The drop in the value of the naira forces many summer travellers to explore other alternatives, leaving local tourist resorts smiling all the way to the bank and airline operators suffocating writes Nonye Ben-Nwankwo and Eric Dumo
Chisom and Chioma Onubugu watched excitedly as children their ages walked in front of the compound carrying buckets of water on their heads. Born and raised in Magodo, a posh neighbourhood in the heart of Lagos, Nigeria’s main commercial city, the siblings had never come close to such sight. Attending one of the most expensive schools in the city and having no need to worry about domestic chores, the kids have a life splashed with comfort.
At the close of each academic session, they are flown to Europe or the United States of America to spend the summer holiday with relations. It is an annual ritual Chisom, nine, and Chioma, seven, had been used to almost all their young lives. But the soaring rate of the US dollar against the Nigerian naira has ensured that the children had to be dispatched to Ihiala, Anambra State, this time to spend the long break with their paternal grandmother. For the siblings, it has been a different kind of experience.
Mrs. Stella Onubugu, their mother, who is warming up to go bring them back to Lagos next week ahead of the new academic session in September, told Saturday PUNCH that the children found it quite difficult adapting to the village setting in the first one week of their arrival there.
According to her, if not for the high exchange rate, they would have been in Munich, Germany, by now, spending time with their relatives.
However, she concedes that the development had afforded the kids the opportunity of exploring their father’s hometown and see life from the other side.
“The first one week was very tough for them,” she said. “They couldn’t understand why there was always noise here and there and why they couldn’t have electricity supply all the time to watch television. That was not the only thing they worried about, they sometimes would scream and run for cover whenever they saw a goat or sheep running in front of the compound. It was a bit shocking to them.
“On one of those days I was still in the village with them before I came to Lagos, they saw children of different ages carrying buckets of water on their heads one morning and were amazed. They had only seen such in the television and not in real life because of the type of environment we live in Lagos. That day, I never rested from their barrage of questions.
“But after one week, they adjusted and became used to the village setting. Their grandmother told me a few days ago that they already have new friends and are beginning to enjoy the life over there. The disappointment of not going to Europe this holiday as a result of the high exchange rate has been a blessing for them. It has in fact availed them the opportunity to explore their native land,” she said.
Indeed, the traffic gridlock most holidaymakers usually experience at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, especially during the summer season has greatly reduced this year.
When our correspondent visited the airport during the week, it was observed that the check-in points were devoid of crowd as not so many people were travelling unlike before.
And to corroborate the story, a member of staff of Checkport, a security service company that deals with travel documentation at the international airport, told our correspondent that he never knew summer period could be this ‘sane’ as it is at the airport this period.
The member of staff, who didn’t want his name in print for personal reasons, said he and his colleagues usually dread summer time because of the high influx of travellers they would need to profile and check their documents.
“This is amazing. Now, I agree that the economy is bad and it affects even the rich in this country. Before now, people didn’t mind the high cost of living; nothing would stop them from going on summer holiday abroad.
“This is my seventh year in this company and this is the first time ever I see the number of summer travellers reduced by more than 70 per cent.
“I am not saying people no longer travel, no. People still travel. But I tell you, those who are travelling are those who are relocating, going for medical treatment or have something very important to do abroad. But for those going to have fun for just a few weeks of summer holiday, the number has decreased.
“Before now, you would see so many kids running around the airport and getting excited for the trip. But it wasn’t the same this year. It is obvious parents decided and wisely too, against such unnecessary expenditure. More so, we don’t even know how the pendulum would still swing in this country in the coming weeks,” he added.
A traveller, who identified himself as Greg, and who overheard when the Checkport staff was discussing with our correspondent, added that his family was a living example of people who shelved summer holiday because of drastic high cost of living.
“I tell you, I work in an oil company in Nigeria and I can tell you I am comfortable. But I think it would have been stupid to go to America just to have ‘fun’ and play in the sand, while coughing out a whopping ridiculous N3.5m for tickets alone for me and my family in the process, something that was less than N1.4m before now.
“I have yet to include the amount it would have cost us to get an apartment, rent a car, shop and of course, feed in the US. By the time we calculate the Naira equivalent with today’s foreign exchange rate, you would know it would be foolish for anybody to embark on such an expensive expenditure. It is not worth it at all.
“If not that I have an important meeting in London, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I was even surprised it was my 14-year-old son that advised us that we shouldn’t bother travelling this year because of the economy.”
Also, another member of a staff of the Quarantine department in the airport, who pleaded anonymity, confirmed that the number of summer travellers drastically reduced this year.
