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Calabar: The next big move in tourism


“It is estimated that the business generated by the 184 qualified buyers at Meetings Africa 2015 could bring 54, 000 convention delegates worth nearly R1 billion in revenue to our shores in the next two years.”-South African Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom on February 24, 2015 

Nigeria participated differently at Meetings Africa 2015, the annual gathering of players in the meetings and conventions ecosystem, with the presence of the Calabar International Convention Centre, a new purpose-built centre for business tourism. The Calabar ICC opens in June 2015.

The Calabar ICC exhibition stand was significant for the previous absence of a Nigerian stand almost every year at this event. Facilities in Southern and Eastern African countries normally feature alongside the dominant display of various hotels, convention centres and tourist facilities of host country South Africa.

South Africa Tourism and the South Africa National Convention Bureau annually bring in about 1000 participants from across the world to participate in Meetings Africa. The 2015 edition marked the 10th year of the event, inviting congratulatory handshakes and cutting of cakes. Meetings Africa is a farsighted concept whose execution also underlines the synergy and cooperation critical to success in business tourism.  Cooperating parties range from airlines through tour operators, hotels and convention centres to professional conference organisers and providers of event and conferencing facilities.

South Africa Tourism underwrites fully fare and lodging of all participants. Many participants only register their presence and no more. A short sighted view would thus wonder at such seeming waste but the return on investment has been salutary, according to the country’s Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom.

Hanekom stated at a Gala Dinner to mark MeetingsAfrica2015 that the investment on Meetings Africa 2015 alone could bring in business worth R1billion (N25billion) over the next two years. South African Tourism expects a return of about 54,000 convention delegates.

The growing business tourism market is the target of Meetings Africa. Through it, South Africa marries the business and leisure aspect of tourism out of a realisation that appreciation of the attractions of a country can only truly happen when the target market is exposed to them. Associations are a major feature of professional and business life, with many professional bodies having regional, continental or global associations whose annual gatherings draw thousands of participants. The business tourism industry joins destination marketing to sell particular locations and their facilities as a reward to participants and economic stimulus to the host cities.

Hanekom testifies: “According to research conducted by the South Africa National Convention Bureau, 40 percent of all convention delegates attending meetings in South Africa return in the next five years as tourists, boosting tourism growth and job creation years into the future. …We have already secured 177 major international association meetings for the next five years – thereby attracting a quarter of a million delegates with an estimated economic impact of R3.5billion. 

“Besides hosting globally strategic events of the magnitude of the COP17 Climate Change Conference and the 2013 BRICS summit, we have excelled in providing a home to literally thousands of other business events. This has contributed positively to tourism growth and job creation. Business events and major conventions have become important components of the economy and plans to achieve the ambitions outlined in the country’s national development plan.”

The $90m Calabar International Convention Centre seeks to tap into this growing global niche market. It would commence operations in June 2015 hosting a major meeting of a medical association and announcing Nigeria’s readiness to play in business tourism in Africa.

The Calabar ICC is one of two major convention centres planned for Nigeria. It comes ahead of plans for another International Convention Centre in the capital city of Abuja.

The Calabar International Convention Centre (Calabar ICC) “is not only the first dedicated convention centre in Nigeria but also the only new conference centre in Africa opening this year”, said Paul D’Arcy, Chief Executive Officer. “Even more exciting is the fact that international events are already booked and well-known and experienced management team is in place.”

D’Arcy, surrounded by Mike Lord and Ben Asoro, directors, stated further, “Indeed, the Calabar ICC is opening a new frontier for Africa and offering meeting organisers a new venue/destination option on the continent. This is especially true for the West Africa sub region, which, until now, has been virgin terrain for business tourism.

“Nigeria’s entrance, with the Calabar ICC, into the international meetings industry is significant, not only because of the country’s large population, but also for its projected continuous economic growth. With a GDP of US$510 billion and a population of over 170 million people, 40 million of whom are middle income earners, Nigeria is surely a viable place to do business.”

Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State has led the push for the development of the Calabar ICC as part of an overall strategy of positioning Calabar as a foremost destination for tourism, both leisure and business. Calabar already hosts the annual month-long Calabar carnival that draws in thousands of visitors and tourists. The Calabar ICC would “host a wide array of events for national global audiences comprising businesses, governments and associations.”

The Calabar ICC is part of a new development area in the Cross River State capital, the 357-hectare Summit Hills. The area would feature a business hotel, an 18-hole golf course, and an international hospital. A monorail would connect it to the Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort. “This train will make it convenient for delegates and organisers staying at the Tinapa Lakeside Hotel (located across the lake from the Calabar ICC) to attend conferences at the centre in style and with ease.”

As the Calabar ICC officials announced the readiness of the venue, they were quick to tackle perceptions of Nigeria by foreign associations and individuals.

D’Arcy, a South African, told guests at the press briefing how he does not lock his doors at home or at the office to underline the relative safety of Calabar. “There is no electric wire fence”, he added, in reference to a key security feature of homes in South Africa.

Over 2000 professionals in the meetings and conventions industry gathered at the Meetings Africa event held annually at the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg.  D’Arcy stated, “Interestingly, Nigeria epitomises an almost bipolar view of Africa. While it is an exciting, dynamic, high-octane growth market for investors already doing business here, for others on the outside looking in, it appears chaotic, unstable, and uncertain. However the unrest, instability and uncertainty is, in the main, confined to the northern regions while Calabar is located in the far south of Nigeria.”                                 

According to officials, “For Calabar, an already vibrant and top destination in Nigeria, the Calabar ICC is a most needed addition to solidify its place as the preferred business tourism destination in the sub-region and the whole of Africa.

“The city is already famous for its hospitality, experienced by the thousands of tourists from all over the continent who attend the annual Festival and Carnival. Carnival Calabar, the city’s most famous annual event can only be rivalled by the Rio de Janeiro Carnival. Calabar’s rich cultural heritage, intriguing history, superior sports venues and idyllic tourist destinations offer delegates a variety of unforgettable experiences pre- or post-conference.”

The Calabar ICC is located in a Free Trade Zone, meaning exhibitors and buyers would be free from municipal taxes.  “Calabar is a catalyst for the creation of an African market for tourism”, D’Arcy emphasised.

Dirk Elzinga, managing director of Convention Industry Consultants (PTY) Ltd asserts that the Calabar ICC would be a major beneficial addition to the industry and open up the West African market. Elzinga believes that Calabar provides just the right ambience for business tourism as it retains the allure of nature while removed from the more populous Nigerian cities of Lagos and Abuja.

Nigeria has a large number of professional associations as well as corporate bodies that would provide the internal market support for the ICC. Many international firms in IT, FMCG, retail as well as alcohol and beverage are also seeking entry into the Nigerian market following the successes of firms from countries such as South Africa.

Calabar ICC starts with a strong cadre of experienced industry professionals. CEO Paul D’Arcy is a South African with extensive experience in the Meetings Incentives Conventions and Events space. Director Sales and Marketing Ben Asoro is a Kenyan also with extensive experience.