joined the group at several points and
aired several reports on its progress. The group concluded
its trip much sobered and discouraged by conditions on the
ground. The head of the Nigerian wildlife service met with
President Obasanjo October 27 to report on the trip and
discuss its implications for the opening of ecotourism in
Nigeria; Obasanjo was reportedly taken aback that anyone had
evinced interest in Nigeria's national parks, but he agreed
to throw some extra resources in their direction. Despite
GON efforts, or the lack thereof, a few private initiatives
hold promise for creating sites that tourists will actually
pay money to visit. End summary.


2. (U) From an ecotourism standpoint, Nigeria has one
particularly potent draw: picathartes oreas, Africa's most
sought after bird. It is rare, unique and on most birders'
top 10 list worldwide. It can be seen only on the
Nigeria/Cameroon border, but it is apparently present in
Gabon. At present all birders who want to see it go to
Cameroon, where it is a five-day round trip (once in country)
to its nesting sites. The sites in Nigeria are much more
accessible (and as an added bonus, Nigeria has forest
elephants and mountain gorillas).


3. (SBU) The birding tour company was so confident of being
able to put together a workable tour centered on picathartes
that it has already advertised a tour for next year. The
itinerary would include the Cattle Ranch at Obudu, the hill
village near the picathartes sites, savannah and riverine
environments along the Niger River, Okomu National Park
(probably the best remaining rainforest in West Africa) and
the Jos Plateau. The organizers, however, began to worry
once they saw conditions on the ground. Well-heeled birders
are usually not rough and ready young backpackers. They may
be prepared for some rough roads, but they typically expect
nothing like the road to picathartes, a barely passable clay
track featuring bridges with gaping holes. Planks needed to
be carefully adjusted so vehicles would not fall into
streams. Several weeks' work with a bulldozer in the dry
season would take care of much of the problem, but even with
improved access, the Cattle Ranch may leave travelers
disappointed. Although it is the premier tourist
establishment in the east, it has no landline and cannot be
reached by e-mail.


4. (SBU) The visit to the savannah/riverine environment in
Edo State went without incident, but things went downhill at
Okomu National Park. The access road was a survival contest
with stuck vehicles blocking the way. One of the group's
vehicles nearly became mired, and the BBC 4x4 got stuck for
two hours. Again, this is nothing a bulldozer couldn't fix
if the work were done in the right way at the right time and
kept up. The lodge was a shock. Although freshly painted on
the outside, it looked derelict inside: shabby walls, peeling
linoleum, black mold on the doors and ceilings, and furniture
likely banned by some international convention. The
potentially picturesque thatched hut built as a dining area
needed serious attention and cleaning (termite tubes climbed
untended up wood surfaces to the roof). We were told the
national park service is not maintaining the lodge in the
hope that the state government will build a new one. The
latter is seriously considering doing so, and we sat in on a
meeting at the park to work on the proposal. Whether a new
lodge would be any better maintained than the existing one is
a real question, but with new facilities, the park could be a
gold mine. The group found fresh elephant tracks and saw
scores of bird species, many endemics included. Several
canopy platforms have been built, and these afford good views
of exotic species (reporting officer climbed 130 feet up the
side of a tree to reach one, an experience for which he
considers the current post differential inadequate).


5. (SBU) The trip back to Lagos on the Benin/Lagos
expressway was a complete showstopper. The divided highway
is always a horror show; it was no different this time. The
organizers concluded they would have to begin the trip
somewhere other than Lagos, Calabar perhaps, and cover as
much internal distance by air as possible. The cost of air
charter in Nigeria is almost completely prohibitive, but
staying in the air would minimize the constant problem of
shakedowns by police at the country's ubiquitous roadblocks.
These are beyond annoying. They can occur every couple of
minutes for miles on end, and without diplomatic plates or a
willingness to shut up and pay up, every stop can be a
problem.


6. (SBU) We asked the tour organizers what the odds might be
of Nigeria working up to 500 ecotourists a year (the most
popular preserve in Costa Rica, for comparison, gets 100,000
visitors a year, that is the preserve, not the country).
The odds aren't good, they said. Too many things need to get
fixed and stay fixed, and Nigeria's reputation is working
against it. They were not even sure they should run the one
trip to which they committed. If the ecology doesn't pull
the tourists in, of course, there are always the glamorous
casinos of Lagos. We stopped at one near the Consulate
recently and found a dozen waiters asleep on the kitchen
floor and the croupiers asleep with their heads on the green
baize.


7. (U) Comment: Tourism is a sensitive subject here.
Nigerians and their supporters believe they get a bad rap
internationally and regularly protest that the State
Department's travel warnings are inaccurate and unfair.
That said, most of our contacts will admit that the birders'
experience wasn't exceptional. Nigerians simultaneously
boast of wonderful natural sites and bemoan the lack of
infrastructure to get there. Even worse, the Miss World
fiasco of 2002 was a devastating blow to Nigeria's image for
anyone thinking of visiting.


8. (U) Despite the doom and gloom, there is a glimmer of
light on the horizon. Travel advertising in the U.S. is
increasing in conjunction with the recently established World
Airways direct flights from New York and Atlanta to Lagos
(although the jury is still out on how successful that effort
will be). The indefatigable president of the Africa Tourism
Association is a Nigerian, Wanle Akinboboye, who struggles to
bring tourists, including a steady trickle of
African-American mayors ) to Nigeria and has built an
internationally acceptable resort that goes down well with
foreign guests. There is also an annual African Heritage
Festival, heavily subsidized by the Lagos State government,
that mightil impresses the handfu of Americans who attend.


9. (U) The just-cocluded 8th All Africa Games was the
biggest boonto Nigerian tourism since Festac in 1977.
Accordng to the Chief Executive of the Nigerian Tourism
Association Omotay Omotosho, between August and id-October
2003 there were 70,000 visitors assocated with the Games,
25,000 of which were considred bona fide tourists who sought
information frm the National Travel Bureau.


10. (U) For th most part, whatever hope there is for a
tourism industry in Nigeria lies with private sector efforts.
A few resorts are opening, and hotels are refurbishing with
the knowledge that if you don't build it, they won't come.
That said, Nigeria's take-off as a travel destination is
still a long way off. End comment.
HINSON-JONES

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