By Joe Iniodu

It has been ascertained with veracity that religion is a strong tourism tool. The examples of Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel provide confirmation to this assertion. These are countries that have not only upped their revenue profile through religious tourism with the income generated from the above central in the determination of the GDP of the said countries.

The Hajji ritual in Mecca, Saudi Arabia started nearly 1,400 years ago. It is one of the obligatory pillars which a financially and physically able must perform. The Pilgrimage which attracts Muslim faithful from all over the world to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the country’s second most important economic activity after oil and gas. As a matter of fact, part of the diversification strategy in Saudi Arabia is to broaden pilgrimage services to reduce its dependence on falling oil revenue. Currently, about 2 million pilgrims visit the Holy City annually with the figure expected to reach 2.7 million by 2020.

Religious pilgrimages have significant growth potential and ability to stimulate economic activities. For instance, the millions who visit Mecca every year go with billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Zayan, a 53-year old pilgrim from Tunisia said that he spent about $6000 on his Hajj. In Saudi Arabia, the tourism industry contributes about $22.6 billion to that country’s GDP with Hajj and Umrah providing about $12.6 billion of that. Last year alone, the 10-day event is said to have generated USD 10 billion according to the Chamber of Commerce in Mecca.

The Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem is another defining niche in tourism occasioned by religious activity. Indeed, Jerusalem is considered as one of the most visited cities with about 3.5 million tourists arriving annually. The largest percentage of the toursits to which account for about 18% are said to come from the United States of America and followed by Russia, France, Germany in that order. The quest to be part of this tourism frenzy which is universal could be measured in the 2017 desperation by about 4,370 medical doctors of Nigeria’s origin who are jostling to work in Christians’ pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Out of the lot, very limited number is actually needed which was why they all had to be subjected to a computer based test.

The Akwa Ibom Christmas Carols Festival which upped its scale in 2008 with an assemblage of 9,300 carols singers has come to serve as one of the defining hallmarks of the State. The State which is lucky to have God fearing leaders use the platform to encourage the people to return to a benevolent God who has watched over the State and its people all through  every outgoing year. And the period is carefully chosen to coincide with the birth of the most iconic figure of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ who laid down his precious life to reconcile the entire humanity to God. As the midwife of the event himself, Mr. Aniekpeno Mkpanang noted, “Akwa Ibom Christmas Carols Festival is not a mere gathering but a spiritual convocation for spiritual awakening, rejuvenation and restoration”. The Carols Night can therefore be construed as a festival of fellowship with undeniable benefits of spiritual reawakening and restoration. In the face of receding economy, the need for the restoration of the land can never be over-emphasized. This argument may be considered utopian by many who see God as illusionary. But it is difficult to controvert the fact that there is God in the affairs of men, States and country.

The institution of Akwa Ibom Christmas Carols Festival which has already gained phenomenal global acclaim is a vision that transcends even the spiritual. Every December, Uyo has a place in the calendar of Christian faithful across the world as one of the places to visit. Many look up to the annual event with excitement and make a budget for it. Those budgets are spent in the State with added positive impact to the local economy.

It is a fact that each day of the annual event witnesses increased activities in the city of Uyo and nay the State. The transport sector becomes abuzz as arrivals need transportation to various destinations. Hoteliers wear broad smiles as rooms are fully booked, translating to more revenue for the hotel. Food vendors have a field day as the one day event translates to more revenue with increased profit margin. Traders of different items are always also part of the cutting edge economy even though short lived. Photographers, videographers, shoe menders and assortments of skilled and unskilled workers always find roles to play within the spectrum provided they are willing to task their thinking faculties. However, one of the sectors that our people have failed to do much about is the area of producing souvenirs for sell during the period. Selling souvenirs that are related to the event has very lucrative potential. Caps, wristbands, small towels, batches, biro pens, etc with the logo of the event or message well inscribed would sell hugely at the Festivals. Research has proven that people spend freely at religious events, as according to the study, it provides for them spiritual relief or what we may wish to call spiritual catharsis.

But those who ceaselessly criticize the event overlook this benefit analysis. They are always wont to pop the simplistic and obviously warped question, how much did government spend to host the event? Again, they ignore the fact that government was not from when it was conceived designed for profit making but to ameliorate the sufferings of the people and bring the greatest good to the greatest number. So, when people analyse government policies from the perspective of cost benefit analysis, they lose sight of the original essence of government. There is on their part, a dimmed appreciation of the role of government and the fact that if government deploys resources to serve a cause that is central to the majority of Akwa Ibom, then it has acquitted itself as responsible and sensitive provided such cause is not frivolous, egoistic, selfish or intended to serve a narrow interest. If government therefore wishes to support materially in the spiritual fulfillment of the people of a State where every single household professes the same faith, such government rather than be discountenanced with abrasive criticism should be applauded. After all, religion, especially Christianity, is the best mentor of morality.

When people throw tantrums at the Carols Festival, they fail to see that driver at the airport who has a field day conveying more people to and fro into town with more money in his pocket to meet the needs of his family. Such people refuse to see the taxi driver in the city whose take home for the day can at least change the meal of the children. They ignore the gains that have gone the way of the keke rider which he can plough into another venture for a new stream of income that would most likely reduce his desperation. They overlook the hotelier who has hardly had fully booked rooms to bring succor to the cost of diesel with something reasonable left to change beddings and take care of the home front. They do not see the food vendor who has exhausted what he/she cooked; a departure from the tradition of throwing away unconsumed food and losing revenue.

Tourism as provided by the Carols Festival is akin to what is called enabling environment. When government creates it, private initiatives thrive and the private sector receives a fillip. Government is not a Father Christmas to throw money on the street. And being a human contrivance, it cannot reach out to every individually. But it can touch lives collectively through public utilities and infrastructure as well as programmes that can stimulate the economy and create opportunities for direct and ancillary services. The Akwa Ibom Christmas Carols Festival is one of such initiatives with soul lifting impact and obvious economic boom. As we prepare to converge again on December 22, 2017 at Uyo Township Stadium for this great spiritual fellowship, let our people look keenly at the spectrum and identify areas they can hew out a measure of fulfillment from the spiritual and economic exercise.

Joe Iniodu is a public affairs analyst

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