Mr. Bankole Bernard is the Group Managing Director of Finchglow Group, a holding company for the country’s leading travel agency Finchglow Travels, Finchglow Holidays, Lagos Aviation Academy, FCM Travel Solutions, Nigeria; Prysm Investments, and Travelden Nigeria Limited having a carrier in the travel agency that has spanned over a decade and half. Bernard is the past-president of the National Association of the Nigerian Travel Agents (NANTA). Nigerianflightdeck sought this outspoken but realistically down to earth gentleman and interviewed him on issues from tomorrow’s (September 5th) international flight restart in Nigeria to how government can support the downstream sector of the aviation industry. It proved to be an interesting interview. Excerpts
What was your initial reaction as travel agents when government announced the restart of international travel and what did it mean for the downstream sector?AS one of the major travel agencies to be reckoned with in Nigeria in the downstream sector. I would say that it was a delightful one to hear that it has been proposed for us to open on the 29th which was later shifted to September 5. However, we as still delighted as there is light at the end of the tunnel as it were that we are not waiting indefinitely fives dime relief to the industry.
The economic impact is huge. The pandemic ravaged the entire aviation industry and then unfortunately for the industry it happens to be one of those industries that is completely linked together, completely. I mean without reservation totally linked. The fuelers will not function if the airline foes not work; the caterer will not work if the airline does it work, the airport will not work if the airline does not work, the cargo will not work what have you? Everything tangled together including government and the charges they give, everyone suffered.
The entire world lost over $300bn due to restriction of flights. Here in Nigeria, in the downstream sector. We sell about $1bn dollars annually, I doubt if we would be able to do 20% of that this year because if you understand our business very well it’s dynamic that we have high season and low seasons. We were just about moving into the high season which is mostly the second and third quarter of the year. So, if you look at the period we were shut down, we were shut down the period of our high season which is from March till September. So the remaining other two quarters will probably give us about 30-35% of what we’d have made because schools would ha resumed , parents would have been back to work and so in, but be as it may, we still want to see how to make it out of the remaining months of the year. We are working around the fact that Nigerians have cultivated the habit of travel so you see, the eagerness everyone is waiting to just leave the shores of the country just to go and greet loved ones and breathe fresh air aside the one we have in Nigeria. We’ve seen people show interest that they really want to travel out but for us to get where we were before the lock down, I’d say it would take us a couple of years.
Since the announcement of the restart what has the percentage of booking requests and inquiries been like?
Before now we had sort of disengaged our core operation staff from using the platform where we book tickets but at the beginning of this month we had to enable it because the truth is, tickets are fleeting items do which means we have to go booking for the actual flight. We’ve seen an upward review, emails coming in, inquiries in booking on the platform, we have seen an upward review and I can say that that’s how it is for other travel agencies in the downstream sector, because we would have to book first before passengers embark on the journey. I can say that we have seen about 10-15% booking rate, I’m sure that you the time the air space is opened on the fifth that percentage would grow to like 30-35% and it continues to be reviewed upwards. Some experts and analysts say it’s going to be an initial reaction because everybody is trying to leave at the same time, but that after sometime the booking will subside. I can say to you that Nigeria as a country, defies all odds. Every time, I think about talking about Nigeria economy, it defies all odds in the sense that it is difficult to see the type of reaction of Nigerians like you’d see everywhere around the world. If people are saying they are just going to book for an initial stage and it would reduce, I want to say I disagree with that view because Nigerians are different and they always do things different and they always spring up surprises, I think it’s just going to be an upward review till probably we get to where we were pre lock down.
Your projection is very optimistic but given the pandemic we face and the various protocols put in place won’t these measures cause some disenchantment?
Let me say at this point that when you look at aviation, the critical component of it is safety. Safety is the critical component of aviation that cannot be overlooked, we need to understand that we are at the forefront of this pandemic and since this COVID-19 originated from China, the rest of the world has come to live with the fact that it is an imported disease. And the only way it could have been imported to us is through air transport and that was why we were the first to be hit by compulsory closure, suspension of commercial flights and so on. But that is a natural reaction from any serious government. Close borders; restrict movement so that the pandemic can be tackled. However, we’ve done that and we’ve been able to put in a protocol that we believe should work.
