Dr Olusegun Oyedeji, an Abuja-based medical practitioner, fell in love with Plateau State when he was in Foron, Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, for his NYSC scheme between 1982 and 1983.
He stressed that he was particularly fascinated by Plateau’s scenic beauty, the clement weather, the fruits and the friendly nature of the people.
“So when I got married in 1988, the state was a natural destination for my honeymoon,” Oyedeji told the participants of a recent peace-building seminar organised by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in Jos.
He recalled that the wife, Sola, also a medical doctor, expectedly caught the “Plateau bug’’ and “decreed” that the visit to Plateau would be an annual ritual performed every Easter period.
“In fact, the usual one-week tour became two weeks and later three weeks, as our three children also caught the `Plateau bug’ and identified more tourism sites to be visited,” he added.
Oyedeji, however, bemoaned the inability of his family to undertake the “sweet trip to Plateau” in the last 11 years.
“We love this place so much, we want to enjoy the cool weather and the fruits but the tales from Plateau are scary nowadays and we cannot afford to take the risk,” he said.
Like Oyedeji, thousands of tourists, both local and foreign, had made Plateau their preferred destination until the recurrent crises that rocked the state and made it a “no-go area” for visitors.
The persistent crises have also restricted the fear-stricken residents to particular areas considered “safe” to them.
To say that the crises have taken its toll on Plateau’s tourism industry is, perhaps, saying the obvious. Mr. Michael Zi, the General Manager, Plateau State Tourism Corporation, recalled that the state, widely known as the “Centre for Peace and Tourism,” used to record an average of 300,000 tourists annually when it was peaceful.
“Because of Plateau State’s unique sites, weather and topography, tourists usually flocked in from various directions and the state kept attracting all manners of visitors all year round,” he said.
Zi expatiated that while many tourists were attracted by the clement weather, others were fascinated by the interlocking rocks, adding that some of the tourists just wanted to enjoy the natural habitat, the green lush, the fruits, the vegetables and the waterfalls.
He said that school children came from even distant states to visit the zoological gardens in Jos, the various wildlife parks and amusement parks across the state, while many tourists loved to witness the annual cultural festivals of ethnic groups in the state.
Mr. Timothy Nyam, Assistant General Manager (Wildlife) in Plateau State Tourism Corporation, said that a major tourist destination was the Wildlife Safari Park in Jos; home to a wide variety of wild animals like lions, buffalos, leopards, pythons, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, monkeys, jackals, baboons, among others.
He, however, noted that other tourism sites included the National Museum in Jos, renowned for its archaeological items, pottery and fine specimens of the Nok terracotta heads and artifacts, whose dating ranged from 500 BC to 200 AD.
Other key sites, he added, included the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture with life-size replicas of traditional buildings, a Tiv village and ancient mosques.
Nyam said that tourists were also fascinated by Assop Falls on the outskirts of Jos, believed to be Nigeria’s most notable waterfall.
“Assop Falls, well-liked by persons interested in picnicking, swimming and beautiful scenery, have also proved to be a good location for people shooting local soap operas and advertisements,” he added.
The tourism officer said that other tourism sites in the state included the Kurra Falls - renowned for rocky hills and lakes – and Wase Rock, with its striking dome-shaped feature.
He said that other sites included Kerang Highlands, some volcanic hills which produced natural spring waters, the Shere Hills, popular among mountain climbers, and the Riyom Rock, renowned as one of nature’s most spectacular rock formations.
Some of the tourist attractions in Plateau are the Pandam Game Reserve, the Kahwang Rock Formation in Bangai village, Riyom Local Government Area, as well as the Miango Rest House, a retreat and conference centre that was established by SIM Nigeria Christian missionaries in 1914.
However, Zi, the tourism corporation’s GM, stressed that in spite of the allure of many tourism sites in Plateau, the state was currently recording less than 10,000 tourists annually.
“Since the violence began, we hardly get tourists. It is a sad situation that has affected, not only the tourism sector but also the entire economy of Plateau,” he said.
Zi stressed that the influx of people into the state had stimulated its growth with the multiplier effects of increased patronage of hotels, markets and farms, among others.
“Tourists, after a busy foray into the rocks and hills, usually return to a warm nightlife, as they patronise various relaxation joints where they enjoy local delicacies like roasted fish,” he said.
Mrs Mary Atin, who deals in bush-meat and fish by the foot of Shere Hills, recalled that tourists used to buy a lot of delicacies such as fish pepper soup, stick meat or roasted bush meat from her.
“These days, however, one hardly sees tourists visiting Shere Hills. The situation is even worse in the rural areas where most of the good tourism sites are located, as prospective tourists stayed away from the sites because of the fear that assailants could strike any moment,” she said.
