International travellers to Nigeria often return home with their “war stories” regarding the urban jungle of Lagos, the lack of infrastructure and the chaos on the roads – chaos, by the way, that we learn to live with (but never get used to!), and which we call home.
It amused me recently to read online an interview with a Swedish visitor, who had been to Nigeria, and said she couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, she had found a modern, clean city with super highways, traffic lights that work, and a definite absence of chaos. She was returning home with a very positive view of Nigeria.
She had, you might have guessed, visited Abuja - only!
The capital of Nigeria is a very different city compared to the rest of the country. Lagos was the original capital of modern Nigeria, but the city couldn’t cope with the pressure on its infrastructure and this, plus 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 the city’s inauguration, two huge hotels were operating, both owned by the Federal Government – the 670-room Hilton, and the 540-room Sheraton, two of the largest hotels in the whole of Africa. A third, the 580-room Abuja International Hotel, was completed in 1990, but didn’t open until 2003, with less than half the rooms available. The hotel trades today as the NICON Luxury Hotel (yes, that’s what they call themselves!), and the remaining rooms have never been completed.
Other branded hotels in Abuja are three by Protea, and a Hawthorne Suites. Just six branded hotels in the capital of Africa’s largest nation.
And, strangely enough, there is very little activity in the branded hotel sector. Abuja has many hotels, ranging from small boutique hotels to large hotels such as the NICON and the Bolingo. Travel around the streets of Abuja, particularly in the districts to the west of the CBD, and you will see many hotels under construction which have been abandoned – the owners had some money, underestimated the amount required to complete a hotel, started building and, well, stopped.
But as I write there is nothing under construction that is to be internationally-branded. Strange, huh? Some deals have been signed – Marriott have 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 serious setbacks in the last three of 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 also 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”.
But there have been other impacts on demand – 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 for a few weeks as a result of a labour dispute
For the future, I am very bullish about Abuja. 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 go there for funds, on a regular basis. It is, since earlier this year, the capital of the largest economy in Africa, and people are waking up to that – “we must be there”. The airport is experiencing high growth, with new airlines commencing services each year – Kenyan have started on the Nairobi route this year, to be joined shortly by Emirates, Turkish and Rwandair. SAA also have rights to fly to Abuja from Johannesburg.
So long as the terrorist attacks in Abuja continue, demand will be depressed, but we must believe that they will cease, hopefully soon. Meanwhile, many of our clients are considering hotel development in the capital, and the traveller can look forward not only to a modern city, but one with modern hotels in all categories – not only are many of the deluxe chains looking to establish a presence in Abuja, but so too are those operating at the budget and midscale level.
We just need to encourage some of these projects to get moving. Watch this space!
W Hospitality Group, Lagos