AHMED SANI is the group managing director of Amco Group. The group’s subsidiaries include Amco Travels and Tours Limited, which is headquartered in Abuja and handles travel and tourism for organisations and individuals. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, Sani discusses critical issues in Nigeria’s aviation sector as well as the need to harness the potentials in the travel and tourism sector to the rescue of Nigeria’ struggling economy.
What is your take on the recent increase in airfare by local airlines in Nigeria and the implications?
Nigeria is currently facing a lot of challenges. Insecurity is one of such issues. The state of the road network is also very bad. These make air travel a key option for travellers. To keep the economy running, movement of goods and people is very critical. The current increase in air tickets is therefore not a welcome development. I think that the airline companies are trying to take advantage of the country. Although, I am aware that the sector is facing challenges; every sector in the country is going through these issues. To increase the ticket cost by 100 per cent is high. I see no reason for that.
There is already a drastic reduction in the number of people who come for tickets. Previously people could travel from Lagos to Abuja and back with about N60, 000. That has gone up to about N140, 000. My friend was in Abuja last week and I wanted to buy him a ticket back to Lagos. He asked for the price and I said N70, 000, he begged me to give him the money instead. He boarded a night bus and paid less than N15, 000. These are options that people are resorting to. Previously people fly because the difference between the cost of air tickets and road travel is close, now that the gap is wide, people are avoiding travelling or going for alternatives. The economy is currently bad and people need to survive.
While the Federal Government had called for reversal of the increase in fare, I think airlines need to drop the plan because it is affecting aviation business. It does not make sense to board a few passengers. I am sure the airlines are weighing the options.
With the relaxation of Covid-19 rules in some countries; there are reasons for Nigeria to lessen the tight rules here. Nigerians love travelling and any attempt to relax the rule will revive economic activities
What’s your take on the new protocols in the sector, especially ongoing discussion on vaccine passports, Covid-19 test for travellers, including those vaccinated and the economic implications?
Countries have policies and travel protocols and it is difficult to change. The protocols around covid-19 need to however be relaxed. Vaccinated or not, you are subjected to a series of tests. Travelling from Nigeria, you will have to spend about N45,000 on tests. You will spend something above that in your country of destination and same way when you get back here. These make travel unnecessarily expensive and strenuous for a lot of people. The rate at which people travel has dropped drastically. People no longer travel as before and this is affecting travel business. With the relaxation of Covid-19 rules in some countries; there are reasons for Nigeria to lessen the tight rules here. Nigerians love travelling and any attempt to relax the rule will revive economic activities.
What destinations would you suggest Nigerians visit in the year 2022 considering countries that have opened up for travels?
I think Nigerians should be travelling to South Africa, Turkey, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and the US. I think a lot of people will turn up for Hajj. Hajj is cardinal in Islam so people must travel to Saudi for Hajj. I see a lot of this happening this year.
Since the diplomatic issue between Nigeria and Dubai, Egypt, Rwanda and other African countries have become alternate destinations for Nigerian travellers. Do you see this trend continuing even after the issue has been resolved?
Even before Covid-19 started, Nigerians travel more to other African countries than they do to other regions. So, I do not think it is correct to say that Nigerians travel more to other regions. There are a lot of Nigerians even in Ghana. People go to Egypt for medical tourism. A lot of Nigerians are also in South Africa. With the African continental free trade in place, we are definitely going to see more people finding their ways into African countries.
Most travel companies closed shop at the peak of Covid-19, how did your Amco Travel and Tours survive the situation?
The pandemic affected many businesses. We also closed part of business but the good thing is that we have not always relied on the tour and travel segment of Amco alone. Remember that AMCO is a group of companies. We’re into a lot of things, some of which are still standing despite the pandemic; like the real estate and the engineering aspect of the company.
The CBN earlier stated that they were going to stop giving foreign exchange to commercial banks, what implications do you think this will have on travel business?
The CBN may have to think carefully before taking this decision. I think that may worsen the disparity between naira and dollar. I advise them to stop that decision. That won’t stop the foreign exchange crisis. I think it’s been about four to six months that they’ve stopped giving the BDC dollars, but we’re not still getting it right, so what are they doing? I think we even buy dollars at a cheaper rate when it’s given to the BDCs. It has a lot of implications for the travels because a lot of people travelling today would go through the bank to get the Personal Travel Allowance (PTA) and Business Travel Allowance (BTA) but won’t get. They still have to go to the black market. I have a friend who had an emergency for a medical trip. She applied for BDC for two weeks and at the end of the day she couldn’t get it and had to leave without getting the BDC. So that policy of the CBN I don’t see it working. I think they have to sit down and think properly about it again so that they don’t fight a particular route while the other routes are still filled with fire.
What differentiates Amco Tour and Travels from other similar companies in Nigeria?
Amco is totally built on trust. Most customers don’t just patronize us, they do because of long standing trust, quality of service and the care policies we have. Clients can go to bed and trust us to deliver. Similarly, like I mentioned earlier, we believe in diversification and have a series of subsidiaries. We do not rely on the tour and travel segment alone. We have other sectors that we have ventured into and that is why I stated earlier that AMCO is a group of companies, when you get close to us, you’ll know more about us.
Can you tell us more about these other entities?
We’re into real estate; we’re equally into auto mobile. We have partnership with key auto companies and supply fleets at competitive prices. Our engineering subsidiary is equally meeting the needs of a lot of clients in the most reliable manner.
The travel and tour industry is one that is not really regulated, as unprofessional agents flood the business. What policies do you think should be put in place to reduce unprofessionalism in this downstream sector?
It is not correct to say that the travel industry is not regulated. I think it is one of the most regulated. We have our international body, which is the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Locally, we have NANTA. Whether you like it or not, the travel and tour business is fully regulated. There is no sector you go today that you won’t find freelancers and intruders. There are roadside mechanics and people who know the worth of their cars and the associated challenges won’t dare to patronize them. In my office, you will find IATA and NANTA certifications. We are duly licensed by the government, relevant agencies and associations. We have about three regulators that regulate the travelling business: IATA NANTA and Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). That doesn’t mean you can’t get the unprofessional people amongst us. You’ll find out that some of our staff who have worked with us after about a year or two leave suddenly and set up. It is good for people to aim high but a lot of them become a problem in the sector. They become roadside travel agents and defraud people. The problem is not just them but the people who patronize them. If you go to some of the corporate bodies today like NNPC, MTN and others, they won’t patronize you unless you are proven to be real and duly licensed. Some Nigerians, who don’t have the time or want to pay for cheap services end up with these unprofessional only to be defrauded and come back to say the sector is not regulated. People need to do better by going through the right process and place. For you to give someone N2 million, you need to know where he’s operating from, his office and so on.
Are there challenges in the sector that need to be corrected?
There are a lot of challenges. There is no sector in Nigeria without challenges. But I think the lack of a minister of tourism is the most compelling right now. There is a need for a minister of tourism. That will change a lot of things and enable Nigeria to earn from tourism like Kenya and South Africa. These countries have tourism ministers. I can tell you that Nigeria can earn more from tourism than what we are earning from oil and gas. At a time when the future of oil is already bleak, tourism should be to the rescue. We need to have a minister of travel and tourism separate from the Minister of Aviation or transportation. The difference is that the minister of Aviation doesn’t do anything that has to do with tourism in Nigeria so also the minister of transport. For us to get it right, we need a minister of tourism and travel that is from within the industry. Rather than a politician, we need someone who understands the sector and has been practicing.