State of flux

It’s been a challenging three years for Nigeria, kicking off with the 2014 Ebola crisis and followed closely by the disastrous impact of the plunging global oil price, the resulting devaluation of the naira, unsettling terrorist activity, and a change in government – all of which means that Nigeria is now a tougher environment in which to prosper.

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Nigeria has been referred to as the ‘Giant of Africa’, but the continent’s colossus has taken some body blows over the past few years. Nonetheless, it remains the most populous country in Africa and a prominent business travel destination, despite its challenges.

The export of crude oil – drilled in offshore wells and onshore in the volatile Niger River Delta – accounts for almost all of Nigeria’s foreign exchange revenues, placing it among the world’s top 10 oil exporters. The country also has one of the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas, along with substantial deposits of iron ore, limestone, lead and zinc, although most solid minerals are largely untapped.

But, it’s the reliance on oil revenues and a failure to effectively diversify the economy that have caught Nigeria short over the past three years and led the country into a recession. Hence the ‘parallel’ (or black) currency market that exists, due to a scarcity of dollars in the economy. The shortage of forex has eased a little since the beginning of the year and the naira has strengthened from around 500 to 380 to the US dollar, but that’s still much lower than the official rate of 316 (at the time of going to press). Further complicating matters are the multiple exchange rates in use. Theoretically, there are 10 different rates, but in practice about five.

This pinch has been felt everywhere, with the hospitality sector taking a significant knock.

“The performance of the hotels in the past 12 months has been relatively low,” says Omotola Omotoso, Commercial & License Services Executive for Swiss International Hotels & Resorts’ West Africa office, which looks after the group’s properties in Asaba and Port Harcourt. “Our three hotels are in the South- South oil region, where low production and the crash of oil prices in the international market have brought the closure of some oil and oil-servicing companies, hence the low patronage of hotels. The occupancy level of the hotels has drastically reduced to a range of 20%-60%, as against the occupancy level of 70%-90% prior to this time.”

The same can be said of Lagos, the business hub of the country.

“Although we have started seeing a slight increase in occupancy over the last three months, it has been an overall tough 12 months for travel/hotels in Nigeria,” says Kevin Kamau, General Manager of the Radisson Blu Anchorage Hotel, Lagos. “While Lagos occupancy for the upper-scale and luxury hotels increased in 2016 by approximately 9% compared to 2015 (keeping in mind the effects of the Ebola crisis on the Nigerian Market in 2015), the average rate has taken a 26% drop in dollar terms.”

But it’s apparently not all doom and gloom.

“The current government policies are long-term, and while making it hard in the short-term, certain benefits can already be felt,” says Kamau. “The drive for local manufacturing and agriculture means for us as a business, certain products that we previously could only import are available locally. There has also been a positive increase in security perception, which is leading to an increase in travel.”

Some of the big international airlines would seemingly agree.

“We’ve been really encouraged by the performance of our route from Lagos to London over the last 12 months,” says Samuel Lindfield, Virgin Atlantic’s Country Manager in Nigeria. “It has been a challenging period for Nigeria and we see positive signs of a recovery in the market, aided by an increase in the price of oil. Our load factors over the Easter period were substantially higher year over year, and we’re pleased to see this trend continue over the summer.”

“While the local currency situation has been widely reported, business continues apace in Nigeria,” says Bobby Bryan, Delta’s Commercial Director: East and West Africa. “Indeed, Nigeria remains a very important market for Delta and we are focused on making significant service enhancements for our business and leisure customers.”

AIRLINES & AIRPORT

International airports are located in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu. There are also airports in most states of the federation and local air travel is widespread.

Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is the main gateway, with a range of international airlines offering direct services to destinations across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The airport is 22 kilometres north of Lagos, although the journey to Victoria Island – the main business hub – can take hours, depending on the city’s notorious traffic. If possible, only travel with carry-on luggage, as baggage collection can be less than efficient.

MMIA is exceptionally chaotic in the evenings, with several long-haul flights leaving at the same time, so the recommendation is to arrive a minimum of three, if not four or five hours before your flight, to avoid the longest lines at check-in and immigration. Before bags can be checked in, travellers need to go through a passport check, and all checked baggage is searched. Immigration and airport officials are not among the friendliest people you will find, but courtesy and self-confidence go a long a way when engaging with them.

Refurbishment of MMIA has been underway for several years and the airport does already offer a greatly improved experience. If possible, it’s highly recommended that you arrange a ‘meet and greet’ facility on arrival, particularly if you’re a first-time traveller to Nigeria.

