Still a Force

818

Nigeria is the ‘Giant of Africa’ and the most populous country on the continent, whilst in 2014 its economy surpassed South Africa as the largest on the continent, after Nigeria overhauled its gross domestic product data for the first time in two decades. Despite that move, 2014 was otherwise a year to forget for Nigerians.

With its huge mineral wealth and vibrant energy, Nigeria is not only the economic powerhouse of West Africa, but the continent as a whole.

The export of crude oil – drilled in offshore wells and in the volatile Niger River Delta – accounts for two-thirds of its GDP, placing Nigeria 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.

But, all of this counted for nothing when the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia was made public around mid-2014. Countries issued travel bans, airlines suspended profitable routes, and Nigeria was caught up in the middle of it all – not just thanks to its proximity to the three countries listed.

The Ebola virus was introduced into Nigeria in late July, when an infected Liberian man arrived on a flight into Lagos. The man, who died in hospital five days later, set off a chain of transmission that infected a total of 19 people, of whom seven died. Despite that, just three months later the World Health Organisation declared Nigeria free of Ebola transmission, with the government commended for its “strong leadership and effective co-ordination of the response that included the rapid establishment of an emergency operations centre.”

The damage, though, from a business point of view, was done, and Nigeria felt the full impact of being labelled an ‘Ebola country’.

“We did not see any significant reduction in travel for our clients within the oil and gas industry, but there was a noticeable decrease in occupancy at hotels and passenger numbers on flights, at the height of the Ebola scare around mid-2014,” says Sonja Hamman, Director Strategic Client Management for Wings Travel Management. “It was clear that corporate travel had reduced significantly.”

Despite the government’s efforts, the fall-out from the spread of the Ebola virus had a huge impact on travel into Nigeria.

“What we saw was a drop in patronage in the aviation sector in the country,” says Nilesh Thakkar, Chief Commercial Officer of Satguru Travels and Tours. “Several airlines including Arik Air, ASKY, British Airways and Emirates suspended flight operations to and from Ebola-affected countries. Arik, for instance, suspended operations to Sierra Leone and Liberia, resulting in big financial losses for the airline.”

All of that being said, there are signs that Nigeria is seeing a post-Ebola recovery, with business travel returning to the country.

“We did see an impact on the volume of business going into Nigeria, but more recently we’ve started to see some signs of a return,” says Karl de Lacy, International Development Manager for Best Western International. 

Hamman shares that sentiment.

“I have not travelled to Lagos since Nigeria was declared Ebola-free in October 2014,” she says. “But I believe that travel has started returning to normal.”

The Ebola situation may be under control, but Nigeria has other problems. Politically, the Nigerian government faces the growing challenge of preventing Africa’s most populous country from breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines, with the Al-Qaeda-aligned Boko Haram armed movement conducting an insurrection in the mainly Muslim north. The conflict raged through 2014, and Nigeria received a ‘double whammy’ in early-2015 when the global oil price took a dive. The Nigerian economy is heavily reliant on the country’s oil and gas industries, and the fall-out was felt immediately, with the devaluation of the naira and resulting activity such as Standard & Poor’s threatening to downgrade Nigeria’s credit rating.

Quite simply, early-2015 sees a far from positive outlook for Nigeria, with the country also banking on peaceful elections on the 28th of March (postponed from 14 February), to ensure some sort of stability and keep the wolves at bay.

Despite all of this, though, Nigeria remains one of the African continent’s premier business travel destinations, and it’s going to take more than one bad year to cripple this economic West African giant.

What is clear, though, is that 2015 is shaping up to be a big year for Nigeria.

Cities

The main business travel destinations in Nigeria are Lagos – the commercial capital – Port Harcourt, which is home to many oil companies, and Abuja, which is the capital of Nigeria and the seat of government.

Lagos is the most populous city in Nigeria, the second fastest-growing city in Africa, and seventh in the world. The latest reports estimate the population at 21 million, making Lagos the largest city in Africa.

It is a bustling city and a hub with a vibrant night life. Due to its size and population, there is heavy traffic around peak periods in the morning and night. It is also a coastal city, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean, and as a result has many beaches from Victoria Island to Lekki.

Abuja is known for being one of the few purpose-built capital cities in Africa, as well as being one of the wealthiest and most expensive. Most visitors to Abuja have business with the federal government, or are there to participate in large regional conferences or conventions, which means that most hotels in Abuja are geared towards business travel.

Port Harcourt is the capital of Rivers State. It lies along the Bonny River and is located in the Niger Delta.

