The Cross River State government has turned a century-old festival into a prime driver for the attraction of tourism.

Nigeria is home to a wide variety of extravagant cultures, which find their culmination in carnivalesque festivals across the country. One such festival sees the city of Calabar, the coastal capital of Cross River State, transformed into Africa's largest street party. The Calabar Festival, which over the years has grown to become the biggest and longest multi-faceted tourism leisure and entertainment program in West Africa with an estimated 500,000 visitors and 50,000 costumed revelers, is held annually from the December 1 until January 1. As Sally Mbanefo, Director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) points out, “the Festival pulls in big crowds and is one of the most famous carnivals in the world."

In centuries past, the Festival was a Christmas festival to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Bearing a heavy African touch, the festival boasts masquerades, traditional music and dancing, and lavish consumption of African food and drinks. In 1999, then Governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke, initiated a policy to develop the Festival into a tourist attraction in order to create a source of alternative revenue for the state.

Local festive costumes are full of life and color

Turning the centuries-old festival into an international one sponsored by both the public and private sectors, the Governor sought and acquired partnerships with Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, adding France and Rwanda as partners over the years.

With the period of festivities covering a full 32 days, the Festival kicks off with a city walk against HIV/AIDS in an attempt by the organizers to raise awareness about the disease. This walk is a prelude to a month full of shows and entertainment activities, held every evening at venues across Calabar. In an attempt to include all citizens of the capital, admission to every performance is free of charge. Over the years, the festival has been home to international artists such as Akon, Fat Joe, and Nelly, and headlines have featured renowned Nigerian artists like P Square and D'Banj.

The festival finds its ultimate climax in the Calabar Carnival, which is held on December 26 and 27. Conceived in 2005, the Calabar Carnival is modeled after the annual Trinidad and Tobago carnival. It is a unique display of Africa heritage showcased through music, dance, drama, and visual creativity, which is reflected in the design of floats, costumes and make-up. Featuring the five competing bands the Bayside Band, Passion Four, Seagulls Band, Master Blasta, and Freedom Band, and 10 non-competing bands, the carnival procession moves along a 12-kilometer route through the city while judges award points to the five major bands, which are headed by kings and queens, dressed in large costumes inspired by the annual theme. At the end of the procession, one of the bands receives the prestigious "Band of the Year" award.

The Festival continues to grow each year both in terms of participation and funding. The Cross River State government has made great strides in ensuring the participation of the private sector in financing the event, and has even set up a regulatory agency to moderate the Carnival. Attracting huge numbers of domestic and diaspora tourists from all over the world, the Festival serves as a driver of socio-economic development within the State. Moreover, the State has positioned itself at the forefront of tourism in Nigeria, sitting in pole position to unlock the massive potential in Nigeria's tourism sector that has remained largely untapped, but provides a viable alternative economic footing to oil and gas. Thus, the Calabar Festival, in its own right, is a fine example of the economic diversification that the Federal Government has embarked on.