‘Nigeria lacks policies to drive aviation, tourism development’

National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies

Bernard Bankole is the president of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), the downstream sector of the aviation sector. Bankole, in this interview with WOLE OYEBADE, takes a closer look at the air travel business and tourism, highlighting its challenges, potential and the way forward among other issues. Excerpts:

What is your take on the performance of the industry in 2018?
It was a good feeling when we realised that we were out of recession in 2018.

We were expecting better gains based on the factor that we had pulled out of recession, so that we can count the gains in the aviation industry.

But to my dismay, I can say that there is really no tangible gain as it were. I can say categorically that the aviation world has left Nigeria behind.

When you look at the gains that have been made in other countries around the world, and Africa in particular, it is huge and the world will not wait for Nigeria.

This should be a wakeup call for us to start seeing how we can develop the most sensitive industry in the Nigerian economy.

You will all agree with me that aviation is not an industry that should be neglected in anyway or any manner.

I think, to a very large extent that was why the Federal Government gave it a special portfolio under the ministry of transportation, and a minister was attached to it. But be that as it may, we haven’t seen much growth as expected in the industry to the point that even the downstream sector is feeling the impact.

What do you say of government’s policy to drive the aviation growth?
We haven’t seen any policy that enhances the growth of the industry.

In terms of infrastructure, it was just of recent that the Port Harcourt and Abuja airports’ new terminals were opened. But when we talk about infrastructure, it goes beyond new terminal.

As we speak, the runway in Enugu is so bad that it is a disaster waiting to happen.

Flights cannot go to Owerri conveniently, because the airport would have been shut before they get there. Once it is past 5pm the airport is shut.

What is happening to the biggest black race in the world? Air transportation is one area I would have expected the government to emphasis and make sure that it is developed to enhance the movement of people.

Year-in year-out we keep having local airlines die. When a new one comes onboard, an old airline dies. Even at that, we are yet to sit down to really understand why the old domestic carriers are dying.

We need to look into the policies and into the tax regime.

Do airlines have comparative advantage as local operators? What benefit are they getting from the government to keep them in business? Understand very well that the industry is a sensitive one and the profit margin is very tiny.

Every aspect of the business is dollarised or in foreign exchange.

Yet, here we are using a weaker currency, naira, to fund the dollar. What manner of concession is given? We cannot just sit back and assume that things will fix themselves.

I think the government has paid more of lip service than giving the industry the attention it deserves. I would have thought that with the kind of funds the government has made available, we could have done a lot more than we are doing.

The president while commissioning the Abuja terminal said Nigeria would soon be the aviation hub for West Africa.

This can never happen; it is not possible. It is going to continue to be a dream. You don’t just become a hub overnight.

Tell me the plans that are in place, even to transit from Lagos international airport to our domestic airports. There is no proper transit.

What sort of hub do you want to become? Is hub being made by words of mouth? It is by conscious planning that ensures that the necessary facilities are put in place.

Today, a lot of airlines still prefer to go to Ghana to fuel up or to make repairs.

Why? Because they have made available the processes and infrastructure for the comfort of any airline that is coming to their country.

I can say to you categorically that it is not possible for Airbus A380 aircraft to land in Nigeria.

Even if they want to, we don’t have the infrastructure. That is one of the biggest aircraft in the world. But this same aircraft landed in Ghana.

What makes Ghana better off than us? This is not about politics; it is about doing the right thing. We have the capacity to do the right things; we just choose not to do them.

There are a lot of things we can tap into. If the plan is to have Nigeria Air as our national carrier and it is not working out yet, are we saying there are no alternative plans to improve the sector?

In what way have we supported the local airlines? Because the same problems facing the local airlines also lie in wait for the Nigeria Air and it will kill it within a short period. So, it will be just another white elephant project.

It is high time we wake up from our sleep and understand that the aviation industry is a sensitive one that requires the government’s full attention.

Because it is the fastest and safest means of moving from point A to point B. More so, when foreigners come into your country that is the first port of entry that showcases your worth as a nation.

The recent Calabar carnival and the turnout of foreigners showcased the opportunity for inbound tourism. How can this be harnessed to develop the tourism industry?
Just like I have been saying, it takes a sound aviation industry to promote your tourism.

Without a sound aviation industry, your efforts are growing your tourism will just be a waste. Because when we are talking about inbound tourism, we are saying that we want the rest of the world to come and see what we have in our country.

If their very first experience is a nasty one and there is no connectivity from your international airport to whatever local destination they have to be, how will you be able to grow your tourism?

If you take a flight here today from Lagos, it takes you straight to Atlanta.

From Atlanta airport you can take Delta airline into any state in the America. If that is not possible, there is connectivity via other airlines.

Tell me what connectivity the foreign carriers have with our local airlines? In what way has government enabled that synergy? In what way has government formulated a policy that will help the local airlines as well as the local airports in those various states to develop?

You and I know that as at today, we have about 22 local airports, out of which about three are viable.

These three are not even operating to full capacity, but you can say they are profitable to an extent.

Why do we have those airports? What policies do we have in place to enhance development and increase activities at those airports? Why are we making ourselves the laughing stock of the world? I think it is high time we get serious. If not, the world will leave us behind.

The world is revolving and Nigeria cannot be stagnant. So, it is either we revolve with the world, in terms of development, or we will are left behind.

How critical is the travel agencies to the development of the aviation industry at large? What is your contribution to aviation in 2018?
Travel agencies in Nigeria play a pivotal role in the aviation industry. The role of the travel agencies cannot be undermined.

Otherwise, with the amount of technology you see everywhere around the world, the travel agencies should have gone into extinction. But rather, they are still growing by the day; not only in Nigeria but even outside the country.

I can say to you categorically that most of the foreign airlines push their sales to travel agencies to distribute on their behalf.

We have been doing that effectively and they have been getting their money. So, this critical sub-sector of the aviation industry needs to be looked into.

The government needs to understand the activities of these travel agencies. For example, our association has over 6,000 members with each of those members employing between five to 100 staff. 

Are we saying that such industry should be neglected? Shouldn’t there be rules governing such industry? Shouldn’t there be more intervention into the method of operation of such industry?

Recently, there was a bold step to sanitise the sector. How successful has it been?
We have been making frantic efforts on our part to bring some level of sanity to the industry. But just like I said, the neglect of the downstream sector by the government is quite obvious.

Because they feel that they will make more money from the carriers than from talking to the agents. And what they fail to understand is that the agents are employers of labour.

About 80 per cent of the airlines’ proceeds pass through these agents. Then there is need for us to give special attention, so that we can make sure that they capture every amount that is being sold.

In 2017, I made mention that we sold 1.4 billion. In 2018, we sold 1.4 billion with some fractions.

Are we saying that an industry that generates about half a trillion should be neglected? Are we saying that is not an amount that is added to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of this country? So, why is government not paying attention? Why should it be private sector involvement alone? It is so bad that we are beginning to even see some institutions that shouldn’t register as a travel agency doing so.

The last time, I saw Nigerian Army travel agency wanting to be a member of NANTA.

Is that how it should be? If there are proper rules should it be like that? We have the rules but the enforcement is zero. That is where we are today.

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