Some of the international airlines with a presence in Nigeria have been working with aviation officials to improve the MMIA experience. Further to that, some are even taking the initiative to ensure that a first time arrival in Lagos is not a complete shock to the system. “We are offering free bottles of chilled water to our customers as they disembark the aircraft and complimentary luggage trolley vouchers, as our feedback shows that many of our customers travel with multiple bags,” says Lindfield.

On departure, there are several lounges that offer ‘fee-per-visit’ – in the region of $50 – and it is well worth taking advantage of them, as there are few general facilities airside. If you’re travelling in first or business class, you will probably receive complimentary lounge access, along with access to the fast track queue at check-in and immigration.

British Airways and SAA are among the airlines with their own dedicated lounges. If you do not qualify for access to an airline lounge, but hold a Priority Pass card, a Diners card, or are willing to pay the access charge, you can gain access to the Gabfol and other lounges. Free wi-fi is available in all of these lounges, as well as complimentary snacks and refreshments.

HOTELS

Starting with Lagos, it’s another of those major African cities with a large supply of international brands, which are probably the safer bets.

The newest property is Marriott’s Renaissance Lagos Ikeja Hotel, centrally located in Ikeja GRA, only five kilometres from the airport. Opened in 2016, it boasts 155 guestrooms including 17 contemporary loft suites with first class conveniences. If you fancy your red meat, there’s the specialty Steakhouse Cut, or you can opt for the all-day dining restaurant Iyeru Okin. The hotel has an outdoor pool with city views, and there’s also a 24-hour fitness centre. The Renaissance has eight meeting rooms on the second floor with a dedicated bar and flexible breakout areas.

Also relatively new is The George, a property that opened in Ikoyi in 2015. It has 61 suites, a host of high-end facilities, and is geared towards the business traveller who likes his or her comfort. InterContinental has had a presence on Victoria Island since 2013, and the property offers 5-star accommodation and conference facilities. The widely-reported fact that this hotel has gone into receivership should not deter visitors – it is still very much open for business.

Also on VI and with a similar theme is the Lagos Oriental, which has quite an opulent offering.

The Starwood brand’s presence is in the form of a Sheraton in Ikeja and a Four Points by Sheraton in Ikoyi, although these two hotels now fall under the overall Marriott banner, following that acquisition in 2016.

Carlson Rezidor has the Radisson Blu Anchorage Hotel, Lagos VI, which sits on the banks of the Lagos Lagoon. The hotel is in close proximity to corporate headquarters, banking districts and consulates on VI, and offers 170 rooms and suites, all styled by Swedish designer Christian Lundwall. Amenities include free high-speed wireless internet, a fitness and wellness centre, and outdoor infinity pool. Food and beverage is covered by the Voyage Restaurant, the Surface Bar & Grill, and the View hotel bar.

“I’m obviously a bit biased, but we have a great restaurant in the form of the Surface Bar & Grill, which overlooks Lagos Lagoon,” says Kamau. “The Lagos landscape has really changed and there are plenty of dining options both on the island and mainland covering various cuisine.”

Best Western has two hotels in Ikeja – in close proximity to Murtala Muhammed International – whilst Ibis has one property near the airport and another in Ikeja. Golden Tulip has the Essential Lagos Airport Hotel and the Golden Tulip Festac Lagos, and the group also has a property in Port Harcourt.

Protea Hotels by Marriott has five properties, with four in Lagos – located in Kuramo Waters, Victoria Island and Ikeja, where there are two – and one in Benin City, with another due to open inOwerri in the near future. BON Hotels – a South Africa-based hospitality company that owns, manages and markets hotels – has taken over management of five Protea Hotels in Nigeria, including two in Lagos – Protea Ikeja and Protea Victoria Island.

Sun International currently runs the Federal Palace Hotel & Casino on Victoria Island, although the group did announce in 2016 that it intended exiting Nigeria in the next year or two, due to the weak economic growth and clashes with regulators and shareholders in Nigeria.

Legacy Hotels & Resorts operates the Wheatbaker (a luxury boutique hotel), whilst Tsogo Sun has the Southern Sun Ikoyi, which has a good reputation and is renowned for its food and bar area, which has a great vibe.

If you would prefer something local, there are a host of home-grown brands and properties, such as Morning Side Suites, S&S Hotel and Suites, The Regent, Avenue Suites, La Cour, Bogobiri and the Eko Hotel & Suites, which has the largest meeting and conferencing offering, with heaps of exhibition space.

The 5-star Transcorp Hilton dominates the Abuja hotel scene, and has done so for quite some time, even though it could do with some sprucing up. The two previously-branded Protea hotels in Abuja have changed hands to BON Hotels and have been re-branded, and BON has a third managed property in the city. Hawthorn Suites is a fully-serviced extended stay property in the heart of Abuja, the Hotel de Bently is also in the CBD, and there’s a Sheraton, giving Marriott a presence in the capital.

