The Chief Executive Officer of Shenbee Travels Limited, Mr. Wole Shenbanjo, in this interview says COVID-19 might discourage Nigerians from outbound tourism and would promote the domestic tourism industry. Chinedu Eze provides the excerpts:
According to the New York Times, the idea of travelling to another country or state is becoming difficult owing to the ravaging pandemic. What do government and relevant agencies in Nigeria need to do to reopen the economy fully with focus on travel and tourism, a sector that contributes about 34 per cent to the GDP, and generates 20 per cent of employment?
The ever evolving and unprecedented COVID-19 situation has brought about extreme challenges for the travel and tourism industry. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), they warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could cut about 50 million jobs worldwide. There are calls for temporary state aid for the sector and more long-term measures like simplification of visa rules to encourage travel and attract tourists in the aftermath of the crisis. Governments all over the world have commenced gradual easing of the lockdown and have started rolling out guidelines to reopen their economies. The federal government through the Presidential Task Force has been working with state governors on how best to manage this pandemic and begin to reopen the economy. Our airports are being fumigated; airlines have started communicating resumption timetables. Domestic flights have been given certain criteria to fulfill so as to commence flights from the 21st of this month – June. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has given checklist to airlines, which they must meet before they are approved to fly. What is important is how to protect passengers from contracting COVID-19 while boarding and while on-board the aircraft. The Lagos state governor has set up a committee to advise on reactivating the tourism, arts and culture sector of the state. In the coming days, we will begin to get more clarity on what is to be expected going forward.
Generally, what do you think should to be done to boost tourists’ confidence in the face of the present challenge?
Information is everything. Tourists need to be properly carried along on the steps being taken to open up various economies of interest; the safety measures being put in place by each country. Humans are created to interact and socialize and not for isolation. Tourists are ever willing to travel, they just need to be assured that safety measures are going to be put in place across the entire travel value chain right from their airports of origin to their destinations and back home. This also presents an opportunity for the use of virtual reality (VR) to ramp up once the travel restrictions have been eased and consumers have confidence in traveling again. This a unique medium—which can make users offer a try-before-you-buy experience which will give people a thirst for travel again leading to more holidays being booked.
Since international flights carrying leisure travelers remain on hold, some countries are considering internal tourism. As CEO of a travel and tour agencies, with affiliations in Europe, Africa, North America and Asia, how well can Nigeria tap that aspect of tourism?
I always say to people that there is a huge potential for domestic tourism in Nigeria. The government has a huge role in terms of policies, regulation and support. The Ministry of culture needs to live up to expectations as to why they are set up. Nigeria is a great country with very warm people with loads of amazing attractions. And the beauty of it is that our indigenous travel and tour companies have the capacity to create beautiful tour packages but the government needs to fix certain things for inbound tourism to thrive.
Specifically, in terms of safety, cost and improved experience, what is your agency doing to ensure clients make a quick return to tourism and flying at the same time?
For us as an agency, we have maintained close communication with our diverse clientele. We constantly offer updates on all destinations as we receive them; we share news from airlines on their scheduled resumption timelines and safety guidelines. From the feedback we have been receiving, once safety concerns have been sorted, flying will resume in earnest.
Countries with close proximity are moving into alliance to aid travel and tour in a new effort or initiative called the ‘Trans Tasman Bubble’. For instance, Australia and New Zealand are looking at that area. Do you think Nigeria and some notable African countries with attractive landscape and tight safety measures can strike this kind of alliance to slowly ease your sector back to business?
Most definitely. Collaboration is the future. I mean, it is the only way to go from here. Africa needs to become accessible to Africans. What the collaboration needs to address are things like cost. Flying or traveling generally within Africa is quite expensive, that is why Dubai remains one of the most visited destinations because when you do the cost comparative analysis, it becomes a better option. Once that is sorted, tourists will be able to move freely within Africa and experience the amazing destinations across the continent. Travel advisors can then create packages that will involve two to three countries and be able to sell competitively.
The issue of VR as an innovation for driving new experience for tourists was already on the table globally before the latest pandemic struck. Can you elaborate on this? And do you see it as an option considering current fear among leisure travellers?
Virtual Reality is a great innovation. It refers to interactive images or videos, which enable the viewer to explore the entire 360 degrees of a scene. Unlike a regular image of video, which is shot from a fixed viewpoint, VR production captures every part of a location.
In the travel industry, virtual reality can be used to capture tourism destinations in a unique and immersive way, users are able to interact within the experience. It is a welcome initiative particularly now—which can make users offer a try-before-you-buy experience giving people a thirst for travel again.
Elias Bj. Gislason, the director of the Icelandic Tourism Board, recently mentioned countries opening their borders to people from nations that have recorded huge success in containing the virus. If this approach to gradual easing of international travel eventually works, do you see Nigerians qualifying for acceptance?
Absolutely. From the numbers being released by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), it is clear that we have done well in terms of the numbers. Africa in general has fared good in terms of containment of the virus. We are optimistic that we would qualify for most entry requirements across destinations.
How did your company cope with the almost one and the half month of social and economic restriction?
We coped fairly well. For us as an organisation, our number one priority is the health and safety of our employees and customers, and with Lagos being the epicenter of the pandemic, we took all necessary precautions. We actually took the decision to shut down our office a week before the government gave the lockdown directives. We are a technology driven business, therefore it was really easy for us to adapt and stay in touch with ourselves and our customers.
Having devoted most of your time to traveling, attending seminars, going for business meetings here and there for years, how did you handle being around family throughout the period of the total lockdown?
It’s been an amazing time. I am naturally family-oriented and have always been present in the lives of my wife and kids so it wasn’t anything unusual. I guess more of the adjustment was having to infuse work into family time. Once I set up a routine, it was easy to adjust. But generally, working from home has been a good experience. I hope to do more of it even after the lockdown.
There is a push for innovation across all industries, and some businesses are pivoting to survive the harsh effect of the lockdown. What are you doing currently to put your business back on track?
Part of the takeaway or learning points from this pandemic has been for businesses to take steps back and look for ways to optimize their business processes. For us as a company, we have always maintained a lean structure so we just had to tweak a few of our processes to minimise manual interventions. We are players in the downstream sector of the aviation industry, once the airspaces and airlines commence operations, we would get back to business in no time.
What is your projection for the revamp of travel and tourism globally, locally, and immediate contribution to the nation’s GDP?
Tourism like I have said is one of the hardest hit by this COVID-19 outbreak. The sector has experienced a rapid and sharp drop in demand and a surge in job losses even at global level, putting many SMEs at risk. Despite tourism’s proven resilience in responses to other crisis, the depth and breadth of this current pandemic will likely have a longer lasting effect on international tourism compared to other industries, more likely to recover once major restrictions are lifted. This is also due to the potential long-term changes in behaviors with people likely to become more cautious about travelling overseas in the future.
In the global space, continuous efforts are ongoing in order to implement effective policy responses to preserve the sector and trigger international coordination.
While today it may be too early to assess or project the immediate impact of these efforts, it is paramount for policy makers to use this COVID-19 outbreak to improve crisis management strategies and strengthen international and domestic co-ordination mechanisms and mutual learning across regions and tourism sub-sectors to rethink a more sustainable and resilient tourism system and to respond united to any future shocks. Personally, I believe over the next 12-18 months, we should see a gradual improvement in our contribution to the country’s GDP.