Tourism Consultant and Vice President (South East), Federation of Tourism Association of Nigeria, Ngozi Ngoka, in this interview, says tourism is the worst hit sector by COVID-19 pandemic due to the nature of its business. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
What impact do you think COVID-19 will have on the tourism industry in Nigeria?
The tourism industry was the first and has been the worst hit so far. This is mostly because the industry is primarily involved in the provision of accommodation, transportation, entertainment, food and other services to individuals who move from place to place for business and pleasure.
The very first step taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was to restrict movement, gathering of people and eventual closure of borders between states. These are all tourism activities that have been basically put to a halt. Airlines, accommodation facilities, ground transportation, event centers, restaurants, beaches, nightclubs, museums, game parks/reserves and all tourism facilities are currently in limbo and even when restrictions are lifted, it will be a long and gradual process for tourists to have the confidence to move around or congregate freely. In fact, it is estimated that travel will decrease by 30-40 per cent after the pandemic restrictions are removed. Consider the fact that the National Bureau of statistics puts tourism industry’s contribution to Nigeria’s employment creation at 20 per cent and its contribution to the GDP at 34
per cent, then you will begin to understand the huge social and economic losses from the tourism sector alone.
What is your projection of outbound tourism post-COVID-19?
Things will not be the same for sure because what has happened is that we have all discovered new ways of doing things. We now have more people signing on to zoom meetings, online fitness classes and paying to watch 3D enactments of their favorite destinations. I do not imagine that many people will be willing to travel for business when they can have zoom meetings or place orders for and receive their goods via mail- at least until a vaccine for COVID-19 is found. Business outbound travellers will explore other options before deciding to travel. Those who must travel may be limited by the internal and global travel bans and other restrictions imposed by many countries. These restrictions, I expect will stay in one form or another until last quarter of 2021 or until a vaccine is found. On another level, quite a few airlines have closed shop and more will declare bankruptcy before the pandemic is over so outbound travel may be reduced by as much as 70-90 per cent also bearing in mind that the cost of travel will increase exponentially due to other indices like expected increase in cost of fuel, fewer passengers, insurance and so on. What will stand the test of time, I expect, will be leisure travel. Nothing can ever take the place of being physically present to something or a destination. Leisure travel will pick up faster probably by the third quarter of 2021. It is worth noting that none of our clients that booked River Cruises for 2021 has called to cancel. Leisure travelers are adventurous. They will take all precautions but they will still travel.
Many believe that even if passenger traffic returns, it will take longer time for tourism to bounce back. Do you agree with that?
Yes, it does make sense to postulate that it will take a while before airlines start to operate at full capacity. Travel will increase depending on people’s perception of safety. But you know that in times of crisis, people feel safe in environments they are familiar with-a place that gives them comfort. So those that get the urge to travel may choose to explore their immediate vicinity before attempting to further climes. Some local tourism products may experience a boom once the restrictions are lifted because people are tired of staying home. Restaurants, event centers, hotels, nightclubs, should use this period to prepare their facilities for post quarantine boom.
But how can the tourism industry recover after the global lockdown?
The virus, and its spread, has had a massive impact on travel demand—the likelihood of taking a trip in the next six months has declined by about 90 per cent and airlines, cruise liners and accommodation facilities are also closed so there are no tourism products to sell at this time and this situation is not likely to change soon. But looking forward, I think people may be persuaded to travel to destinations they perceive as comfortable and safe. Therefore, I think a lot of people would prefer to travel domestically when they begin to get the travel bug again. I hope that state governments that have included tourism in the economic planning consider this in their post COVID-19 recovery plans and make concerted efforts to boost the state tourism industry. The Nigerian government, through its ministry of information should also champion a campaign to encourage our citizens to travel within Nigeria. Of course, the security situation would have to be tackled and our elected representatives and leaders would have to live by example. I encourage travel agents and tour operators to start looking at forging relationships with other businesses in the tourism chain to produce inclusive made in Nigeria tourism packages for the Nigerian market. This is a good time to develop strategies to tap into the various opportunities for home grown tourism. Nigerians are very well informed and sophisticated tourists. If we can attract Nigerians, we can attract the rest of the world. A few years ago, I went round the country, training travel agents on tour packaging and how to sell travel ancillary services, rather than just tickets. This is the time to pull into those resources.