There is also a Frasers Suites due to open imminently, offering extended stay accommodation in the form of 126 residences with exclusive in-house services.

Port Harcourt has its share of international brands and it’s probably best sticking with them.

Marriott’s Le Meridien Ogeyi Place is situated in the heart of Port Harcourt, with three meeting rooms, a pool and spa adjacent to the Port Harcourt Polo Club. TheBest Western GRA Port Harcourt has 48 rooms in the Government Residential Area. Accor’s 4-star Novotel Port Harcourt is also situated in the heart of the city, with five meeting rooms. The Golden Tulip Port Harcourt is located in the GRA area, whilst Swiss International Hotels has its Mabisel, Port Harcourt and Swiss Spirit Hotels & Suites Danag properties.

CARD ACCEPTANCE

Nigeria has been a predominantly cash economy. Travellers used to have to ensure that enough foreign currency accompanied any trip, in order to cover one’s costs. But the past few years have seen the Nigerian government embark on a “Cashless Nigeria” initiative, with “Cashless Lagos” representing the first phase of the project. This has received a good response, although much in the way of education, adoption and trust in card payments still needs to take place. That being said, cards are now being utilised in most shops, stores, restaurants and commercial or entertainment facilities in the country.

If you hold a Visa, MasterCard or Maestro Credit/Debit card, you can withdraw cash in naira from various ATMs around the country. Visa machines can be found at Standard Chartered Bank. MasterCard/Maestro machines are found in Ecobank and some Zenith Bank branches.

The Nigerian payment method of choice is via MasterCard, Visa or Interswitch. Unfortunately, American Express is still very rarely accepted.

Many international credit card companies block transactions from Nigeria, so it’s is best to advise your credit card company before you travel that you will be in Nigeria.

While there are a good number of ATMs available and supported by most banks in Nigeria, opt for an ATM in a hotel lobby or bank building. Fraud is still a problem in Nigeria.

VISAS

Foreign nationals who are not citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) need to apply for a visa to enter Nigeria. This can be obtained at Nigerian embassies, high commissions and consulates worldwide. It’s advisable to start the visa application process well in advance, in order to meet the deadline of your trip, although a recent government pronouncement stated that visas will be approved (or not) within 48 hours of the application being made.

ECOWAS is made up of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Visa on arrival: Kenyans can obtain a visa on arrival for a maximum stay of 90 days.

CONNECTIVITY

Nigeria has one of the fastest-growing telecommunications markets in the world, with increased interest in the region by smartphone manufacturers.

The telecoms landscape has witnessed significant growth in the last ten years as result of the liberalisation of the market. The most reliable, quality wi-fi access is found in the major hotels, but also in shopping malls and bars, and is widely available in most cities in Nigeria. Mobile roaming costs are relatively high, but affordable for corporates.

Mobile phone coverage (South Africa’s MTN Group, India’s Bharti Airtel, Abu Dhabi-based Etisalat and Nigeria’s Globacom are the key industry players) is widespread, although some remote highways are not covered, and even in the centre of Lagos there are ‘black holes’. It is advisable for visitors to obtain a local SIM card on arrival. It is affordable, although regulations stipulate that you have to register the number. SIM cards can be purchased at the airport, hotel, or sometimes while waiting at traffic lights from individuals representing the mobile operators. The cost of a SIM card is usually less than $10.

Pay special attention to data roaming costs. Most hotels offer complimentary wi-fi.

HEALTH

You must ensure that you are vaccinated against yellow fever before travelling to Nigeria, and you will be asked to show your vaccine certificate at the point of entry. Despite yellow fever vaccination being a visa requirement, visitors may still be denied entry if they cannot present their vaccination certificate on request. At the time of going to press, visitors were being ‘temperature screened’ on arrival for the Ebola virus, due to the new outbreak in the DRC.

Vaccinations against meningitis, tuberculosis and hepatitis B are recommended. There are special precautionary measures for diptheria, hepatitis A, malaria, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever. It’s recommended that you consult a doctor well in advance of travelling to Nigeria.

All tap water should be regarded as being potentially contaminated and bottled water is the way to go. Most hotels recognise this, and there’s usually plenty of bottled water in hotel rooms.

Remember to pack all regular prescription medications, plus any recommended medications, insect repellents and other supplies.

CONTACTS

www.visasunlimited.co.za (visas)

FACT FILE

Time zone: GMT+1
Plugs: Three-prong square
Dialling code: +234
Currency: Naira – $1=316NGN
Language: English

TRAVEL TIPS

Public transport is not reliable. Self-drive is not advisable or readily available from car rental companies, so a driver with your hire car is essential.

