Wale Aregbesola is the chief Executive Officer, CEO, of Reliable Tours and Travels, based in Washington DC in the United States of America and Lagos, Nigeria. The University of Ife (Now Obafemi Awolowo University) graduate of Economics, in this interview with GBOYEGA ADEOYE, explained the harrowing operational atmosphere in the tour and travels industry as engendered by the lingering economic lull in the country and other related issues. Excerpts:
For a man doing business in America and in Nigeria, how would you describe the business operational environment of recent times?
To be honest with you, things have not been easy with the dwindling value of Nigerian currency. Businesses are going down and travelling volume has nose-dived tremendously. The only hope is that we are seeing a government that seems to be determined to right the many wrongs of the past. And if this is the prize we all have to pay to put the country back on track, I think it is worth it. I was told that George Washington, at a time, was caning people in his quest to get things right for the Americans. The Chinese also built their economy and that is why they are where they are today. Things are indeed difficult but I believe we have to build this country. It is unfortunate what is happening here in Nigeria. In America, both the Republican and Democrats are united in building the country. It is a different ball game here where people play politics with human lives. You talked about the fall in passengers travelling out of the country, what is responsible for the shortfall?
With the new forex regime of the incumbent government, we are seeing a situation where remitting fund by businesses doing international trade becoming so difficult. The government policy in this regard is not also friendly to people in this sector. The government made us to understand that this is a stop gap measure to curb the excesses of some government officials from laundering money as was the case in the past. But the toll of the policy is much on our business. Air fare has taken flight. It is beyond the reach of many. And as a result, a lot of Nigerians have shunned the habit of travelling. Many Nigerians students studying abroad are being withdrawn home by their parents as a result of the existing policies and this is a serious minus.
When you talk about your sector being negatively affected by the policy, what happens to the foreign airlines coming into Nigeria under this current economy?
Some foreign airlines are indeed cooperating with Nigeria despite the harrowing trade conditions. And if not for these few international airlines, the industry would have been on its knees by now. The Asian airlines like Emirates and Qatar and the American airlines, Delta andUnited, are consistent as they have not raised their fare. They are the ones there for the travelers as alternatives to the European airlines which are not in any way lenient with the Nigerian passengers.
In what way are the Europ ean airlines unfriendly as you claim?
Since the introduction of the policy, which is clearly to check fraud and instill some level of economic sanity, the British Airways and other European airlines, like Virgin Atlantic have introduced a fare regime that has been very unfriendly to the international travelers. As we speak, the British Airways has withdrew its large aircraft on the Nigerian route in exchange for a smaller aircraft where the classes like the first, business and the economy do not go with the earlier sweetners.To worsen the case is that the airfares of these European airlines are so outrageous to the extent that it is almost unaffordable. You can’t believe that a round ticket of British Airways from Lagos to London that used to be in the region of N252, 283 now goes for N835,033.
What could have been responsible for this?
The claim by the airlines is that they are finding it difficult to remit their fund. What they are saying is that since they could not remit through the Central Bank, they would not submit to transactions in the black market.But with the difference we are seeing, what they are charging is even above the price fixing at the black market? That is where the problem lies. To me, what we are seeing is a deliberate attempt to frustrate the present government by the airlines. It is so sad in the sense that this is coming from a region that actually colonised us. In my own little thinking, I expect Britain to be in the vanguard of mounting support for a government that came into the saddle with the aim of righting the wrong of the past, with the aim of putting the country back on track. It is an irony that the Arab airlines are even the one tolerating the situation while the European airlines are bent on sabotaging the government. Emirates fly twice in and out of Nigeria daily while Qatar is once. The good story is that after the Western airlines, these two airlines are the mostly flown.
How bad is the travelling sector for now; does it means people doesn’t fly as much again?
Not at all. It is only that the shortfall, at the moment is very significant. Nigerians love travelling and that is why you see the foreign airlines trooping into the country, more so, when Nigeria is not having a very virile airline that can compete favourably with these foreign ones. We have a complex culture. When the European airlines are making travelling difficult, our people have devised to opt for alternatives. As I speak, someone is wedding in Canada next Saturday (last Saturday) and we already have 15 people who have bought their tickets to attend that wedding.In other clime, you will say why not support the guy with their fare and stay back. But that is not the culture. They want to be there and witness the ceremony even if they will get there and won’t be able to afford a gift for the celebrant.
How have all of these impacted on your operations?
A situation where there is shortfall in power, there is acute fuel scarcity, is unpalatable. Life hasbeen very difficult and operations have been witnessing serious lull. As a result salaries cannot be paid as and when due. Even as the CEO, if you place yourself on salaries that mean you have to stop it for now because you are supposed to earn your salary last. It is when there are remains that you can be thinking of paying yourself. And remember we have families too. Workers come late to work as a result of the fuel situation and also get home late on closing. It is so pathetic that even to get fuel into the generators when there is no power is almost impossible now. So the offices these days are like grave yards. Nothing is working.
What do you think is the way forward to all of these?
The solution has to be multi faceted. Some people have proposed that we should be selling tickets in dollars. To me, this is not the solution. I think the solution is in the airlines streamlining their fare in tandem with the black market rate. If this can be done, it will be okay, rather than just making the whole situation unaffordable.
What is your take on the present government?
I support this government. I know the government meant well. Things are difficult all right but the government meant well and is walking its talk. We have to be praying for the government and support it. Once the government succeeds, the country will succeed and we shall all be better for it.