The Tourism Option for Post COVID-19 Boom

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that the federal and various state governments that are worried by how to get their economies back on track after the COVID-19 era should be interested in the robust propositions that are tied to growth of domestic tourism propounded by Mr. Folorunsho Coker, Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation

Response to COVID-19 by the various governments of countries around the world have been largely disastrous. The common excuse is that the disease is novel and even the advanced countries of the world had their period of groping in the dark, before they found a handle to walk through the recovery process. As acknowledged by President Muhammadu Buhari in his April 27, 2020 nationwide broadcast leaders around the world are faced with the same difficult decisions, “on how to balance the need to protect health while also preserving livelihoods.”

The painful reality painted by President Buhari is that the lockdown of the nation comes at a very heavy economic cost. Many citizens have lost their means of livelihood, while businesses have shut down. Therefore, walking a middle course between those who wished for continuation of a complete lockdown and others advocating the lifting of restrictions, Buhari opted to follow “strictly with aggressive reinforcement of testing and contact tracing measures while allowing the restoration of some economic and business activities in certain sectors.”

But in which sectors will “some economic and business activities” be restored? This is where the Director General of the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), Mr. Folorunsho Coker strongly wishes to draw attention to those whose income were tied to services that have been put under lock and key. For this category the lockdown is a horrific economic nightmare they wish to wake up from. A lot of people may not reckon with the financial dividends that come from concerts, hotels, night clubs, drinking joints, art shops, culture hubs, book shops, hair salons, tailoring services, transportation and laundry services to mention a few.

So, Coker, who runs the Nigeria government’s tourism promotion agency with an acronym that sounds like another parastatal that is everybody’s lips these days-NCDC-the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control is concerned that the country should take some hard lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thinking of the likelihood of a future occurrence, he cautioned that Nigeria needs to map her “vulnerability by exposure to disease in an increasingly global community, acknowledge the efficiencies and capacity of her institutions, especially the health systems in time and space whilst being aware that her people reside in dense urban settings with high populations in cities or in displaced camps.”
The multi-sectoral nature of tourism demands that Coker looks closely at what is being done by the Federal Ministry of Health and the NCDC. His conclusion is that they have done a great job combating the pandemic thus far and in the circumstances. “Without their professionalism the virus would have been more widespread across Nigeria than it presently is. The foresightedness, preparedness and strategic planning of the NCDC team should be commended. They had prepared a tracking template (arrival card) to be filled by all passengers arriving from foreign countries way before the first case in Nigeria was identified. They are active and interactive on different social media platforms and they continue to inform the public on a daily basis on measures to take to stay safe, the numbers of the infected across the country, as well as diligently tracking possible contacts of COVID-19 patients across the country. Our capacity to fight the pandemic could be improved if all citizens recognize the need to be responsible and follow the guidelines and protocols provided by the Federal Ministry of Health and the NCDC.”

Coker superintends a very expansive industry with many sub-sectors, accommodating scores of professionals and millions of workers, which is the reason he was hesitant to volunteer opinions without the privilege of a studious response, when this reporter approached him.

To Coker, the tourism industry should always anticipate the worst because it has “this silent ugly component of disease transfer seen before with Ebola crisis, “but he agreed no one was prepared for this novel Coronavirus pandemic, which has caused a global shock.

For the country to get along during this pandemic, Coker outlines what needs to be done: The transparency of govt institutions, fact checking of a free non-sensational press, civil obedience and separation of operations from command and control is essential for clarity and calming unease during this period.

COVID-19 pandemic has definitely hit the travel and tourism hard, but as the common song goes, ‘it is not a death sentence,’ even for corporates. In the estimation of the Chief Promoter of Nigerian Tourism, the pandemic offers a rare opportunity for reflection and recalibration to properly develop travel and tourism as it is uniquely equipped to be part of global recovery efforts going beyond tourism.

“As a country and part of a global community, we should consider adopting and domesticating the protocols and recommendations put forward by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Global Tourism Crisis Committee which has been busy looking into solutions for recovery since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a global pandemic. All the measures recommended to member states are tailored towards managing the crisis and mitigating its impacts, providing stimulus and accelerating recovery for the industry whilst also planning for tomorrow. As a nation, we need to consider and deploy innovative recovery solutions that are home grown and practical, tailor made for our specific environment and people and are in three possible policy thrusts: Healing for the People, Healing for Prosperity and Healing for Destinations. Health, Employment and Environment.

Stemming from the above, possible steps on the path to recovery for the sector in Nigeria may include but not limited to: a) Provision of liquidity instruments for restarting tourism businesses with a maximum single digit interest on loans with repayment suspended till the end of year 2020 or when business improves post the pandemic. b) A reduction in the current Value-Added-Tax regime of 7.5% for as long as it takes for consumer spending to increase. c) A halt on the payment of loan instalments for the whole of 2020 with a possible year’s extension on repayment for all travel and tourism related business loans. d) Provision of special incentives by government to the Tourism, Aviation, Hospitality and Entertainment industries to enhance recovery. e) Possible suspension of the income tax payment regime for 2020 by all travel and tourism related businesses. f) A targeted promotional campaign programme through the cooperation of all MDAs and tourism stakeholders to promote Nigeria as a destination and encourage Nigerians to Tour Nigeria. g) Cooperation with other regional governments in West Africa for a recovery plan as tourism and transport will not thrive without common ECOWAS protocols for health control as regards travel. h) ECOWAS and The African Union could do with a Marshall Plan style similar to that provided after the Second World War.

As multilateral banks (e.g. AFDB, IMF, World Bank, International Finance Corporation) are granting funds to national governments to help and support micro and small enterprises, there is need for governments to include investment funds for tourism which represents a priority sector for global economic recovery.