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 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.

“Passing through MMIA for the first time can be frustrating, particularly if it is your first time in Nigeria,” says Thakkar. “There is air-conditioning, but it is still quite stuffy and hot. The internet in the lounges can be inconsistent and access to these lounges is pricey. But, the airport is safe and there are lots of uniformed men around.”

MMIA is exceptionally chaotic in the evenings, 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. 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.

“When landing in Lagos, passport control consists of two stages, with one official checking the passport, visa and completed arrival form,” says Hamman. “The traveller then has to move across to a second counter for the passport to be stamped by another official. Once the traveller has collected their baggage, they will need to show their yellow fever certificate to health officials and their baggage tags to a security person, before exiting into the arrivals area.”

“If meeting a driver, it is important for the traveller to know where they can expect to locate the driver, how to identify him, and his phone number. On departure, travellers need to ensure that they do not arrive at the airport with little time to spare. The queues at the check-in counters can be very long. Before bags can be checked in, travellers need to go through a passport check, and all checked baggage is searched.”

Refurbishment of MMIA has been underway for over two years, and the airport does already offer a greatly improved experience. The refurbishment project is expected to be completed in 2015. If possible, it’s recommended that you arrange a ‘meet and greet’ facility, particularly if you’re a first-time traveller to Nigeria.

“The changes to MMIA over the past couple of years have been positive,” says Hamman. “The most noticeable change is the passport control/immigration and security in the departure area of the airport. This has transformed from a cramped area with a limited number of counters, to a large, bright space, with multiple counters to deal with the large number of travellers moving through the airport. There is also a separate fast track queue for Business and First Class travellers.”

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 almost no general facilities airside. If you’re travelling in First or Business Class, you will probably receive complimentary lounge access.

“Both British Airways and SAA have their own dedicated lounges, which provide a good service,” says Hamman. “If the traveller does not qualify for access to an airline lounge, but holds a Priority Pass card, a Diners card, or is willing to pay the access charge, they can gain access to the Gabfol Lounge. 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.

As of 2013, InterContinental has a presence on Victoria Island, and the property is the ‘shiny new kid on the block’, offering 5-star accommodation and conference facilities. There’s a similar theme to the Lagos Oriental, which has quite an opulent offering, also on VI.

Starwood’s presence is in the form of a Sheraton in Ikeja and a Four Points by Sheraton on Victoria Island. Carlson Rezidor has the Radisson Blu Anchorage Hotel, Lagos VI, but at the time of going to press, this hotel was closed.

“I would recommend the InterContinental and the Radisson Blu Anchorage, which are both on Victoria Island,” says Hamman. “The Radisson is temporarily closed at the moment, but both hotels offer modern, well-maintained facilities, including secure access to rooms, Wi-Fi and a choice of restaurants.”

Best Western has a nice spread, with two hotels in Ikeja – in close proximity to Murtala Muhammed International – and one on Victoria Island, whilst Ibis has a similar approach, with one property near the airport and one in Ikeja. Golden Tulip can boast the Golden Tulip Festac Lagos, and the group also has a property in Port Harcourt.

From an African hotel group point of view, Protea (now part of the Marriott group) has the biggest presence, with six hotels in Lagos and three in Abuja, along with one in Warri in Delta State and one in Benin City. Sun International runs the Federal Palace Hotel & Casino on Victoria Island, Legacy Hotels & Resorts operates the Wheatbaker (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 Morningside Suites, the Moorhouse Ikoyi, S&S Hotel and Suites, the Epe Resort & Spa, The Regent, Avenue Suites, the Palazzo Dumont Hotel, and the Eko Hotel & Suites, which has the largest meeting and conferencing offering, with heaps of exhibition space.

“The key in Lagos is to stay close to where you need to be,” says De Lacy. “If it’s a visit for meetings that can be done close to the airport, there are various hotels in Ikeja and GRA. For visitors to Victoria Island, there is a variety of options to choose from.”

“With regards to Victoria Island hotels, it’s worth considering the InterContinental, the Wheatbaker, the Four Points by Sheraton, the Oriental, and the Eko Hotel and Towers,” says Thakkar. “If you’re looking for a mainland hotel, try the Ibis in Airport Road, the Sheraton in Ikeja, the Protea in Ikeja, and Best Western’s two hotels, also in Ikeja.”

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. Protea has the three hotels already mentioned, 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 Starwood Hotels & Resorts a presence in the capital.

It’s worth noting that several hotels in Nigeria require travellers to pay before issuing a room key. Many properties request an additional security deposit as well as the room rate, and you will be refunded when settling the bill at departure.

