President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies, Mrs. Susan Akporiaye, in this interview, says the COVID-19 vaccine will be instrumental to the rebound of the global air travel market. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
What is your projection for this year and how is COVID-19 going to affect the air travel?
My projection, even though personality, I love to be positive, but looking at the indices of what is going on. Actually, we are still very much in the pandemic and nothing is going to happen. The second wave has started and we are hearing it is bringing about lockdowns in some countries; even though not total lockdown. In fact, I don’t see any country going into a total lockdown again. I mean, no country can survive a 100 per cent lockdown like they did before. This is because they know how much their economy suffered during the first lockdown.
You know, when the second variant of the virus was discovered, a lot of people started calling on the government to shut down our borders; that they should not allow it to enter the country. And when I heard about it, I was like, this people don’t realize what they’re saying. The government will not do a total shut down because they know what they suffered, especially our own government.
Maybe governments in some developed world could do because their citizens won’t mind a shutdown. They were well taken care of during the first shutdown, they were paying them on a monthly basis, so the citizens won’t mind.
But the government can’t afford it a second time, because they know what happened to them the first time.
This pandemic has made almost all governments of the world to go into serious debt. Our own cannot do as much as the developed worlds are doing. So the only thing is what the government is doing presently, and governments of other worlds are doing, nobody is doing a total shut down. They’re just re-evaluating, and introducing measures, more restrictions and control measures to make sure it’s been managed properly now unlike before. Now, for us in the industry, it is still going to be tough days ahead unfortunately, as much as I want to, it’s going be very tough days ahead of us.
Emirates Airlines was banned by the federal government for introducing Rapid Antigen Test (RDT) for passengers, who must undergo the test four hours before their flights, without recourse to government, only to lift the ban within 24 hours when Emirates suspended the test, but the airline has cancelled its outbound flight since then. What is your response to government’s action?
Oh, yes I support government’s action totally, I actually regret why they even unbanned them. If it were I, I wouldn’t have lifted that suspension. They were placed on suspension and I’m sure a lot of discussions had taken place between the two countries before the suspension was lifted. Now, the suspension has been lifted but they still refused to carry Nigerians to Dubai.
Now, it’s like telling Nigeria that they have the last laugh, because our suspension was giving us the upper hand. We are having the last laugh. But they came and said, okay, they were suspending the antigen test because that’s what our government wanted. Our government was not really against their regulation; they are saying that if you are introducing a regulation that will need us to put infrastructures in place, you need to give us time to do that. And they agreed that it was okay. They will give the Nigerian government time to put facilities in place so they will suspend the test for now. Then that made our government to lift the suspension. And our government lifted the suspension and they still refused to carry Nigerians till today.
They sent emails out there to all of us; they said until further notice, all their flights are canceled. And I’m like; you see I wish our government had backed down, because now they are having the last laugh. So it’s like they wanted to make sure that they were in charge of their decisions. And I see it as a mockery. You got us to lift the suspension, we lifted the suspension, and you still refused to carry Nigerians. That’s just mocking us.
You spoke earlier that travel has not been fully restored. I want you to explain the rigour of COVID-19 tests and the traffic figures; how it is going to be affected because of these tests?
The rigour of the test is actually slowing down travel. People are just traveling now out of necessity. This is because it’s not pleasant. You first of all, do the 72 hours tests in Nigeria, before you go anywhere. Depending on the rule of the country you are going to, on arrival, you do another test. Then when you finish, when you’re coming, you will do a test before coming to Nigeria. So, you do a minimum of four tests basically, while some people might even be five tests or a minimum of four tests. And we all know each of those tests in Nigeria is about N50, 000. Over there, there are different rates, but it ranges within N50, 000 if you convert it, it comes to the same thing. So, somebody is already spending N200, 000 for COVID-19 test alone, not to talk of the tickets price. So, you see why I said it has to be a necessity before you travel because buying your ticket is not enough.
You must make sure you have another N200, 000 to do all the various tests. Apart from the cost of the tests, the discomfort of the test, like I said, going through the hassle of getting the specimen is not funny and like I reported before, a client of mine started having bleeding in the nose after she finished the four rounds of tests. And she was like; she’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. So, she said if she were not taking her daughter to school for the first time, she wouldn’t have done that. And that she would not do it again, that she’s not traveling again, she doesn’t even want to hear traveling. And there are many more like that. So, vaccine is still the way for recovery in the industry.
