In the past three or four decades, the travel trade business has gone through ups and downs associated largely with the absence of stiff regulation to hedge and control entry and exist regimes into the sector. The business, adjudged as a multi-billion naira profitable run for both foreign and local airline operators and the key downstream drivers, popularly known as travel agents, remains the only business in Nigeria where an “investor” does not need an office and a workforce to operate.
In the good old days, all one needed to fleece the travelling public was just to walk into any airline office, negotiate your way through the open table commission level, split same with the customer and, pronto, a wrongly-coded ticket fell into your hands. The “kalokalo” marketing of air tickets thrived and the cabal of fraudsters emerged, allegedly supported and fronted by insiders in airline offices and global distribution system operators.
The ripoffs grew over time as the fraudsters cleverly closed shop whenever the heat became unbearable and the public started baying for their blood, including that of the innocent and dedicated professionals.
In this game, the fraudsters knew that the police would only arraign them on bailable “419” advance fee charges and, trust the courts, the cases would either drag for long and frustrate prosecutors and the matter was celebrated as “dead on arrival.”
On this count, not only passengers were defrauded, airlines were also victims, as most travel trade operators deliberately defaulted and went into ‘self-exile’, not minding the very ‘lame’ penalty from International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global regulatory body of travel trade business worldwide. The shameful deed also exposed Nigeria to global ridicule as most airline operators in Nigeria either exited the country, with millions of downstream jobs lost in the process, or, where they (the airlines) chose to remain, took law into their hands, reeling out obnoxious trade engagements before their inventories were issued to travel agents.
Sadly, no one seems to care that the image of Nigeria dips or gets red-flagged, as every Dick, Tom and Harry finds his way into this very lucrative yet hugely abused business. Sad also is the reality that offenders easily go free and the security agencies are at the mercy of these unrelenting blood suckers.
So, how has the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), the umbrella body of travel-trade operators, fared in the quest to check the cancer of these rampaging thieves masquerading as travel agents?
Bankole Bernard, NANTA president, who has declared war against these fraudsters, last week in Lagos, brandished a “red and green” card, this time not only to expose the cabal and their behind-the-scenes influencers but to identify the real operators.
At last check, only 6,000 companies were registered as travel-trade operators on the database of NANTA in an industry with an estimated 20 million operators doing business without checks by regulators and security agencies.
Though Bankole’s agenda finds close support and encouragement from the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), government’s regulatory body for travel-trade and aviation business in Nigeria, the cheering news of stiff monitoring and enforcement of travel agents under the umbrella of NANTA will depopulate the kingdom of unregistered operators and fraudsters in the same breath.
The “professionals” card powered by NANTA and enforceable by NCAA also has the buy-in of all the foreign airline operators and Global Distribution System vendors, making it a must-have travel agent identification facility for all time, not only in Nigeria but in Africa.
Mr. Edem Oyo-Ita, NCAA director of air transport, who stood in for the boss of the regulatory agency said the days of fraudsters have come to an end with the travel-trade identification project. His assurance that NCAA was wholly behind the project to burst the fraudsters in the business encouraged overwhelming support from all stakeholders at the NANTA parley, who were also at some point in time at the receiving ends of fly-by-night operators and their collaborators across the large divide of the sector.
In weeks to come, Bankole, who has not relented in the quest to reposition NANTA and bring about sanity in the travel and tourism sector in Nigeria, has vowed to get this project accepted by all through effective engagement with stakeholders, including the security agencies.
Though no human project is ever perfect, the built-in checks in the project and assurances of support and enforcement from NCAA and its security arm will go a long way in curbing the rise of fraudsters living off the goodwill of NANTA-empowered travel agents in Nigeria.