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.

Be aware that these machines only allow you to withdraw 25,000 Naira (roughly $150) at a time, which is a relatively small amount in Nigeria. This means that you will have to make multiple withdrawals at a time.

The Nigerian payment method of choice is via MasterCard, Visa or Interswitch. The Interswitch Verve card is issued in 16 of the country’s major banks. There are currently over 10 million Verve cards active in Nigeria. Unfortunately, American Express is still not widely accepted. Diners Club and all other credit cards are not accepted in Nigeria.

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.

Bureau de change facilities are available at Murtala Muhammed International, but that isn’t recommended, unless it is absolutely necessary. Carry a small amount of US dollars, broken down into small denominations.

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. In South Africa, the visa will cost you in the region of R6,000, whilst it’s advisable to start the visa application process well in advance, in order to meet the deadline of your trip. 

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.

You cannot legally depart Nigeria unless you can prove, by presenting your entry visa, that you entered Nigeria legally.

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, cinemas, bars and even in cities outside Lagos and Abuja. 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 not limited to cities, but is only available in some towns and villages. 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.

“Wi-Fi is generally good in the hotels, although connectivity can be lost from time to time during power cuts, until the generator starts everything up again,” says Hamman. “Outside of hotels, general access to Wi-Fi is not readily available, and mobile connectivity can also be unreliable.”

Pay special attention to data roaming costs and remember to switch off your apps. Most hotels offer complimentary Wi-Fi.

Health

You must ensure that you are vaccinated against yellow fever before travelling to Nigeria. You also need to ensure that you take your yellow fever vaccination certificate with you. Despite yellow fever vaccination being a visa requirement, visitors may still be denied entry if they cannot present their vaccination certificate on request.

Vaccinations against meningitis, tuberculosis and hepatitis B are sometimes 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.

Country exit requirement – if you will be in Nigeria for more than four weeks, the government of Nigeria may require you to show proof of a polio vaccination, when you are exiting the country. To meet this requirement, you should be vaccinated between four weeks and 12 months before the date you are leaving Nigeria. Talk to your doctor about whether this requirement applies to you.

Nigeria is part of the ‘meningitis belt’ of sub-Saharan Africa. It is recommended to take this vaccine if you plan to visit Nigeria during the dry season (December–June), when the disease is most common.

In the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in mid-2014, Nigeria did report a few isolated cases of the disease, but it was successfully contained, and the country was commended on how it responded to the outbreak. Nigeria has since been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation. That being said, complacency is not a threat, as the country remains on high alert to ensure there are no new cases. All travellers are subjected to health checks at the country’s airports.

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 repellants and other supplies.

Travel Tips

Nigeria has received unwarranted negative publicity, and reading or hearing horror stories ahead of your trip is not advisable, particularly when visiting Lagos. Go with an open mind and common sense, and you will be pleasantly surprised, as Nigerians are very welcoming.

First-time travellers should listen to the advice of their hosts, and ideally make use of a ‘meet and greet’ service, as well as a hotel transfer. Public transport is not reliable. Europcar and Avis have both recently started a chauffeur service. Self-drive is not advisable or readily available from car rental companies, so a driver with your hire car is essential.

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 quite enjoyable.

“I recommend the Surface Bar & Grill at the Radisson Blu Anchorage,” says Hamman. “It’s a terrace restaurant, overlooking the lagoon. It has good quality food, a nice view and a very good atmosphere. It’s definitely worth a visit once the hotel re-opens.”

When arranging meetings in Nigeria, travellers should ensure that the contact is known to them, and that the meeting is held at a secure location.

Nigeria has an almost even religious split between the Christian and Muslim faiths. However, the country does have the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa. One should exercise discretion in behaviour and dress – in the north particularly – as well during the holy month of Ramadan.  

Contacts
www.visahq.com
www.nigeria.co.za
www.visarequest.co.za

Fact File
Population:
178 million
Time zone: GMT+1
Plugs: Three-prong square
Dialling code: +234
Currency: Naira – $1=200NGN
Language: English

Comment 
Trevor Ward
MD – W Hospitality Group

The hotel industry in Lagos is experiencing some quite extraordinary “growing pains” right now.

A bit of history – when I was first travelling from my London base to Nigeria in the early 1990s, getting a room in a decent hotel (and there weren’t many of them!) was a real struggle, with occupancies in the high 80s year round. Then came the Abacha years, which followed the annulment of the 1993 election – Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth, BA stopped flying, and occupancies were down to about 50%. From the return to civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria was “back in the fold”, there was massive investment in all sectors of the economy, including hospitality, and occupancies climbed to above 90% in 2007/08. New branded hotels started to open, but occupancies were still perfectly respectable, around the mid-70s.