This is my view: we have been on lock down for five months, there is no amount of hindrance that can be put in place now that can measure up to the lock down we’ve had for five months. So, if you tell people to stay five hours, some will be reluctant but eventually they will embrace it, and just like every restart, those measures will be put in place and as time goes on and with experiences it will be eased up on a gradual basis.
Remember when we opened domestic flights, the honorable minister announced that we had to get to the airport three hours before the flight, but by the time we commenced operations, it was reduced to one and a half hours, which means 50% of it was cancelled because reality we realized it does not make sense but it is necessary for us to put those measures in place. Protocols are things we all need to adhere to, we can’t push it aside. I am of the opinion that the amount of measures we have put in place for international flights is to guaranty the traveller’s safety and health while they embark on that journey to and fro, into Nigeria as a destination and that is a laudable one. So for me I’d rather not focus on the obstacle but rather focus on the fact that business gas resumed and as we make progress things will ease themselves out and normalcy will get back into the business as it were.
Now what is your reaction to the FG’s planned principle of reciprocity?
I would say Nigeria is a sovereign nation. I think it’s high time we started to command the respect we deserve from the international community. We should on no grounds be seen or be treated as underdogs. In case they’ve lost memory of whom we are of what our strengths are. We must command the respect of the international community. There is nothing wrong if they say Nigerians cannot come to their countries for whatever reasons or the other; the appropriate response is to reciprocate. Based on what they have done.
I can say to you that this will not last for a long time because Nigeria is a land of opportunities and they are aware of this and they also know that business thrives a whole lot in Nigeria, a land full of resources, a huge population and high consumption. Even the international carriers will appeal to their government to rescind this. Evade Nigeria serves as a feeder to other countries.
Maybe this will draw the government’s attention to our having a national carrier which we have been denied for a very long time because I can say to you a lot of international carriers make their way into the shores of Nigeria but we have little or none to take out as it were and in all of that we have really not complained but what we get in return are maltreatments and the likes.
Trust me, if the European Union decided Nigerians cannot come, it is not a problem. Dubai will welcome Nigerians Kenyans will welcome Nigerians South Africa will deal and we take our resources where we are welcome and it’s as simple as that but the challenge will now be, will they be able to get that market to what it was? You must understand world economics and every country in the world is trying to have a larger market share of Nigeria. So if American doors are closed, European doors are closed and Middle East is open we take businesses there so it’s not going to be our loss, it will be theirs loss because our monies will go elsewhere other than those destinations.
What is your take on the planned palliatives that are supposed to get to the industry and has the downstream sector been able to tap in?
Ah palliatives!!! That word comes up, I think the word is meant to remain in the dictionary as it were. Can you give what you don’t have? You can’t give what you don’t have. A lot of us work with this assumption that the government is rich. Have you been able to look into the books of the government to make sure they are rich to give out? I’m sure if you’ve been following the media you see the House denying us from borrowing more. If you have money will you be borrowing? Let us stop this idea of thinking the government is rich! The government is from hands to mouth. Because the western world is using the word palliatives we too are using the word palliatives.
I like to live in the real world, I don’t live in denial because if I wait for palliatives, I don’t know if it will come after this regime but I don’t see where it’s going to come from. Remember we just came out of recession, and coming out of recession, we are about going into another recession. So which money are we going to share? We expect the government to say ‘Yes’ we are planning for palliatives maybe they shared palliatives with you I am not aware of. There is this saying you cannot drive a woman crazy if you have nothing to drive. FAAN just came up to you that they are increasing passenger service charge that is long overdue, does that look like a government that has palliatives to give.
