The Man Behind Akwaaba
Who is Ikechi Uko?
Ikechi Uko is a Nigerian who loves to travel. He is someone who loves Africa and everything African. He is passionate about tourism and is a travel promoter, a child of God, a proud father and husband, and a dedicated friend.
Tell us about your early life?
I grew up in Enugu in 1942 and had my Primary and Secondary School education in Enugu. I started my travel journey while growing up. I started riding trains as a kid. I also followed most of my friends to their villages. I love going on excursions. I found out I wanted to travel around the World. After reading Cyprian Ekwensi’s Book, “Burning Grass,” I wanted to go to the North and wander with the Fulanis. After University studies at Ibadan, I did everything to serve (NYSC) and travel in the North, and I was successful with that dream. I served in Bauchi State and worked in Kano. The Biography of David Livingstone I read as a child also set me up for a life of travelling around Africa.
Can you share with us? How long have you been in the Tourism business?
Since the early 1990s, I have done nothing else but tourism and travel promotion. I earlier worked as an Editor for a Tourism Guide to Nigeria, then joined Happy Land Happy world, a Disney project in Lagos that didn’t eventually take off—then started publishing in 1993. I wrote my first book, Festivals in Nigeria, in 1998/9.
As a well-known travel enthusiast, how do you combine your Family life with your career?
When I started, the family was young. Luckily for me, I started a family very early in life, but it must have been challenging for my family. I was not at home but travelling when two of my children were born. Combining my travel duties with family duties was never easy, but my family understood. Now, it is a lot easier because the children are mostly abroad. I am a househusband whenever I am back in Lagos from my all trips. I try not to stay more than five days abroad. But in some years I stay abroad for over 200 days.
What are your achievements in your career so far?
Having survived so far in such a challenging environment in Nigeria is a significant success. We published the first travel magazine in West Africa and held the most considerable travel and tourism exhibition in the West African travel market, Akwaaba. After that, we successfully organised the first search for the Seven Wonders of Nigeria in 2010-2012. We are presently on the Second Season of Naija7wonders. We have helped standardise hotels in Nigeria through our annual Top 100 Hotels. Between 2000 and 2006, it was the most respected rating for hotels in Nigeria.
We have raised many champions in tourism in Nigeria. We are developing many brands to put Nigeria and many destinations on the tourism map. I am very proud of the awards I have received. In 2003, The Federal Government of Nigeria gave me an award of distinction for the promotion of tourism in Nigeria. In 2010, the Government and tourism stakeholders in the Gambia gave me a prize for the promotion of Gambia as a destination.
The government of Rwanda honoured me in 2014 for the promotion of Rwanda. In 2021, the Lagos State Government gave me an award for the promotion of tourism in Lagos. The government of Cross River appointed me as the International Consultant to Carnival Calabar in 2015. African Travel Times appointed me African Tourism Ambassador in 2013 in New York. I was honoured as the African Tourism Man of 2016 at the African Hotel Show in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
I am currently a board of trustees member of the Federations of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN) and BOT Member of the Nigerian Association of Tour Operators (NATOP).
What do you find the most frustrating about working as a Travel consultant?
Because I handle destinations and not travellers, my job is difficult because everyone believes they know how tourism works. Everyone claims to be an expert, and it took a long time before people got to see and understand the unique skills we bring along. The Second Problem is the political will to go.
Through with a tourism project. It is an intangible product, but the results are measurable and visible. Convincing the owners on the steps needed to achieve the desired success is usually the big elephant in the room, but now my records speak for me.
What are your favourite travelling destinations?
I am an Africa Addict. I love Obudu, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and now the confluence of Itu in Akwa Ibom. My Favorite City is Lagos.
Can Akwa Ibom State boast of a good tourist site?
Akwa Ibom State can be the best tourism destination in West Africa, with natural water, flora and fauna. We have god beaches, the heritage and historical attractions of Mary Slessor, Christianity and colonial history. We have the human element of culinary tourism and rich culture. We have superior Infrastructure with the World-class Ibom Icon resort, an airport and the best airline in Nigeria today, Ibom Air.
What do you suggest we should do to harness tourism Potential in the State fully?
There’s a need for executive attention and political will, which will need packaging and marketing and leadership.
You are the organiser of the Akwaaba African Travel Market, Would you please tell us about this business?
When we started (Akwaaba) in 2004 after attending the World Travel Market in London for many years, we participated at the ITB Berlin in Germany for some years and the Spanish expo. We decided we needed to create something like that in Africa. Only a few people are privileged to get visas to Europe for those fairs. So we brought the World to Africa. It has been a tremendous success. It is among the top three events in Africa, the only big tourism event without government subsidy. Over 20 Countries attend the event. We also organise the most extensive travel event in Ghana, Accraweizo.
Any regret so far?
That I could have done more than I have done, I am grateful to God for what I have done so far.