“I personally used to dread summer period in this airport. This is the period so many travellers travel with fish, meat and other foodstuff and you would get tired of checking and off loading and telling them you wouldn’t travel with this or that.
“But this year, this place has been kind of sane. The number reduced and I don’t need anybody to tell me it was because of the economy. How many people can actually afford the high cost of travelling abroad especially with this forex rate? This is the first time I see the economy affecting the poor, the middle class and even the elite,” he said.
Apart from the likes of Onubugu kids, Moyosore and Olamide Adelaja are another set of regular travellers to Europe and America during the summer holidays who have been forced to spend time in their native Ilisan, a sprawling town in Ogun State, as a result of the high exchange rate.
Raised under a relatively comfortable roof in their Ikeja GRA, Lagos, neighbourhood, their parents – Mr. Yemi and Mrs. Dupe Adelaja – a civil engineer and lawyer respectively, felt spending so much money on the children’s US trip this year would put some strain on the family’s resources especially at this time of economic meltdown and schools set to resume in the coming weeks.
Mr. Adelaja who spoke to Saturday PUNCH earlier in the week said he and his wife decided to use a fraction of the amount they would have spent sending the children to the US for summer holiday to take them to some resort centres in the South-Western part of Nigeria before moving them to Ilisan to also savour the tranquillity of village life.
“It was a tough decision for me and my wife to make,” he said. “But in the face of present realities it was perhaps the wisest thing we could have done. By the time we calculated how much the children’s summer trip to US would cost this year, we realised it wasn’t a sensible thing to do at this time especially with schools set to resume in September. Besides they’ve always travelled abroad for summer, so we felt if they missed the trip this year it won’t make much difference.
“Already we have taken them to Ikogosi Warm Spring Resort in Ekiti State; they really loved the place and had plenty of fun. Right now, they are at Ilisan with their grandparents and from the feedback I have been getting, they seem to be enjoying the place. It is the best we can do for them at this very difficult time,” he said.
Like the Adelajas and Onubugus, dozens of children and even adults who regularly travel to other continents of the world to spend summer holidays and family vacations have been forced to explore available alternatives across the country as a result of the high cost of purchasing the US dollar – the currency mostly used to transact business and purchase goods globally.
Pegged at around N190 to one US dollar before the Central Bank of Nigeria introduced a new fiscal policy last year, the disparity in exchange rate has risen steadily to about N390 to one US dollar today – more than double the previous amount. While many, unable or unwilling to splash out such cash now use the opportunity to spend time in their ancestral hometowns and connect with the local tradition, scores of others are putting a fraction of their holiday budget into visiting known tourists destinations in parts of the country.
According to findings by Saturday PUNCH, major holiday destinations in parts of the country have been recording slight increase in visits in recent weeks, pushing up income for operators of such places.
For example, at Ikogosi, a staff confirmed to one of our correspondents that business had been quite impressive over the last one month and that most of their visitors had been children and their parents who wanted a special holiday treat.
“We have been having a lot of visitors these days, especially children and their parents who are not too used to environment such as ours,” the official who asked not to be named, said. “Those ones who are a bit open tell us that they decided to try out the resort after they couldn’t take their children abroad this year for holiday. They say Ikogosi was recommended to them by some friends and that is why they had come here. Many of them have been impressed so far with what they have seen here,” the source further revealed.
At a popular resort located in Ada, Osun State, the situation has almost been the same. A worker who spoke to Saturday PUNCH revealed that the inability of many individuals and families to travel abroad for summer holidays has been a blessing in disguise for them as business was witnessing a sharp rise.
“People have been visiting the resort a lot these past few weeks. But a lot of them come with their little and teenage children, asking us what special package we have to make them really enjoy their stay especially the young ones.
“A few days ago I overheard one of our supervisors telling some of my colleagues to ensure that these guests are well attended to because most of them are used to the life and facilities abroad at this time of the year. He was saying this so that the guests could have a positive impression about the resort and always look forward to coming back. We are hoping that things will remain like this and even improve so that at least our jobs can be guaranteed,” the source said.
Destinations such as Olumo Rock, Idanre Hills and Osun Groove in Ogun, Ondo and Osun States respectively have also witnessed increased patronage in recent weeks, according to findings by Saturday PUNCH. Despite the cash crunch in the country, workers in many of these places confirmed that they had been receiving visitors in recent weeks, many of whom disclosed how friends recommended such places to them after they couldn’t make their annual summer trips abroad as a result of the forex crisis.
But while operators of tourist centres in most parts of the South-West appear to have been blessed by the latest development, the high rate of foreign exchange has been bad news and pains for some others.
