The Chief Executive Officer of Shenbee Travels Limited, Wole Shenbanjo, in this interview, spoke about emerging issues in Nigeria's economy, and events in the travel and tourism industry. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts
How has the devaluation of the Naira affected international air travel?
It has affected travel a great deal. Ticket fares have increased astronomically. You have economy tickets to London costing as high as N1 million. Not to include the cost of Covid-19 tests here and there especially the ones you have to pay for abroad. It has really affected holiday travels this period. I know quite a number of families who have had to postpone, cancel or reschedule their holidays due to cost constraints.
What do you think will be the long-term impact of COVID-19 on air travel?
Before talking long-term impact, we have already started to experience the impact and more importantly the recovery. Initially, we had everything come to a standstill with nations shutting their borders and all of that. A lot of countries that know what they are doing and understand the importance of travels have started to experience what we call the Post Covid-19 recovery.
In the long term, I believe we will experience safer travels. Most countries would not go back on the health and safety measure put in place as a result of Covid-19. As more people get vaccinated, we will see a pick up in travels across the globe. In another two years, we hope to be back to our Pre-Covid-19 numbers.
Would you say that the shrinking of international holiday destinations has made travel agents innovative and in what way?
Absolutely. It has caused us to be more innovative. We have had to research and explore more destinations to offer our clients. Personally, I have had cause to visit two new destinations this year to experience firsthand and be able to offer more options to our clients. So, we will continue to see more of that. We now have to look inwards into Africa and other safer destinations that are open to receiving tourists.
It has made a lot of us go all out in exploring and pushing our domestic tourism, which I strongly believe will thrive as we look to better days ahead.
With selective lockdown of many places in Europe and Americas, do you foresee a boost in African tourism?
Most definitely. Just this August, I went on holiday with my family to Ghana. You can imagine, as exposed and well traveled as we are, we had never visited Ghana, which is literally next door. It was a beautiful experience seeing lovely resorts and all that. We have had a lot of people reach out to us to help package similar tours. I am sure a lot of the top agencies and tour operators would be getting similar requests and experiences. People are now more interested in seeing Africa. Agencies and tour operators are beginning to showcase more of Africa; it will really be a great boost for African tourism if we are able to sustain it.
Do you think the federal government took a wise decision by introducing stringent protocols against South Africa?
From a personal standpoint, I did not understand nor subscribe to the ban of travellers from South Africa into Nigeria. The reason we heard was that the Covid-19 variant there is stronger, but I believe it is not a problem at all. There are health measures that we needed to put in place, closely enforce and monitor.
But if we continue to sell fear, we will continue to experience huge economic loss and we will be losing out in the grand scheme of things.
Knowing that South Africa and Nigeria are key economic pivots in the continent, how is not having direct flights affect the business partnership of the two countries?
The two countries have a bilateral agreement, which should eliminate trade barriers and by extension what this implies for the aviation sector is that our own Air Peace cannot fly there and bring back passengers. That is a loss to the airline. We ought to use this opportunity to support and grow our indigenous airlines. Things are looking up now though and soon everything will be back to normal.
Do you think we have come to a tipping point on the fall of the Naira and how has that affected the prices of air tickets?
Frankly speaking, it is a tough call to say if we have gotten to the tipping point or not. Neither the agencies nor the airlines have the power to control or influence the currency exchange rate. Several factors control that. Yes, prices of air tickets adjust strongly to exchange rate and the impact here is a lot more are unable to afford tickets on direct flights to their destinations or airlines of their choice. Again, adaptability is one of our strong points as a people. We will continue to adjust.
What can travel agencies do to boost international travel, as nations seem to be closing doors on inbound flights?
I actually don't think nations are closing doors on inbound flights anymore. At most, they are introducing more testing and quarantine rules to suit them as advised by their health authorities.
What travel agencies can do to support or boost travel is to stay abreast with the ever-changing Covid-19 rules across countries and destinations of interest and advise their clients accordingly.
Do you think the intransigent position taken by UAE against Nigeria in terms of Covid-19 protocol has political undertone?