Then came 2014, our annus horribilis, and a combination of security concerns and the Ebola crisis hit the hotel industry in Lagos, and across the West African region, for six. People just did not travel, neither from outside Nigeria nor within. There was a complete lack of confidence, and in the extreme, companies forbade travel to Africa. Full stop. Interesting, that in a year when Nigeria was declared the largest economy in Africa, and with the economy of Lagos State growing at least 10% annually, the hotel industry was back in the dark days of the mid-1990s, so far as business levels were concerned.

There were encouraging signs of a recovery in the last couple of months of 2014, and hoteliers report that January 2015 was above expectations – low expectations, granted, but above them all the same!

What of the prospects for 2015? There has been a loss of confidence in West Africa generally, because of the Ebola crisis, but also because of Boko Haram’s continued terrorist assaults. Previously confined to north-east Nigeria and to Abuja, they are now spreading their evil to Cameroon and Niger. The US government is warning against travel to many parts of Nigeria, and there are also fears of post-election violence, when that election eventually takes place! Then there’s the severe drop in the oil price, with ‘Big Oil’ reducing expenditure, which knocks on to the hotel industry in Lagos, and in other cities on the west coast.

Confidence takes a long time to build, and an instant to crash – and by and large it is completely outside the hotel industry’s control. In Lagos, and it affected Accra (Ghana) last year too, we have yet another problem, with the labour unions flexing their muscles against hotel owners, resulting in the closure of the Radisson Blu, the temporary closure of the Federal Palace (now re-opened), and unrest at other hotels.

Who’d want to be a hotelier?

Well, many people would! The industry has an inevitable cyclicality and its fortunes go up and down, with the ups always more than the downs. The number of rooms in branded and other major hotels in Lagos has increased from about 1,000 in 2003 (the year I moved here) to 4,300 today, yet occupancies were still perfectly respectable until last year. Supply growth is nothing like what it was in the last decade, with just 62 branded hotel rooms due to open in 2015, courtesy of the Mantis group’s The George in Ikoyi, Lagos. Our roller-coaster ride is nothing to do with over-supply! Openings later in this decade could include Fairmont, Marriott, Holiday Inn, Le Meridien and others, but it does take an awfully long time to get a hotel up and running in this town! 

If Nigeria can hold a credible and peaceful election, can continue on a growth phase, if the oil price rises again, if Boko Haram can be repelled, if… well, if West Africa, and Africans, can do what they always do, and prove how resilient they are, our industry will get back on track, and be where it was in 2008 – booming!

Comment
Bongani Sukazi
MD – BCD Travel South Africa

Visiting Nigeria can be quite daunting for first-time visitors. As Africa’s most populous country, the sheer numbers of people moving around you appear like organised chaos. Once you settle in, you will soon realise the warmth of locals – many have raved about African hospitality, and expect no less in Nigeria.

Although the airport has been undergoing a major rehabilitation programme, it is chaotic. I would advise that you arrange with your host that an accredited meet and greet service or fast-track service is booked – the expense is worth it.

Traffic to and from most places is congested, giving you plenty of opportunity to take in and observe the fast pace from the comfort of the back seat. Allow ample time between meetings, or even better, try and schedule some at the hotel you are staying at. If need to travel to meetings, try to arrange that you’re able to get some work done in the car, on the way.

Lagos is a bustling city, day and night, and it sometimes seems as if people never sleep. Working hours are quite long, compared with the rest of the continent.

As a regular traveller to Lagos, I’ve definitely noticed changes, both big and small, on each trip. The Governor of Lagos has ambitiously embarked on changing the image of this bustling city, from cleaner roads to new motorways and a noticeably higher amount of infrastructure development. 

Hotels are in abundance, but run very high occupancies. The increase in room inventory has done little to decrease the high cost of accommodation in Nigeria, so it’s advisable to get a booking in early. I have stayed at the Southern Sun in Ikoyi, the Federal Palace and the Wheatbaker Hotel, all of which are perfect for the business traveller. Complimentary Wi-Fi is standard.

Nigeria is a relatively formal society, and it is appropriate to address people by their surnames until you know them very well. Business is formal – suit and tie is my rule of thumb – and wait until the people you are visiting ask you to loosen your dress.

Do accept offers to experience the city and the rich culture from your host.