Do you agree that the travel sector deserves a bailout from government?
Truth be told, the whole tourism industry should be first on the bail out list. As I said earlier, the Industry is totally crippled by this lock down and all the employers and employees are not only out of work, they are not even sure of having jobs when the lockdown is over
What kind of bailout would you expect?
I am aware that the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN), which is the umbrella body of all tourism associations in Nigeria, through the national President, is making a comprehensive presentation to the Nigerian government. But as far as I can tell, the government, despite the huge negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Nigerian economy, has not set up an impact assessment team to monitor the damage to the tourism industry in Nigeria. FTAN, representing the private sector, has gone ahead to collate useful data in this regard and would like to be included in the process. Among other things, we are asking for monetary and fiscal measures like tax reliefs, interest free loans, tax holidays and loan moratorium. We would also like the government to provide for a N95 billion intervention fund and financial grants to support some struggling micro-scale tourism and hospitality businesses.
It is said that the virus would reset the world and its economy, how can the tourism sector look inwards to revamp itself?
If we go by what is unfolding daily, you will find that the first set of travellers we will lose will likely be business travellers (both local and inbound) who are already using technology to hold virtual meetings, sign documents and network. So, in the interim, until a vaccine is found and people start getting comfortable about venturing away from their comfort zone, my advice is that tourism providers should focus on the leisure domestic market.
Tourism suppliers should also explore the idea of slashing the cost of their products in order to entice and attract customers. This will be possible if the government agrees to the bailout measures that FTAN is proposing and will keep the industry active. The tourism industry needs to remain active for socio-economic reasons. The Italian government for example is offering to pay part of the cost of flying tourists to their country in order to sustain the tourism industry, which contributes to a large part of their GDP. Also recall that after 9/11, people were encouraged to travel after airlines, helped by their home governments, began to offer very low fares to the public. People that didn’t even have any plans to travel were incentivised to do so and gradually, tourists started to gain confidence. In the long run, the government should get more involved in tourism and plan for the future. When all else fails, tourism survives in one form or the other. We cannot continue to rely on oil and agriculture. Tourism is the new oil. To attract inbound tourism, health and safety measures have to be put in place and should align with WHO and other international standards. Some tourism segments will recover faster than others. The airline industry may take a little longer because they need to put social distancing measures in place to gain customer confidence. Road travel will become popular again in the short term. Group travel, cruises and destination events and conferences will also be badly hit at first.
How can state and federal government use this opportunity offered by COVID-19 to develop the sector?
Government should use this opportunity to encourage and support the establishment of specialised tourism financial institutions particularly a tourism micro finance bank, funded by a tourism development endowment fund. We shall get through this if government taps into long term tourism planning and investment and include core tourism professionals in the economic planning for states and federal government. We should use this opportunity to develop tourism policies at the national and state levels in order to provide a framework for tourism development and management in the country. In doing this, government should constantly engage the different tourism stakeholders and in economic planning, recognise the linkages between infrastructure, environment, sports, culture, transport and tourism. There is a complex interaction between these sectors that when fully utilised, provides for a clearer and more productive tourism environment.
What specific tourism sites and destinations in Nigeria do you think can attract international tourists and what should government do for this to happen?
I do not necessarily think that we need sites to attract international tourists but we do have so many attractions that could be harnessed depending on the market we want to attract. There are different types of tourists and there are many destinations all over the world competing for the same international tourists. All destinations in West Africa have beaches, forests, and wildlife that are better preserved than we currently have. In order to break out, we have to identify and develop on our strengths and uniqueness, using what we already have. What do we have that other destinations in West Africa do not? We could use our movie, music/entertainment and fashion segments to attract international tourists by constantly planning themed events and shows.
We lure them with things they cannot get elsewhere. When they arrive, we then introduce them to our food, our cultural and historical sites. The truth is that we have many tourism initiatives in Nigeria, most of which have evolved without any planning. We do not have a coordinated and consistent approach to positioning and promoting Nigeria as a destination. If we did, you will not be asking this question as all our options would have been harnessed by now.