Eye on West Africa

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I recently read an amusing online interview with a Swedish visitor who had been to Nigeria, and was impressed with the country. She had found a modern, clean city with super highways, working traffic lights, and a definite absence of chaos. She was returning home with a very positive view of Nigeria. As it turns out, she had visited Abuja.

International travellers to Nigeria who have the pleasure of visiting Lagos, often return home with their “war stories” about the urban jungle of the country’s busy city, the lack of infrastructure and the chaos on the roads.

Those who travel to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, find a completely different city from the rest of the country. Lagos was the original capital of modern Nigeria, but the city couldn’t cope with the pressure put on its infrastructure. This, as well as political considerations, led to the decision in the early 1970s to establish a new capital in the centre of the country. Construction commenced in the late-1970s, and the capital officially moved to its new location in December 1991.

At the time of Abuja’s inauguration, two huge hotels were operating; both were owned by the federal government – the 670-room Hilton, and the 540-room Sheraton, two of the largest hotels in Africa. A third, the 580-room Abuja International Hotel, was completed in 1990. It opened in 2003, with fewer than half of the rooms in operation. The hotel trades today as the NICON Luxury Hotel and the remaining rooms have never been completed.

Today, Abuja has a plethora of hotels, ranging from small boutique hotels to large hotels such as the NICON and the Bolingo; however you won’t find many international brand names among them. In the districts to the west of the CBD, there are many abandoned construction sites; potential hotel owners underestimated how much money was needed to build and operate a hotel and once the money ran out, construction ceased.

Protea has three hotels in Abuja, and Hawthorne Suites has one building. Including the Hilton and Sheraton, that’s a total of six branded hotels in the capital of one of Africa’s largest nations. There is currently nothing under construction that is to be internationally-branded, although some deals have been signed. Marriott has a project for a Courtyard and a Marriott Executive Apartments, and Carlson Rezidor have signed both a Radisson Blu and a Park Inn, but none of these is yet on site.

The hotel industry in Abuja has suffered some severe setbacks in the last three or four years, having been a target for Boko Haram attacks and threats. Most serious have been the bombings at the UN headquarters, retail malls and bus stations. Threats against the main “American” hotels have had less physical impact, but have served to dampen demand. Some companies and agencies forbid all travel to the city, and several international conferences, with the notable exception of the World Economic Forum earlier this year, have been ‘pulled’.

In 2012 and 2013 there were continuous decreases in the number of airlines operating in between Lagos and Abuja, for various reasons. At the beginning of 2013 the number of airlines on the route reduced from six to just two, and one of those stopped flying temporarily as a result of a labour dispute.

Despite all this negative news, I am bullish about Abuja’s future. Not only is it the nation’s capital, it is also where the nation’s purse sits, and it is necessary for both private and public sector to travel there for funds, on a regular basis. It is, as of earlier this year, the capital of the largest economy in Africa, and companies are slowly realising that they need a presence in the city.

The airport is experiencing a growth spurt with new airlines commencing services each year. Kenya Airways started flying between Abuja and Nairobi this year, and Emirates’ flights to Dubai began last month. Turkish Airways and Rwandair will soon add Abuja to their networks.  South African Airways also has rights to fly to Abuja from Johannesburg.

It is true that as long as the terrorists continue to attack Abuja, demand for flights and accommodation will be depressed. But we must believe that they will cease, hopefully soon. Meanwhile, there are clients considering hotel development in the capital, and visitors can look forward to a modern city with modern hotels in all categories many of the deluxe chains, as well as those operating at the budget and midscale level, are looking to establish a presence in Abuja.

We just need to encourage some of these projects to get moving. Watch this space!

Trevor Ward
MD: W Hospitality