According to the President, National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies, Mr. Bankole Bernard, the significant drop in the number of Nigerians travelling for summer holidays in Europe, America and other continents of the world as a result of the forex crisis apart from affecting the aviation industry generally, could lead to thousands of job losses in the sector over the coming weeks if the situation persists.
Bernard, who explained that this time of the year was usually the peak period of business for travel agencies and airline operators, said most of their over 6, 000 members have been badly affected by the lull in activities with some already contemplating closing shop or relocating to neighbouring Ghana if things remain the same.
“Business has never been this bad for us at this time of the year like this which is usually when we make the most sales on flight ticket bookings, hotel reservations and other related services for people travelling for summer,” the NANTA boss said. “Our members are no longer able to make any reasonable sales, the airlines are complaining bitterly and gradually leaving our market because they are unable to repatriate their sales proceeds, everybody is affected. If the airlines are not around, we as vendors can’t make any sale and consequently those working under us would lose their jobs. It is the same for airline staff and airport workers as well; their jobs would not exist if nobody is travelling.
“All over the world, the aviation and travel industry, being the first point of call in any country is very critical to the survival of an economy. But in Nigeria it is a different story, the sector and its stakeholders are at the mercy of government policies.
“If the issue of forex scarcity and foreign airlines leaving the country continue, things may get worse. Go to the airport and you would see what I am talking about, the entire place is almost empty,” he said.
While travel agencies in Nigeria sold air tickets worth about $1.4 billion in 2015 alone, the sector is yet to record even half of that amount this year, leaving many in the business confused and in distress. Since the forex crisis began, airlines have lost around N64bn – a development that has forced at least 14 of them to withdraw their services from Nigeria due to low patronage. Iberia, Delta, and United Airlines are some of the brands that have left the country’s airspace.
“The loss of N64bn by the foreign airlines was on account of repatriating $800m stuck in the economy in the last one year, but released after the recent devaluation of the naira. With the devaluation, the accumulated $800m from airlines’ sales of tickets when the exchange rate was still N197 to $1 was taken out of the country at the new rate of N320 to $1. Consequently, a substantial amount was lost in the process,” Bernard explained.
Regional Manager, British Airways, Mr. Kola Olayinka, said that for every $1m repatriated since the new forex policy was introduced in Nigeria, airlines lose nothing less than N80m.
According to him, the immediate and unfortunate effect of the new policy is that it is affecting all foreign airlines that have funds sitting in Nigerian banks.
Worried by the development, the Senate Committee on Aviation earlier on Monday expressed concern over the constant withdrawal of foreign airlines in the country as a result of the forex crisis and scarcity of aviation fuel.
Chairman of the Committee, Adamu Aliero, who said it was time for the sector to be unbundled to allow for smooth operations revealed plans to summon the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, to appear before it and explain the reason behind the crisis, adding that the situation was embarrassing to Nigeria.
Tourism enthusiast and travel consultant, George Eleki, told Saturday PUNCH that the present situation was a great opportunity for Nigeria to develop her local destinations and rake in huge revenue from within and outside the country.
According to the 41-year-old, if properly developed and equipped with modern facilities that meet international standards, most of those who travel out of Nigeria to spend summer holidays and other types of vacation in Europe and America including South Africa, would begin to look inwards, thus boosting the sector and economy with those funds.
“I expected that by now the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and all its related agencies would have leveraged on the opportunity created by the forex crisis to quickly invest and properly develop some of our natural tourists centres in the country. Many of those who travel abroad for holiday do so because the destinations we have here are not being properly cared for. From the North to the South, Nigeria is blessed with a lot of attractions that can attract a lot of revenue if the right thing is done.
“At least this year the situation seems better because from the feedback I have received from some of my contacts in the industry, I see that there have been improved visits to some of these destinations.
“However, a lot still has to be done to improve the situation. This is the right time for the government and private individuals to catch in on the opportunity to improve local tourism. We have the terrain, the food, the culture and all that is needed to attract the rest of the world to our land, all that is left is just the will and sincerity of purpose to make it work. We should not be losing what should accrue to us naturally to other nations,” he said.
The CBN, on Tuesday, increased the maximum amount of US dollars that could be sold to Bureau De Change operators from the $30,000 it had previously placed it to $50,000 per week.
This followed the flexible exchange rate policy it introduced in June 2016 in the hope that it would allow market forces determine the true value of the naira. But with the situation showing no signs of improvement and weekly demand for the US dollar still very high in the face of a shrinking foreign reserves battered by falling global oil prices, airlines, travel agencies and all whose sources of livelihood are weaved around the steady flow of travellers out of Nigeria might continue to reel in pain while smart operators of local tourist centres cash in on the development.