That will be for the governments of both countries to comment on. I believe that the governments need to come to roundtable and iron out the diplomatic challenges between both countries. Again, it brings us back to the issue of bilateral agreements and something not being right about it, there is need for them to come to an amicable resolution as quick as possible. The challenge between the two governments goes beyond you and I. But whatever the reason is, it is not doing any good to either of the countries and I believe we will get positive news on it soon. We hear engagements are ongoing.
How has not flying to Dubai affected the revenue of Travel Agencies?
Without a doubt, it has. Dubai has been our highest selling destination for a very long time. It is like second home to a lot of us here. Guess what? Nigerians are still going to Dubai, and they are going there via Cotonou and Accra. Who is losing out? We are the ones losing out. And it goes beyond travel agencies.
You know how we are losing out? This is because revenue that would have come to our NCAA (the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority) is being lost.
Other countries are benefiting from our losses. We are helping other economies to grow. Because Kenya Airways is lifting Nigerians to Dubai, Qatar is doing the same. Egypt is doing the same. Only Emirates and Nigeria are not benefiting from it because we currently do not have direct flights. So why can't we just put our ego aside and go into discussions and get it resolved. Dubai needs us as much as we need them. Both governments just need to sit and get this thing resolved because as the popular saying goes, "when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers".
It is the travellers that are feeling the pinch; it is the business people that are feeling the pinch. Because instead of booking a direct flight, they now have to connect through other countries, having to spend at least 14 days in those places before proceeding to Dubai. We keep getting resumption dates but it is still from one party.
What do you advice government to do to encourage inbound tourism in Nigeria?
In any clime, for businesses to thrive, the government needs to create an enabling environment. We ought to consider the movement of visitors to other neighboring countries as being serious cause for concern, but we have not been able to latch onto such opportunities. Nigeria is blessed with the history of many ethnic groups, beautiful beaches and wonderful natural landscapes. The government can adopt a few measures to encourage inbound tourism. We need a National tourism policy, which would serve as a guide and must be conscientiously implemented. The private sector can be encouraged to develop and operate tourist sites on a PPP arrangement with the government. As part of CSR, blue chip organisations can be encouraged to adopt tourist destinations within their operating locality in partnership with the government. All of the above can only be possible if the government is ready to work on the infrastructure side of things and most of all security.
We should also take presentation and packaging of festivals very seriously. Take for example the annual Calabar festival, this attracts so many visitors from all over, we need more of that. Tourism will really boost the economy by way of job creation while adding to growth of our GDP. By promoting investment in tourism and rebranding the industry, the potential for growth on the economy is limitless.
To what extent has insecurity imperiled domestic tourism?
To a very large extent. I mean investing in tourism in areas such as hospitality, attractions, events, commercial outdoor recreation, festivals, arts and crafts etc. requires a very high level of security and safety. We read reports of terrorism, banditry, insurgency and kidnappings almost on a daily basis. And you know bad news travels fast. Nobody will love to invest or go out exploring unsafe territory.
Do you think destinations like conservation Centres, water falls; game reserves and others in Nigeria could attract throngs of international tourists in future?
Oh absolutely. These sites in Nigeria are places you will always find holiday seekers traveling to, during weekends and public holidays. Identifying these spots and giving them the necessary attention will well position the states who are the custodians of such locations to be at the heart of tourism development in the country.
In other countries, they have some cities they refer to as call holiday cities. We can mirror such here; they will attract more developments in terms of infrastructure like road network, ease of transportation and all of that.
By improving infrastructure, the governments both state and federal partnering with local tourism organisations to promote the tourist attractions of the country, I believe in a few years we can boast of tourism adding significantly to our GDP, away from our sole reliance on oil. Revenue from taxes too will rise easily.
Shenbee Travels Limited is known for driving travel innovation and exciting customer experience. What plans do you have for your existing and prospective clients as travel and tourism emerge from the lull of the year 2020?
As you know, we are all adjusting to what we have now known to be our new normal. We would ensure that we are able to provide safe, healthy, and prompt service to our clients so that they are able to fly seamlessly or with the airline that respects COVID-19 protocols. Information is being updated by different countries and airlines almost on a daily basis, we continue to stay close to our clients and keep them updated with the ever- changing Covid-19 protocols.
We will encourage our clients to safely learn to travel again while offering them best value deals. I remain optimistic that we would all weather this challenging period and come out of it even better than the pre-Covid-19 days.