After spending most of the day dancing round the carnival routes in Calabar at the weekend with band members, Governor of Cross Rivers State, Senator Liyel Imoke, did not show sign of fatigue as he took time out at about 2 am to chat with journalists on the Calabar Festival.
He shared the vision of his administration for tourism, adding that he has come to terms with the fact the state cannot possibly survive depending on oil revenues.
By Jimoh Babatunde
On the absence of Brazilians at this year’s carnival
We wanted a different band, not the same that came last year, but there was an issue of numbers. That band that was to come was supposed to be 50 people and we did not want to accommodate 50 people. We did not think it was necessary to have 50 people.
We think we are more technical now, we think we have delivered a brand that is like no other brand. Brazilians will come from time to time and they will just be an addition; we could bring troupes from Trinidad and people from other carnivals.
Yesterday, we had an excellent performance from Rwanda National Troupe. So, we are going to bring in different partners, carnival bands from different part of the world to experience our carnival.
There are different bands in different countries and we are looking forward to partnering with them. Our carnival has gone international very easily and we are very excited about it.
On marketing the brand internationally
I will be honest with you; we have been at this for long enough to understand and appreciate that when you have a good product people will come.
What we try to do now is to produce an excellent product; we also understand that, sometimes, no matter how good your product is, for the fact that it is Nigerian, unfortunately for us, does not attract the type of attention that it might otherwise attract in other climes.
So, our focus is basically the domestic market. We think we have enough expatriates in Nigeria that want to enjoy this experience; we think we have enough West Africans that want to experience it and upper most is Nigerians.
We have more than enough Nigerians that want to enjoy this experience and, if you can get your own people to appreciate it, the rest of the world will follow suit. That is why we think that our emphasis should not be on not just the domestic market, but the sub regional market in terms of attendance.
When I say domestic, I am looking at the domestic expatriate community as well as our own people who want to have a good time and they all come to Calabar for that.
On having more international hotel chains in the state
The key thing is that we are trying to build not just a one- event or one- month- event calendar, we are introducing a lot of things into our calendar. We have the Jazz Festival. You are familiar with the mountain race and we are trying to introduce one or two other events into our calendar.
But, beyond what we are introducing into the calendar, we are also focused on our domestic market. We know that one of the things that drive traffic in Nigeria is workshops, conferences and meetings.
Today, Calabar is the third largest destination for MICE in Nigeria after Lagos and Abuja. We think we can overtake Abuja very quickly once our international conference centre is completed. With the international conference centre comes also two new hotels. One is a resort hotel while the other is a business hotel.
We are working with the owners of Four-Point Sheraton to develop the hotel at the international conference centre, the Calabar convention centre.
At the risk of sounding immodest, it will be the first completely standard international conference centre built from the scratch to meet global competitive standards. It is not going to be a re-modelling, it is not going to be something that we adapt.
It is something that is under construction now and designed to make sure that next time we say we are hosting a big conference in the sub region, we have the facility that can accommodate that with everything that goes with it.
On the costumes being made outside the country
A few bands had technical advisers, but most of the costumes were made in Calabar and we are excited about that; that was not the case a few years ago. It is difficult to make the kings and queens outside of calabash.
So there is a lot of creativity, lot of industry, even for the state, our locally generated revenue almost doubled in December. For us, it is also an amazing employment opportunities, we are now having things like theatre, academies that are training these kids.
The bands are registered companies, they are not show-pieces, the bands run the carnival and that is where we want to carry this carnival to, so it is not a government thing that the bands and the people of the state have taken ownership of the carnival; that basically is something that will continue.
We believe in perpetuity, and that is what we want to achieve. You discover that a lot more sponsorship is coming because of the value of the product. We try to package the product to create value for it, we don’t joke with the brand, we don’t joke with what this represents for us here in Cross River and Nigeria.
It has to be televised round Africa today and those who came here for the first time can’t believe this production. Our people worked hard all year round.
By next month we will have our post mortem meeting and from there we start planning for 2014 and that is how it works and why others can compete because of what goes into it.
On the key elements brought into the carnival
This particular outing is better than the last one. It is what I demand of the bands and that is why I make it so competitive; these bands compete, they are not there just to play, they compete because they win awards.
It is not so much the award, but the prestige of being the Band of the Year, once the winner is announced, the other bands want to know what made the band to win and they now strive to improve on it.
*Passion 4 band …the winning band
So, you see the standard of the carnival continue to improve every year. Because we have this post mortem event, we can deal with issues and challenges we face with each carnival and our greatest challenge remains crowd control.
Every year we underestimate the crowd, it is very hard to estimate the crowd and the great challenge is the amazing number of people that come into Calabar for this event and each year it keeps increasing.
It is a wonderful crowd; it is a peaceful, responsive crowd. All they are doing is just excitement; it is not a hostile crowd, they are just happy to be part of the fun.
In terms of the vision, we have really come to terms with the fact that we cannot possibly survive as a country or as a state depending on oil revenues that are shared from Abuja; our focus is, can we can create an alternative economy that is not oil based? And can we create an economy that is driven by services?
So, you heard one band talking about fibrotic wiring of Calabar being the only city in Nigeria that will have total coverage, because we think that we are well positioned and there is a lot of new investments coming into Calabar because the city is peaceful.
Where else in Nigeria that you have an event like this run into the morning and everybody is in town having fun? The governor is not running around with mobile policemen. It is peaceful, it is something we can build on and that is what we are trying to do. Because of what we have here, we think we can grow key things in our economy by positioning ourselves as that place where you can get a number of things less stressfully.
Whether it is social services, basic infrastructure, entertainment, hospitality, we want Calabar to be top of MICE for Nigeria as a place you can go to. For some strange reason, it has been Accra, and i have been focusing on getting that Accra crowd to start looking in this direction.
Because, every time I land in Accra, I look for what it has that Calabar does not have, and i can’t find it. So, I think there is lot of opportunity.
We also understand that there is new emerging middle class in Nigeria and that middle class does not go to the village any more for Christmas. When i was growing up, it was an abomination not to think of going to the village for Christmas.
But the new middle class does not go to the village for a number of reasons. Largely security issue, so that middle class is looking for where to spend the holiday and if we can position ourselves adequately, we become that destination.
Our vision for this destination that we keep talking about is that there is somewhere in Nigeria that things reasonably work, where there is security and portrays our country in good light. Every time people come in here, they say to me, ‘why is the rest of Nigeria not like this?’
So, we are striving very hard, we are not yet there, but we are striving to create that destination you have talked about.
On the old costumes used during past carnival
What we are trying to do now is to create a carnival village and it is on the same side as the convention centre.
– Source: Vanguard