I took a four-day hiatus off work to visit family in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State in Nigeria. Having never been to Calabar this was going to serve both as a family reunion and an expedition of some sort. I knew a thing or two about the place. The city Calabar served as port for transportation of slaves to Europe. Many “Cross-riverians” still bear names handed to them by slave masters.
Calabar is also home to fine cuisine. It is near-impossible to choose between delicacies edikang ikong, afang, and four-o-four (dog meat). The people also have unique, mythical characteristics; their women are said to be beautiful, voluptuous, possess magical culinary skills and are enchanting in bed. In politics, Margaret Ekpo, the rights activist, who fought for women civil liberties, gained reputation as a member of the regional House of Assembly from 1961-1965.
Calabar is one of many tourist destinations in Nigeria but unlike other tourist attractions, the state has made out a global brand. Donald Duke, a former governor of Cross River played a pivotal role in making this possible. The Calabar Festival he inaugurated is the biggest tourism, leisure and entertainment programme in West Africa. It is held in December to celebrate and usher in the New Year.
The other key feature in Calabar is Tinapa. Tinapa was built to be a business and leisure resort meant to take tourism to a whole different level in Nigeria. The project was initiated with a dream to make Calabar a hub for business and entertainment. Duke sought to create a tourism ecosystem in Crossriver State with Obudu Ranch and Tinapa at the centre. Development of Tinapa was buzzworthy—after all it only cost over $400 million! In fact Tinapa was to be the centre of Nigeria’s free trade zone. It would attract investors from all over.
Personally, it wasn’t a question of if I was ever going to Tinapa but when. No one could wait. It was like waiting for the first match of a World Cup. So I knew that even though I had heard and read negative reviews of Tinapa, I still needed to see for myself.
Tinapa is twenty minutes away from the city centre. Trees arched forwards towards the centre of the road on both sides of the high way, leaving huge shadows overlapping on cars. My party and I made mock videos as though we were real tourists and titled it, On the Way to Tinapa. I expected more from the ambience on our journey there and found it to be unexciting. The streets were half empty and there were no road signs that made our destination special from say going to church. I have visited tourist attractions in London, Dubai, Nairobi and Accra and I expected more from the journey. An ominous feeling began to set in: Maybe Tinapa was dead after all.
We finally made the left turn that brought us into Tinapa. Our first stop was the Water Parks. My enthusiasm surged again. Men, women and children were present. This area of the resort was functioning though not at full capacity (sounds like a refinery innit?). A bunch of freelance photographers scampered around us in hopes of taking and selling pictures.
“Bros, make I snap you and madam,” one quipped.
I was armed with my Ipad. My wife had a Samsung phone and my mother an android device enabled with a camera. We declined their offer. We paid and went in. I was impressed to see the pools properly maintained. The Water slides were not in use but this was probably because no one showed interest. Next stop: the shopping malls! What shopping malls?
And that was where the Tinapa cookie crumbled. It was a ghost town. There was nothing, nada, zilch. Virtually every store was closed or had nothing to sell. Shopping ought to be the centre of Tinapa. Nobody flies from Lagos or London to have a good swim. In fact the market survey that propelled the Tinapa project forward revealed that at least 500 Nigerians leave the country on nine different flights daily with each traveller spending on average 1.2 million naira in travelling and shopping cost. Tinapa was developed to save Nigeria about N200 billion annually from capital flight.
We eventually found T-mart, a store running clearance sales (They probably were also on their way out). There was no light in the building so I brought out my phone and found the torch app to help us find our way around. It was like a scene from National Treasure. We picked some clothes and headed for the till.
At this point, I couldn’t hide my disappointment.
“Oga, abeg who get Tinapa? Na Government?” I asked the attendant. I needed to put things in perspective; I needed to know who really was, is to blame for the mess.
“Na Cross River,” he answered, his patriotism tinged with shame.
My phone rang. On the other end my friend inviting me for his sister’s wedding in Lagos.
“No problem,” I responded. “I should be in Lagos next week. I am in Calabar, Tinapa actually.”
“What are you doing there?” he queried. “That place is dead—don’t you know?”
“Now I do”, I didn’t say.
I strongly believe the situation at Tinapa can be turned around if proper planning and management is employed. Certain factors such as government bureaucracy, insecurity in the Niger Delta, and kidnappings, contributed to the failure of Tinapa. Global terrorism especially that posed by Boko Haram has slowed down tourist into Nigeria.
Some steps have been made to save the project though. AMCON’s acquisition of Tinapa may be a blessing in disguise as it has given Tinapa a new lease of life. Ebony Life TV (A black Entertainment and Lifestyle network) has taken up residence on the Tinapa Campus. This has also helped drive some traffic into Tinapa. It is unclear how long this turnaround will take but it is a road that must be travelled. The Canary Wharf (a major business district is one of the UK’s two main financial centers) recovered from an initial hiccup and the same can be done with Tinapa.
Tinapa faded behind us into the clouds as we drove back home. It was less spirited; no chatter or video footages to pass time. Yes, I had found Tinapa but did I think I would ever come back? Probably not!