A town in Taraba State, aptly signifies the readiness of the state government to promote tourism as a means of boosting economic activities in the state. The two-day event, which took place between April 20 and April 22, was a rallying point for the people of Ibi and its environs, as it did not only showcase the people’s culture but it also heightened economic activities in the community.
For instance, all the hotels in Wukari and Zaki Biam were fully booked some days leading up to the fiesta, while restaurants, taxis and motorcyclists, food vendors and petty traders in the neighbourhood obviously experienced improved patronage and bumper sales. Observers acknowledge that even though the Nwonyo festival is not as well-known as the Argungu International Fishing and Cultural Festival in Kebbi, it could be nurtured with time and extra commitment to become a major fishing festival in Nigeria and Africa at large. All the same, the grand fishing event started at the Nwonyo river in Ibi when Sarkin Ruwa (the custodian of the river) appeased the gods of the river with some rituals and blew the whistle for the onset of the fishing contest.
The thrills and glamour of the event reached a crescendo as the fishermen invaded the river with different fishing apparatuses and canoes, keeping visitors and spectators spellbound for over 50 minutes without any captivating catch. The contestants, however, started catching big fishes after a drought that lasted for about one hour and the event soon came to an end with the announcement of the winners. Hudu Yakubu was declared the overall winner of the fishing competition for a prize catch of a fish weighing 280 kg; Shehu Umar came second with a fish weighing 215 kg, while Likita Aboshi came third with a 214-kg fish.
Speaking after his victory, Yakubu said: ``This is not my first time in the competition; I have participated in previous editions without any luck but that did not deter me. ``This year, I tried again and with God on my side, I won,’’ he said. Yakubu expressed appreciation to God and the event’s organizers for the Hilux van he won as a prize, conceding that he never expected to return home with a vehicle.He commended the state government and the corporate organisations that co-sponsored the fishing fiesta, urging them to do more to boost the tourism profile of Taraba.
Gov. Danbaba Suntai, who presented the prizes to the winners, however, challenged the State Tourism Development Board to initiate pragmatic means of developing and marketing the state’s tourism potential. He enjoined the Board to look at ways of developing the Nwonyo festival and other tourism events in Taraba into becoming veritable revenue earners for the government. ``Four years after the Board’s inception, we have yet to see a blueprint that would turn tourism in Taraba State into a revenue generating venture.
``You have just started; that is just the honest truth,’’ Suntai said, while challenging the Board’s members to look into ways of turning things around positively. ``In the next two years, if you cannot change your ways of handling the state’s tourism industry, I will quietly withdraw from the sponsorship of the Nwonyo Fishing Festival,’’ he, nonetheless, warned. ``If the festival cannot be transformed into a revenue-generating event; then, it will not be able to add value to the people’s lives.’’
Abubakar said that the Board has been calling for private sector participation in its tourism development efforts, citing the involvement of MTN and Zain telecom service providers, as well as Zenith Bank, among others, in the sponsorship of the 2012 edition of the Nwonyo festival as a major breakthrough. The guest speaker, Dr Joseph Rishante, the Dean of Taraba State University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, called for a paradigm shift in the approach to tourism development.
``Due to the capital and labour intensive nature of the tourism industry, there is a need to explore different development strategies, which calls for more creativity,’’ he said. Rishante commended Suntai for his efforts to develop of a vibrant tourism master plan for Taraba, saying that the blueprint, if properly executed, would lift tourism development in the state from the drawing board to a practical reality.
Mr Emmanuel Bello, the Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism, however, announced that the Nwonyo Fishing Festival would now be a biennial event so as to give the organisers ample time to plan for the fiesta. He said that the restructured festival would particularly make the experience of the participants and observers unforgettable and long-lasting. Besides, the commissioner said that the government was planning to construct a fish house and a holiday resort near the Ibi Lake to enhance the area’s potential as a tourist destination.
Bello stressed that the project would partly stem the current situation where most of the people who attended the Nwonyo festival in Ibi were usually accommodated in hotels in neighbouring towns such as Wukari and Zaki Biam. ``Such scenario has denied the Ibi people from getting the full benefits of Nwonyo Fishing Festival directly,’’ he added. Observers, nonetheless, say that pragmatic efforts should be aimed at enhancing the tourism appeal of the fishing festival and similar cultural events, as part of efforts to boost the economic potential of the tourism sector of the national economy.