They have complained about not having work in the last five months, where is the palliative going to come from. I don’t like to live in denial; we have to tell ourselves the truth. There is no palliative coming from anywhere. We thank God for strength, we thank God for prudence in the private sector, so whatever resources we are left with we manage. The only thing we can appeal to the government is that through their means of regulation in the downstream sector, let there be some concessions in terms of interest rates charged by banks to aviation industry for a period, very important. We would not mind a reduced interest rate at this point in time to help us navigate our business in a better way, rather than pay huge interest rate let it be reduced but that there are going to be handouts coming from the government, well we are ready to wait till eternity.
What other ways can government aid he downstream sector?
We really need the presence of government in the downstream sector. It’s not only about establishing regulation in the downstream so we work in line with laid down rules in the constitution. I honestly think there are other ways government can give support.
Remember that we are employers of labour which means we provide employment to people in the industry, so in what way gas the government come to our aid to alleviate some of the sufferings we have gone through. There can be tax holidays there’s nothing wrong with it that is a fantastic way to give support, if tax holiday or tax reduction at this particular point in time is allowed, it would help us get back up our feet as quickly as possible.
So if some of the taxes and levels waged against our businesses can be suspended or put on hold for a while I’m sure it would add value to the bottom line and we wouldn’t have to experience laying off of staff, closure of business and what have you and at the end of the day laying off staff or closure of business does not add any value to the government in anyway and this is the only way we can feel the impact of government in our lives and our businesses.
If they give tax holidays it would go a long way that is why am consistently against palliatives that come as a handout. Palliatives can come in other ways and these are the ways I gave mentioned in a nutshell. Reduction of levies will help us as well.
Finally sir, how do we project and market our destinations in Nigeria instead of flying routes?
Well, I’d say first thing first, the government is not in the business of engaging tourism as it were. The work of the government is to regulate and formulate policies that support the travel and tourism sector that is their core function. So, me expecting government to do the business of Olumo Rock, Argungun Festival and others that is why those things have not really grown. The private sector drives tourism everywhere around the world, Disney land is a private company, Water parks around the world are privately owned and we send our families on vacation abroad to visit these places. So the question is why government will not create an enabling environment that will allow these things thrive here so someone saddled with the responsibility of selling and promoting Olumo Rock as destination will be able to price it and sell it appropriately. When you give such to political appointees in Ogun state what makes you think he is interested in Olumo Rock? People that find themselves in tourism, take it from me today, it is a result of interest and passion not because we are so crazy to make money, if it was about money we’d all go to the oil sector or engage in government contracts, but if you embark in tourism you are being driven by passion first and foremost because you are happy making other people happy by selling destinations, promoting core areas people can visit.
Do you know anytime we talk about destinations in Nigeria, there is this fallacy of insecurity that we all fine up with from time to time? Tourism challenges is not insecurity do not be deceived. Let there be accessibility to those places of attraction. If you get to Olumo Rock today you find out there’s no ‘wifi’ so if I get here I can use my phone to take shots and send it to everyone around the world and promote it. I won’t have amenities like food companies around the Rock that I can eat so I spend a lot of time there. I wouldn’t have public toilet that is clean that can be used by everyone and you expect tourists to visit a place like that, common these are the things that are necessary for any tourist attraction to endear people to it.
People go to France they want to see the Eiffel Tower, when you get there you get free wifi, there’s public toilets you see people selling ice creams, see those selling good; those people are making money just because Eiffel Tower is there and it is adding value to their economy. What have we done with our own? Rather we put it in the hands of the government and government is not in the business of running it, rather it is in the business of formulating policies, the day we change this things will be a lot better for us as a country. As a matter of fact, you will see more of Nigerians embracing domestic travel because the only reason we travel now in Nigeria is that we travel for business if you check the three major routes it is Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt and they created that triangle because Abuja is seat of power, where NNPC and CBN offices are. Lagos is the commercial hub where consumption is very high that they bring all the goods to, Port Harcourt is where all the oil is so that is why you have that triangle. Are you saying we don’t have any places apart from these three? Of course there are but what have we done? Look at Akwa Ibom gradually pushing that place to be a tourist destination. The ore a government promotes a destination the more people become endeared to that destination.