Travel agents play a critical role in the downstream sector of the aviation sector industry which cannot be ignored by anyone. They act as brokers not just between passengers and airlines but also between passengers and hotels/tourists sites and they also facilitate the acquisition of passports and visas for the intending travellers. In Nigeria, because of the long standing relationship between travel agents and airlines and their vast knowledge of the ticketing and reservation business, they have no doubt assisted hundreds of individual and corporate passengers in the purchase of cheaper tickets on a daily basis. In Nigeria, the last 20 years has witnessed the proliferation of the travel and tour agency business with over 5,000 travel agents opening shops in various parts of the country. But like in every profession that is poorly regulated or with a few bad eggs, the Nigerian travel agency business has offered a platform for fraudulent persons to defraud unsuspecting members of the public.
The major victims
The most vulnerable set of Nigerians who are constantly duped by fraudulent travel agents are those seeking for cheaper or promotional tickets on overseas trip. Fraudulent travel agents normally target first time international travellers (students, visitors, tourists, and pilgrims on hajj to Jeddah or Mecca) who out of naivety or desperation seek shortcuts through travel agents for the acquisition of visas and other relevant travel documents for their journey.
According to the President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mr. Bernard Bankole, annually about 40 per cent of intending Nigerian travellers fall victim to fraudulent travel agents.
Bankole said it is an ugly trend that has created a bad perception of the industry for genuine professionals. According to him, the association on a daily basis receives complaints from the Nigerian Immigration services, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Police and international airlines of Nigerians who turn up at major international airports to board their flights only to be turned back because the tickets they carry on them were purchased either from online portals opened by fraudulent travel agents or directly from the offices of fraudulent agents.
“It is a very porous business; the regulation has been very poor and so you have all manner of persons parading the space as travel agents and they are defrauding ignorant Nigerians on a daily basis,” Bankole said. “I have fallen for them once; so I speak as a victim. I arrived with my wife and my daughter at the Lagos international airport on our way out of the country for our first weeding anniversary only to be denied boarding as the tickets we carried were purchased from a fraudulent travel agent. It was one embarrassing moment for me considering the sacrifices I made for it and the significance of the trip for my young family,” Bankole added.
NCAA task force
Without doubt, the absence of strict regulation on Nigeria’s travel agency industry has meant that just anyone can be a travel agent. “People move into the industry and don’t have a clear understanding of what the industry is all about. They perpetrate fraud or they even misuse airline inventory,” said Bankole. “The outcome is that genuine practitioners have been labelled as touts, thieves and fraudsters. The industry can’t afford to sit back and watch this continue,” he added.
Out of the over 5,000 travel agencies that exists in the country, only 500 are registered and that creates a lot of problem for monitoring and regulations for the NCAA.
Worried by the embarrassing incidences of fraud by travel agents, the NCAA had to set up a Task Force with the assistance of other industry stakeholders and security establishments to fashion out ways of restoring sanity to the industry. The wheat had to be separated from the chaff.
Aside a raid and clampdown on offices of unregistered travel agencies, one of the suggestions put forth by the task force was for members to be issued with biometric Identity Cards that carries a unique number that is also linked with their individual or corporate bank verification identity numbers.
The introduction of the Nigeria Travel Practitioners Identification Card (NTPIC) is meant to restore the dignity of the genuine travel professionals in Nigeria and assist the travelling public dis- tinguish genuine agents from fraudulent persons. According to the NCAA, the NTPIC is an ID card that must be owned all practitioners in Nigeria, both owners of travel agency firms and their staff. The biometric ID card also comes with an ex- piry date. A website has similarly been opened by NANTA where all registered members are captured with their identity cards, photos and ID card numbers and expiry date displayed for easy verification by members of the public.
Speaking at the launch of the ID card project in Lagos at the weekend, the Director General, Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, Captain Muktar Usman said the project became a must for the NCAA as the regulator of the industry given the many complaints received on issues varying from fraud and cyber crimes, to travel agencies defrauding/ swindling unsuspecting customers. Usman said international airlines have been instructed not to do business with agents or persons who are not registered and captured by the ID card scheme. What this means is that international airlines now have to cross-check with the NANTA website or database to validate all tickets and payments as originating from genuine and registered travel agents or risk sanctions.
“Travel agents are the first point of contact by foreigners and citizens who intend to travel. Therefore, the business must be handled with all seriousness and also managed by serious minded people,” said Usman.
“All airlines are to restrict their patronage to only travel practitioners that were on the NTPIC database and the whole idea is to improve passenger experience in the aviation sector,” he added.
Intending travellers are similarly demanded to ask for the ID card numbers of agents (even online) and cross-check with the NANTA base before making payments. A four month grace period (June-October) has been opened for agents not yet registered to key into the project.
The NCAA and NANTA are also to commence an enlightenment programme on the project to enable the public know how to distinguish genuine and fake travel agents based on the biometric features on the ID card.