Tourism business in Cross River State dates back to pre- amalgamated colonial Nigeria. As early as 1904, the British erected the African club, an elegant relaxation and events center along Calabar road, the city’s main financial and banking district. The African club heralded the first systematic, bold attempt to kick-start the hospitality sector in the state.
In sum, colonial Cross River tourism landscape was hampered by vicious structural problems such absence of innovative and robust regulation, scant content, lack of accessibility, security concern, absence of awareness and private sector apathy.
The administration of Brig. Gen. U. J Esuene, the first governor of the then South Eastern State (now Cross River), 1967-75, laid ambitious foundation for the hospitality sector.
Endowed with great natural landmarks, history and culture, the administration tackled key structural limitation by investing in accommodation infrastructure (3- star, 150 rooms metropolitan hotel now Transcorp Metropolitan), accessibility (inter- state roads and the Margaret Ekpo International airport), renovated the Obudu Ranch Resort and took more than a passive interest to open up the 7,000 Sqr km Cross River forest to tourists.
The administration reduced plenty structural problems but lacked the capacity in the areas of content development and destination marketing. Subsequent administrations concentrated on road infrastructure and environment beautification. The issue of sustainability was hardly taken into serious consideration.
The continuous dwindling of tourist’s traffic in the 1990’s was the morsel of proof that there was a need for new thinking and innovative ideas for the sector to bloom.
In 2003, there was a seismic change. Donald Duke established a new- look, ideas driven tourism Bureau in place of the erstwhile opaque and moribund old tourism Board. Eclectic, ideas- based and innovative, the new tourism Bureau and management team wielded a combined 180 years of industry experience with veterans such as late Prof. EkpoEyo, Prof. EkaBraide, Mrs. Li Umoh and Mrs.
Thelma Bello etc. The quality of the new Bureau was evidence within a span of 4 years. Robust regulation, increased destination marketing, a surfeit of attractive tourism products and modernization of infrastructure attracted plenty private sector players. The Obudu Mountain race , a cable car, the Afi Canopy walk way, the calabar Carnival, the Leboku New Yam festival and the marina Resort, attracted nearly 2.5 million visitors to the state by 2006. Total investments in the sector was put at US$ 3.5 bn by the end of 2007.
By 2015, tourism seemed to be plateauing. As Liyel Imoke stood on the dais of the Calabar International Convention Center to hand over the reins of governmental powers to Ben Ayade, on May 29, 2015, the sector employed 25,000 strong labour force with nearly 43,000 rooms spread across hotels of various grades and guest houses.
Hotel occupancy had plunged from 80% in 2006 to nearly 40% in 2015. Cuts in incentives, adverts and marketing as well as lack of new tourism products were key culprits.
There are key competitors to destination Cross River. Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Abuja and Delta State have upped infrastructures, tackled accessibility problems and packaged enticing new products to attract tourist. In all, Lagos, endowed with hefty, easy money and excellent infrastructure have begun to soar in entertainment and music as well as meetings, conferences and incentives.
International hotel brands has, in the last 5 years, invested heavily in accommodation, dinning and transport businesses.
But destination Cross River is silently re-working its tourism model. A new tourism product- Bikers’ Parade, introduced by the present administration succeeded in attracting new set of people; wealthy Nigerians and others with assortment of bikes and a guaranteed and hefty spends on accommodation, dinning, gasoline and laundry services.
The expanded Calabar Carnival also attracted many Nigerian universities and new audience. The newly commissioned Calabar Monorail and the resuscitation of Tinapa Business Resort adds to the offering.
The gradual industrialization of the state and the presence of premier export processing zone, housing major businesses such as General Electric, Sky run International and Combination Industries and several international Oil Firms have impacted positively on tourism in the state.
Take it or leave it, Obudu Ranch Resort is a top tourist destination in Nigeria according to Kushal Dutta, the managing director of Jumia Travel.
The great natural landmarks found in the state are a boon and great location for movie entrepreneurs. The assortment of wild elephants, plenty migratory birds, chimpanzees, monkeys, butterflies and several species of reptiles and rodents in the 7,000 sqr km of forest is a top attraction to wild life lovers.
The state is still a preferred destination- the alluring green canopies of trees, the rarefied air, excellent hotels, great foods and diverse culture and above all, a hospitable people cannot be taken away from the state.