Tourism stakeholders are encouraged to ensure that they are part of the discussions which are held on both state and national levels in order for the tourism sector to be considered and added as a beneficiary in the relief packages that are being proposed to help support and mitigate the effects of this pandemic.”

In the meantime, the NTDC realizes that any proposed strategic path for recovery envisaged for the industry must leverage on innovative and disruptive tech ideas to enhance and promote domestic tourism after the pandemic. Coker is convinced that “The Soft Power of Nigeria and our digital penetration supported incentives/financial support packages can truly make a difference.”

His frequent theme even before the pandemic set in was tied to domestic tourism. It is not different now. And it will not be post-COVID-19. To Coker, “Domestic tourism is cheapest, with lesser restrictions, educates the citizens on the country, generates employment, generates revenue, reduces rural-urban migration and poverty, enhances the creative sector, galvanizes economic growth across sectors including agriculture and manufacturing, and contributes to infrastructure upgrade by encouraging governments commitment to its development.”

This is where he sees opportunities that others may not be looking at. “The virus,” he says, has already remapped our life as we knew it and may never return back to the old normal again.

“Businesses that relied on the convergence of people in defined spaces for recreational, entertainment, or other reasons are the worst hit by the pandemic in view of the need for social distancing to reduce its spread (air travel, theaters, events/festivals, cinemas, sporting events, religious gatherings etc. have all been negatively impacted). Will we ever forget the harm of a sneeze or a handshake?”

In order not to sound like a prophet of doom, Coker left open a window of opportunity. “Going back to normal for the travel, tourism and hospitality industry is possible but will not be easy. Policies such as limited gatherings, travel restrictions, hygiene requirements and the protection of vulnerable groups will lead to behavioural changes in consumers. Gradual shifts with disruptive technologies that are gaining ground (like the use of robotics and artificial intelligence) will be accelerated to become the new normal of zero to minimal human contact in transactions.

The outlook painted by Coker is not all bleak, it may fade out some jobs and professions, but other sectors will experience a boom and those that are quick to adapt to new modes of delivering on their services will hold sway.

“Until a cure is found or a vaccine becomes available and acceptable globally, innovative technologies and its digital adoption will be accelerated to ensure that our normal day-to-day activities continue. Within the space of a month the dynamics of many business have shifted from physical to virtual/digital. Though not a new phenomenon, the reality is that we are beginning to see the rise in the use of digital platforms for official video conferencing for work at home purposes, for business or recreation as governments, people and businesses try to survive the lockdown. Auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christy’s and Bonhams, as well as Art galleries like TAFETA gallery are deploying digital tools to carry on with business. Delivery businesses are booming as people are forced to accept goods by this mode but ultimately questioning the need to go to the sellers. Digital platforms are also been employed for educational purposes to aid the learning of out of school children as well as for retraining and re-skilling of adults that are adapting to the observed economic and geopolitical changes that might require a change of jobs or a switch to an entrepreneurial side business to bolster the family budget.”

Coker’s thoughts cover the entire gamut of the hospitality, travel, tourism and entertainment trade, loosely known as the creative industry. He foresees a future when “musicians and artists perform for a digital audience from their homes and studios rather than from a shared physical stage. Fashion shows are now online while pay per view will continue to grow exponentially. These changes have come to stay thus confirming a behavioral shift, and our adoption of digital and technological tools for day to day living as we adapt to the lifestyle changes occasioned by Covid-19.

“As diseases can now travel with ease, from the most affluent parts of the Far Eastern and Western Hemispheres to the poorest villages in Africa and Asia, with the speed of the Internet and on the back of economic routes, in a manner highlighting our interconnectedness and shared vulnerability, we need to urgently perfect a sturdy system of preparedness; a robust system of healthcare and health management, embedded in a strong capacity for response to and containment of epidemics and pandemics.

“This will be a system that has a vigorous early warning and response component that can predict and respond to swiftly isolate and inhibit the outbreaks of local and global infections, while neutralizing disease vectors. When this system is fully attained and comes into maturity to serve as a secure buffer against the fears of health challenges or crises, either as epidemics or pandemics, the expediencies of having to shut down national borders in times of global health emergencies would no longer be as urgent.

Tourism’s economic and social footprint is greater than that of any other economic sector. The pandemic is already creating changes on many fronts and the possibilities for innovative solutions or consolidation of services abound. They will however be determined by the reactions of business executives to different factors that might include; new regulations arising due to changing socio-economic/political realities, limited access to capital, supply chain disruptions, human behaviour, geopolitics (that may lead to protectionism, xenophobia or conflicts) and adoption or deployment of tech tools like for efficiency and effectiveness of business operations.

Travel and tourism, a labour-intensive industry, is most impacted in the economy. This will particularly affect the most vulnerable groups of the population such as women, youth, children and the rural communities especially in countries that depend exclusively on tourism.

If suitable strategies are deployed, tourism can emerge from this current crisis as an even more important contributor to the 2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, “supporting livelihoods and creating opportunities for millions of people around the world and leaving nobody behind.”

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This is where he sees opportunities that others may not be looking at. The virus, he says, has already remapped our life as we knew it and may never return back to the old normal again.

Businesses that relied on the convergence of people in defined spaces for recreational, entertainment, or other reasons are the worst hit by the pandemic in view of the need for social distancing to reduce its spread (air travel, theaters, events/festivals, cinemas, sporting events, religious gatherings etc. have all been negatively impacted). Will we ever forget the harm of a sneeze or a handshake? In order not to sound like a prophet of doom, Coker left open a window of opportunity. Going back to normal for the travel, tourism and hospitality industry is possible but will not be easy