“Good wi-fi connectivity can be found right across the city, from leading hotels such as the InterContinental and the Sheraton, right through to independent coffee shops such as The Art Café on Victoria Island, which happens to be my favourite spot for a great brew and a read of the weekend newspapers,” says Samuel Lindfield, Virgin Atlantic’s Country Manager in Nigeria.

Lagos has some great restaurants, although the better ones are quite expensive. If you can spare some time in the evening, the night life can be very enjoyable.

“Being a Brit, I am quite partial to great Indian food, and I find that the Sheraton on Victoria Island offers some of the best curry you will find in Africa, coupled with fantastic service,” says Lindfield. “For the best views in Lagos, complemented with a cocktail or two, I highly recommend The Sky Bar atop the Eko Hotel.”

“I highly recommend Bottles,” says Luis Mata, Oil & Gas Regional Manager: Africa for Wings Travel. “It has a wonderful energy with live music, good food and great networking opportunities. For those looking for the familiar chain restaurants, there is always the Hard Rock Café with its downstairs area situated right next to the beach! If you are up for a Nigerian cuisine experience, any corner restaurant will offer you a wonderful wholesome local dining experience.”

COMMENT
TREVOR WARD
MD – W HOSPITALITY GROUP

Arriving on an international flight at Lagos airport can be a real test of one’s patience. Grin and bear it, because nothing that you say or do will make any difference.

Most flights from Europe, plus SAA, arrive in Lagos in the early evening, and the airport is hot and chaotic. For that reason don’t wear thick clothes and take a good book to read in the queue.

Through immigration, take a car hire with a driver from one of the big names in the arrivals hall. There are dozens of touts offering taxis – ignore the lot of them. You can also exchange money at the bureau de change in the airport. Touts are, again, outside, and to be avoided.

The roads are incredibly congested most of the time and the driving is poor. So, sit back and let the driver fight it out. The airport is in the north of the city, where there are a lot of businesses, industrial concerns, all the airlines and the Lagos State government. If that’s where you need to be, it is a 20-minute drive from the international terminal – or possibly an hour in heavy traffic.

Hotels in Ikeja include the Sheraton, the Protea Hotel Select Ikeja, two Ibis hotels, and a couple of Best Westerns, plus Nigeria’s newest hotel, the Renaissance (a Marriott brand), right opposite the Sheraton and next to the Protea in Ikeja GRA.

Downtown Lagos, which is Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Lagos Island and Lekki, is where most of the business activity is located, and consequently the main hotels, restaurants, bars and other leisure spaces. To get there, your driver will take you across the Third Mainland Bridge, which is one of only two routes from the airport to the south of the city. Although it is the better of the two, it is incredibly congested during peak hours. Even at 05h30 the bridge is clogged going south, and in the afternoon the traffic starts building up from 16h00.

Down in the south of the city, there are many hotels from which to choose, from the gigantic Eko Hotel in VI to the small boutique-style Wheatbaker and George hotels in Ikoyi. It’s best to choose a hotel within easy reach of where you are doing business, because of traffic. Global and regional brands such as Radisson Blu, InterContinental, Southern Sun and Four Points by Sheraton all have a presence in VI and Ikoyi, and you should expect to pay anything from $300 upwards per night, with breakfast extra.

There are also several very good small, independent hotels, such as La Cour, The George and Bogobiri, which offer value for money, but not the extensive facilities of the ‘big boys’.

All the big hotels have a variety of dining experiences – both the InterContinental and the Eko have Chinese restaurants – and buffets serving Nigerian and ‘foreign’ dishes are popular. Make sure you try the buffet at the Southern Sun Ikoyi. Eating out is expensive, but the portions tend to be large. Try Talindos for great steak, Ocean Blue for fish, Chinaville for Chinese, Lagoon for Lebanese, Churrasco for Brazilian and Bungalow for a bit of everything. For more casual eating and drinking, try Shades (a sports bar with big screen) and La Taverna (pizza).

To get around the city, take an air-conditioned hire car from your hotel. There are yellow taxis cruising the streets, but their cars are awful. Whether in a hire car or a taxi, you have to know how to get where you are going, as most of the drivers don’t know street or place names. The concierge desks in the hotels are there to help. Uber is now operating in Lagos and I understand it is a good service.

On the way out of Lagos in the evening, leave Victoria Island five hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time (four hours from Ikoyi), to be on the safe side.

At the airport, queues to check-in for the USA and European flights can be lengthy, but if you only have hand baggage you can normally ‘prioritise yourself’, if you know what I mean. There are lots of business class lounges airside, most of which take Priority Pass. I like the SDS one on the ground floor and the ASL one upstairs. If you can’t get into any of them, the Heineken lounge is nice and has free wi-fi, along with coffee, beer and snacks on sale.