If You Build It People Will Come [column] (allAfrica.com)

One of the things that really riles me is when I receive complaints by foreigners and mostly Westerners about the difficulty in getting a visa to visit Nigeria. Not only is the process unnecessarily long and tedious, a Nigerian visa is also expensive and can cost as much as $200. For a nation that wants to diversify her revenue base, this is the wrong approach.

This constraint is also one of the reasons why Nigerian fares poorly in the annual Ease of Doing Business ranking list in the Global Competitive Index (GCI) published by the World Economic Forum.

Last year, Nigeria fell seven places to 127th position from the 120th position we occupied in 2013. Not much has changed to expect a better rating this year. And yet, we expect to be open for business! The first thing that foreigners look at in determining the ease of doing business in a country is how easy it is to enter and leave that nation. We have our work cut out for us.

If I may ask, what will a Westerner want to do in Nigeria if not business or touring? They are very unlikely to engage in crime and we have checks in place to ensure that they do not sabotage our economy. So why make them jump through hoops to get a visa when it is actually us that needs their business or presence as tourists? Nigeria needs to take a cue from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and throw open her borders to business and pleasure seekers with the only requirement for entry being that you have money to spend in Nigeria.

Even if we need to place visa restrictions, we can do it for certain nations whose citizens will have a higher incentive to take advantage of our economy. We should not place the same conditions on everybody. That’s crazy!

Recently, some missionaries from the United States wanted to visit Nigeria. They had plans to explore opening up schools or helping to staff schools that already exist. They also had plans to help Nigerian orphans get adopted by wealthy Americans. I am quite sad to say that the hoops put in their way discouraged them and eventually they did not actualise their plans. Instead of adopting from Nigeria, they ended up adopting Chinese.

This is not an isolated story. It keeps happening over and over again. I know of Westerners who wanted to set up a refinery in Nigeria and their attempts to get a visa where so tedious. Thank God they knew someone who knew the Ambassador in their country. Only then where things able to work out for them. But what about the ones that do not know anybody? Must you know someone to have your visa process fast tracked? This ought not to be so.

The world has evolved and although it is now cliche to say it, but we now live in a global village. Globalisation is the present and future of the world. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, national borders have been falling and people now become world citizens instead of citizens of one nation. Westerners and Asians are now so wealthy and are looking for new places to invest or visit as tourists and nations like the UAE are visionary enough to see this new world order and are tapping into it.

By making her visa policy so lenient, the UAE has attracted the world’s business and tourist visitors. As long as you have money to spend, their borders are open to you. And what has been the result? By opening up her borders to the world, the UAE’s economy has more than doubled and though she is an oil rich nation, over 30 per cent of her Gross Domestic Product comes from her aviation industry. Between 10-12 per cent comes from the tourists industry. This is a total of over $180 billion per annum!

This amount would not have come into her economy if His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had not been visionary enough to open his nation’s borders to the world for business and pleasure in the 1990s. We do not have to reinvent the wheel in Nigeria. We can just replicate what has been done successfully in Dubai. And it will be very shortsighted to say that foreigners will not visit Nigeria because of the crisis of terrorism we are currently going through.

The Mano River region had been war torn for decades starting from the late 80s, but that did not stop the growth of the tourist industry in the Republic of the Gambia. Gambia is one of those nations that liberalised its visa policy early enough and the result has been that tourism is the number one foreign exchange earner in that nation. What about Kenya? Tourism in Kenya is the second largest source of foreign exchange revenue following agriculture. Their annual revenue from tourism is just a little over $1 billion per annum. Yet, this is a country that is grappling with terrorism just as we are. Kenya has a very liberal visa policy that is raking in dollars for her economy.

To put things into perspective, tourism is to Gambia and Kenya what oil is to Nigeria. To put things into even more perspective, oil is not a renewable resource. It has a shelf life. It will finish one day or lose value sooner than that. But tourism is a renewable resource. It will always exists. As an economic mainstay, it is safer than oil! Americans have a saying which is true. They say, if you build it, people will come. If Nigeria builds up her capacity to host the world, the world will come! A good place to start would be by liberalising our visa policy. Let us make it easy for people to visit Nigeria. This will have the effect of increasing travel to Nigeria and our aviation industry will boom!

We have Bilateral Air Service Agreements (BASA) with many nations but we are not utilising them. However, those nations are utilising theirs and Nigerians are trooping to their countries to spend dollars. By now, it is almost a notorious fact that the Lagos-London-Lagos route is perhaps the most profitable route in the would for British Airways because Nigerians are trooping to the United Kingdom for holidays. Why can’t we flip that? The reverse is the case for Gambia. 50,000 British tourists visit The Gambia every year.

The United Kingdom is not making money from The Gambia, it is The Gambia that is making money from them which is as it should be! Turkey has now liberalised her visa policy such that if you have a British or American visa you do not need a Turkish visa to enter Turkey as long as you fly Turkish Airlines! Do you know how many billions of dollars Turkey has reaped by that policy? People will come to Nigeria. We must believe in ourselves and in our economy. And that brings me to business registration. We must make it easy to register a business in Nigeria. Currently it is too difficult and expensive to open a business in Nigeria.

Registering a company with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) can cost up to N60,000 and takes weeks to finalise. Meanwhile in the US you can register a business in a day with less than $50 and you do not have to leave your house! We must make if easy for people to open business in Nigeria. We must also make it easier for business to open accounts in Nigerian banks. We must never underestimate the big difference small changes can make. These are small changes that are within our power to make and if we make them we will be stunned at the positive multiplier effect they will cause. My name is Ben Murray Bruce and I just want to make commonsense!

· Murray Bruce is the senator representing Bayelsa East in the Senate and is the Chairman of the Silverbird Group