You trained as a medical practitioner, although you are in travel business. Now, you talk about Nigeria having her own vaccine, do you think it will be accepted?
Because of international bureaucracy, I understand that. Once we are able to come up with our vaccine, and it’s been tested and retested, and confirmed, we’ll present it to World Health Organisation (WHO). They also have to evaluate it for it to be internationally accepted. But you know, it is not only for travels that we need to produce our own vaccine. If we produce our vaccine it would save lives of Nigerians. So, pending when the WHO will do their analysis, when our vaccine comes out, they will do the normal analysis, if it passes their tests, then they will come out and recognise that the vaccine produced in Nigeria is accepted because we have tested it.
But pending when all that is done; if we have done our own vaccine, our medical doctors will have to now go and defend the vaccine with the WHO. But while they’re doing their international bureaucracy, whether they want to accept it, or they don’t want to accept it, but the primary reason for the vaccine is to save lives. If you ask me, I believe strongly that is the reason why the government is investing in it. This is because whether you travel or not people are dying on a daily basis. So, let’s save lives first, if we save lives, and our cases reduce drastically to zero, because of the vaccine, WHO, will have no choice, but to come and say what are you people doing that your cases have reduced?
Apparently that means that it is working. If it’s working, then that means it is good, send us samples and let’s evaluate. So, result speaks louder. So, that’s what we should be focused on first, even though I would prefer for it to be accepted almost immediately so that people can travel, because when people travel it is then I can make money. But we are also very concerned about the lives of Nigerians because it is those that are alive that can travel. So, our primary focus first of all; if our vaccine succeeds and it comes out, let us save the lives of Nigerians. Let’s use it, our cases reduce to the barest minimum until we become zero, then the world will come looking for us to ask us what we are doing.
Travel agents make money from outbound travel, and all these years, domestic tourism remains underdeveloped, there are so many reasons to attribute to it, it is even worse now because of insecurity. But when you look back, do you think more ought to have done to develop tourism in the country?
Oh, yes. I’ve always been a firm believer in domestic tourism, sincerely. When I came in, part of the activities we did during the lockdown, I told my members that we’re not going anywhere, we are all at home, at least let’s get busy. Let everybody do a short video, I called it the ‘tourism challenge’. Do a short video, introduce yourself, your company, where you’re from, and talk about the tourism opportunities in your states. We’ll do the video, we are archiving our live videos. Once you do it, send it to NANTA, and we will archive it in our library. And before you send it to us, you will post it on your social media handles, Facebook, Instagram and everywhere. We shall come in when you send it to us and NANTA will also blast it. So, everybody got busy and doing different videos of their states all because we’re trying to push domestic tourism out there.
The challenges of domestic tourism is numerous, it did not start now. But we’re doing our own bit; it is not all the tourist locations in Nigeria that are unsafe. I know insecurity is a big challenge but it’s not all of them. So, why don’t we just work with the ones that are safe for now; especially now that we cannot even travel out? But the truth is that travel agents are still the highest sellers of domestic tourism. Member of NANTA are still the highest sellers of domestic tourism. This is because our tourism is two pronged. What we travel agency do with our partners outside the country is, we do trade by barter, a lot of us. You want me to bring people; you too bring people to me. So, travel agents have been involved in domestic tourism a long time. Even with all the issues, we’ve been doing our own bit, it’s just that we make more money for the one that we do outside the country than the domestic because a lot of factors are involved.
Number one, our hotels are on the high side and it’s not their fault, it is infrastructure, no light, they have to run generator, all those things. So, the price of the hotel is high. Two, each time you have tourists; you have to have extra security that moves along with you, so that is cost. There are some other things you have to put in place. So, that puts our domestic tourism on the higher side. But over there, those challenges are not there. So, it’s usually a whole lot more cheaply, and if it is less pricy, it gives you opportunity to make more money than when it costs more. And you also make more money selling your local tourism to foreigners not to Nigerians.