Alhaji Ahmed Mohammed Sani, the Managing Director of Amco Travel and Tours Limited and CEO of Temple Touch Global Investment, is of the view that for Nigeria to maximise the benefits of air travel and tourism, government must invest more in both sectors. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:
What is your evaluation of the tourism business in relation to the current economic situation in Nigeria?
The current economic situation of the country is seriously affecting the tourism industry. The disparity between dollar and naira has forced airline operators to increase their fares. Before this development, airfares were relatively low but eventually the government came up with the current forex policy and that changed the whole business environment. Fares are increasing and as a result of that, the number of people who can afford to travel by air is reducing drastically.
What is your take on the newly introduced flexible exchange rate by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)?
The policy is long overdue. In fact, I feel it should have come earlier instead of the previous arrangement. Hopefully the introduction is going to turn things around. The policy is okay. It has helped to reduce the pressure on the naira. About three weeks ago dollar was 367 and N368, but with the policy onboard, dollar is now selling between 280 and 320. I think it is a good policy and with time I believe the economy will pick up.
To be more specific, how do you think this development will affect the tourism industry?
It will affect the tourism industry because there won’t be enough dollars in reserve to serve the sector. The disparity between dollar and naira had brought an increase to airfares but the introduction will help to reduce pressure on our currency and correct some general issues occasioned by the previous policy. If government continues to meet the demand of dollars by the operators, the fare will definitely come down.
It is the view of many that Nigerian travel agents prefer to do business with foreign airlines instead of encouraging indigenous carriers, is that true?
It is true because our indigenous airlines service very limited destinations. It is until they begin to operate to more destinations that one can encourage them. If we look at the route which they service, it is mostly UK, US, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Most of them don’t go to places like Brazil, East Asia and others. They can only be encouraged appropriately if they travel to many destinations. If we talk about British Airways and others for instance, you will see that they service many destinations and that gives agents a lot of advantage.
What would you recommend that Nigeria should do in order to encourage inbound tourism?
Personally, I think they should invest more in the aviation sector. Aviation and tourism are key sectors in every economy, but the reverse is the case in Nigeria. Despite the huge potential in tourism, the federal and states governments have not taken necessary steps to promote tourism. Unless this is done, Nigeria wouldn’t harness the benefit inherent in the sector. Transportation is the backbone of every economy. People should be able to move to keep the economy moving.
I will advise the federal government to invest more in the aviation sector. We need a national carrier. I learnt there are plans ongoing to come up with one but government has to be serious with it. Revamping the national carrier may be a fast way to boost the aviation industry in Nigeria. Most of the African countries today have their carriers, including Ethiopia Airlines, South Africa Airways; Kenya Airways are few other African airlines, which are already doing very well.
I don’t see anything stopping Nigeria from having a national carrier. By the time we have our own carrier the issue of patronage that you are talking about definitely will be addressed.
What is the ideal environment that will encourage local tourism to thrive in Nigeria?
The ideal environment has to do with addressing infrastructure deficits and creating sustainable policy that will form a level playing field for operators. Apart from the little challenges that we are having, I do not think there are serious challenges as such. On the other hand, local investors must be sincere, putting national interest first. We must not always concentrate on our challenges but turn them to opportunities and move forward.
To what extent does insecurity contribute to this?
Insecurity is a global challenge. I don’t think that is the basic issue here. Before insecurity, the sector has been abandoned because of oil, corruption and bad leadership. Besides, the present administration has overcome that security challenge particularly in the war against insurgency. If you have been following news headlines on insecurity in the country, particularly as it relates to Boko Haram, you will largely agree with me that insurgency has been defeated in Nigeria. Personally, I will say the current administration has done very well in the area of fighting insecurity, thanks to the Chief of Army Staff; Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai.
He has furthered our confidence in the Nigerian army. During the previous administration the Nigerian army was thought to be powerless by the whole world. Looking at the efforts of the army and other joint security forces, I believe the nation should begin to talk about how to grow in terms of tourism and travel related activities and it would equally encourage investors to look into the Nigeria market.
But let me quickly warn that Nigerians must not allow themselves to be distracted, particularly on series of malicious allegations going around in the country.
In terms of tourism and foreign investment, do you think these allegations discourage visitors into our country and how would you react to the recent Dubai property allegation brought against the Chief of Army Staff, particularly at a time when the nation is fighting corruption, which you said is killing different sectors of the economy?
I am not speaking for the Lieutenant General or the army. But you see, as a concerned citizen, I think what Nigeria needs now is patriotism. We need to think straight and give credit to who deserves it. Frankly speaking, you can see that there are pure sabotages going around in the country.
There are people who don’t want things to go on well and as soon as they see any aspect where progress is being recorded they start attacking it. You should know that that is a distraction strategy. On the property saga, one thing remains undoubted, a leader is always a leader, and the man in question is a man of integrity who I believe will not allow himself to be rubbished. I am not speaking for him but he is a man I know and can stand for anywhere. The said asset is a joint asset and was already declared, so what else do you want? For someone to bring up such issue you should know it is a planned distraction.
Do you believe it is only when foreigners are attracted to Nigeria that one can say that the tourism industry is growing?
It is not true. In fact, I don’t believe in that because if you look at tourism and crosscheck the geographical areas of the country, you will see that we are just surrounded by tourism potential. Every part of the country is a potential tourism destination. We need to start developing our domestic tourism first; then foreign investors will get attracted. We have to start something. Investors won’t just come unless we begin to prove to them the need to come. That is only possible if we take initial steps and invest. If we keep waiting for foreign investors, we won’t go anywhere.
What are the core duties of your organisation?
We are basically a tour operation company. We are a one- stop shop for tourism needs for corporate organisations and individual. For the past 10 years, we have proven that our operations particularly for the Muslim holy pilgrimage can be more affordable and stress free. We are also into online ticketing. With our recent investment, we are planning to change the business environment in the aviation sector, particularly as it relates to ticketing. We plan travel for individuals and organisations across all major destinations of the world. We are licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and certified by IATA. We have partnerships abroad, particularly in Ukraine. Through the partnerships we assist Nigerian students to study abroad. We make admission seamless mostly for intending medical students.
Government is disinclined to funding pilgrimages, how do you ensure that despite the lean resources people will continue to attend Hajj?
We now do more for less. We have introduced packages that fit into people’s pocket. With the package, you have options of affordable travel pack that suit your lifestyle. It allows you to cut cost yet you will still have a pleasurable Hajj experience. Economic situation now is very hard. Things are no more the way it used to be. As operators we must think out of the box. We have reduced our profit margin to satisfy our customers. That makes things flexible for clients or intending pilgrims.
However, despite the situation in the country, people will meet up for Hajj because it is one of five pillars of Islam and anybody that has intension to attend Allah will provide for them.
We have to commend the chairman of National Hajj commission for taking the bull by the horns in facilitating Hajj operation at this time. Previously Nigerians are the last to get to the holy land due to late preparation. But this year, necessary arrangement has been made and operators can plan early enough.
For all these to work well, intending pilgrims would have to indicate interest early so that the process can be completed in time in terms of accommodation, ticketing etc. Making necessary preparations early would help to cut down cost.
What would you recommend that the Nigerian airlines that operate international routes should do in order to grow and attract more travellers to the destinations they operate?
Well, looking at the Nigerian carriers today, if government invests in them they will grow; just as I said earlier that government have to put more investment or focus on aviation sector more than what they are doing now and that will make the aviation industry grow. Another way is to seek for foreign investors that will partner with them through interline. By doing that, the Nigeria carriers will have more destinations to cover.