“In fact, even the local folks are even scared of visiting the sites,” she added.
Mr. Maurice Yenvel, the Vice-Chairman, the Plateau chapter of Hotel Owners Association, stressed that the hospitality industry was worst hit by the protracted violence in the state, as most people now preferred to stay indoors even during festivities like Sallah and Christmas.
Several observers, including Yenvel, concede that such festivities have had lost their traditional appeal due the persistent crises in Plateau.
“Things appear to be picking up but at a point in time, many hotel owners retrenched over 50 per cent of their workforce so as to survive. I used to have 180 workers but I sacked more than 90 workers to enable me to exist and pay staff salaries,’’ he said
Yenvel said that the situation was even graver in Jos, as the capital city was no longer considered by corporate organisations as a venue for seminars, workshops and conferences.
He, however, said that members of his association were striving hard to make hotels more secure, calling on the state and federal governments to earnestly work for the restoration of peace in Plateau so as to enable the state to fully attain its potential.
Nevertheless, as stakeholders strive to work for the restoration of peace in the state, the Plateau Tourism Corporation believes that it could recoup the great losses it had incurred over the years due to the lull in business.
Nyam said that the Jos Wildlife Park alone could generate about N10 million every month if peace and order returned to the state.
“From our findings, the revenue will even triple if the Pandam Wildlife Park and the Wase Rock Game Reserve can live up to their potentialities,’’ he said.
Nyam, however, noted that inadequate finance had stunted the growth of the tourism sector over the years, adding that more funds should be injected into the ecotourism sub-sector since it was a capital intensive venture.
“Parks are hidden treasures. We have both animate and inanimate resources, kept in-situ and ex-situ, which are of a world-class quality and these could attract millions of tourists on a daily basis,’’ he said.
Nyam, nonetheless, called for a strong public-private partnership in efforts to re-package the tourism industry and train modern tourist guides, while mounting a sustained check on private tourism companies to ensure they met modern standards.
He also proposed better packaging for the tourism sites, adding that for instance, the driveways and walkways in the parks should be paved to ease the tourists’ movement.
Observers, however, believe that the Plateau Government has taken the right step to boost tourism in the state by earmarking N25 million in this year’s budget to restock the Jos Wildlife Park.
Mr. Sylvanus Dongtoe, the Commissioner for Tourism, Culture and Hospitality, said that the money would be used for the acquisition of more animals after the recent success recorded in breeding new animals, which included a pair of porcupine, a stripped hyena, a male duiker and a ground herubill.
Mr. Gomos Gotus, a wildlife specialist, however, suggested that part of the money should be used to rehabilitate the safari tracks at the parks, which were over 25 years old, to enable tourists to penetrate deeper into the parks to further appreciate nature.
“We also need to restock our animals with both exotic and local breeds. The challenge of obsolete structures as well as vehicles for conveyance of animals and feeds should also be addressed.
“There is also the need to provide recreational facilities in the parks. Apart from the animals, there should be something extra to amuse tourists,” he said.
Chief Segun Runsewe, the Director-General, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), however, said that the quest to exploit the tourism potential of Plateau should not be left to the state alone.
“Plateau alone can contribute N120 billion to the national coffers if its tourism potential is fully maximised.
With its rocks, natural falls, weather and many other tourist attractions, Plateau is surely a tourism gold mine,” he said.
Runsewe also recalled that Plateau was a choice destination for foreign and local investors as well as tourists, prior to the crises, which engulfed the state and scared people away.
“At the NTDC, we used to hold conferences in Plateau, just like other federal establishments, but that is no longer the situation.
“Ironically, the waterfall in Dubai is artificial but it is, nonetheless, a major tourist attraction. We have natural waterfalls in Plateau, which can earn huge resources for the state and the country at large.”
To demonstrate Runsewe’s innate desire for the restoration of peace in Plateau and the resuscitation of its tourism industry, the NTDC organised a “National Peace Week” in Jos from December 19 to December 26, 2011.
During the period, the multi-linguist NTDC chief mobilised the people to embrace peace via talk shops, open campaigns and peace meetings, which also led to the signing of peace agreements between hitherto rival communities.
The agreements have significantly improved peace in Plateau, some observers say.
In spite of the security challenges facing Plateau, Mr. Abraham Yiljap, the Commissioner for Information, stressed that Plateau still remained a preferred destination for foreign and local tourists alike.
“Tourists still visit Plateau but we want to attract more tourists. New sites have been discovered and more will be developed, while the government is partnering with hotel owners and security agencies to protect visitors and make their stay peaceful and memorable,” Yiljap said.
Observers, nonetheless, underscore the need to promote peace in Plateau, stressing that peace remains a dependent variable in efforts to fast-track the socio-economic development of the state and the people.