By Eric Elezuo
Among the bodies helping the growth of the Nigeria aviation section is the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA) under the leadership of the lively, capable and seasoned aviation practitioner, BANKOLE BERNARD. In this interview, the soft spoken great achiever highlighted how far he has taken the special association, and why he should be given another two-year term of office as the association’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) comes up in Port Harcourt later in the month. Excerpts:
Can we meet you sir?
My name is Bankole Bernard, and I am the National President of National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA).
You are majorly an economic and financial person, how did you delve into tourism and airline business?
Well, in life, one thing you can’t do is change destiny. I feel I have been destined to go through this path at a particular point in time. I was in the financial world for a while. I left to seek my first passion which has to do with travelling and haven’t looked back ever since. Travelling is something that is very dear to my heart, because it comes with a lot of opportunities. There is a lot the government can get from travelling but unfortunately they’ve not given it the desired attention in terms of policies that would help it blossom. That explains one of the reasons I became the president of the association; so I can draw government’s attention to what is going on in the aviation industry.
You called it a passion; at what stage in your life did this develop?
The passion has always been there. I’ve always wanted to move around, even at a very young age. Then, I didn’t understand what it was all about, but with time, it became clearer as I got more involved. I had the opportunity to travel to several countries like Togo, Ghana amongst others. Whilst growing up, I embarked on domestic trips with the family – just to know Nigeria. As you can see, the passion for travelling has always been there. Later, I made it a point of duty to visit all continents. Presently, I’m trying to draw people’s attention to the fact that domestic tourism is the key thing and we need to focus on it and know the happenings around us to erase the impression that Nigeria is unsafe to visit. I just got back from Kano and I was surprised but pleased to see a safe state with happy people which runs contrary to the stories we hear about the Northern states.
How long have you been the president of NANTA?
I’ve been the President of NANTA for 2 years.
In the next couple of days, there would be an election, are you running again?
Now, why do you think you should be re-elected having been the President for 2 years? What are those things that stood you out in the last 2 years?
Well, in the last 2 years, the face of NANTA has changed. NANTA has been rebranded and new products developed. The association has created more presence than ever before in the travel and tourism space. As it stands today, NANTA is one of the trade associations around to reckon with. Based on the good works we’ve done in the last 2 years, we’ve had trade associations like SATA in South Africa, KTA in Kenya, willing to partner with us. More so, we have developed a better relationship with International Airline Travel Association (IATA), the international umbrella body of travel agencies.
Also, during my tenure, we have had the privilege of visiting IATA home office on two different occasions, and we are collaborating with them on a lot of things. One of them is NANTA collecting annual dues for IATA on behalf of their members in Nigeria; this is one of the noble things we’ve been able to achieve.
We have come up with NANTA identity card to regulate people in the industry. With that, you can identify a genuine travel agency and those that are not; it will be launched next month. In addition, we have created state chapters for NANTA. The association generally has just five zones, and in each of those zones, we have state chapters that are coming up. The membership of NANTA is fast growing because there is a much more improved visibility and connectivity, in addition to creating a user friendly online registration portal for NANTA members. This has made registration for new members stress-free and easily available as they can register and submit all their documents online.
Saying quite a lot has been achieved will be an understatement. We have intervened where necessary with the Ministry of Aviation, as well as the Ministry of Tourism. They know the importance of NANTA and they liaise with us when required, every step of the way.
What are the things limiting the growth of the tourism industry?
The limitation is basically knowledge and policy based. Most of those policies need to be changed and some need to be upgraded for one reason or another. Aviation is a striving business everywhere in the world, and countries use it to showcase their countries’ worth. However in this part of the world, we’ve not done so well, but I know the present Minister of State for Aviation, Alhaji Sirika, is doing a lot to revive it with the assistance of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the highest ruling body in the aviation industry. We just need to harness the things that we have; all our facilities need to be ungraded and organized. The government needs to focus on formulating enabling policies as well as allow private entities to drive the business aspect of aviation. If we do these, we would get the dividend. Things have changed around the world and Nigeria cannot be left in isolation. We need to change the way we do things as well.
Sir, what is your take on not having a national carrier in Nigeria?
The truth is, there is a misconception about national carriers. What is a national carrier? It is a name you give to an airline that is owned by the country. In these days, several countries are changing from their national carrier to having flag carrier as long as they have the representative that can take it up and service it well. I believe the government can partner with lots of domestic carriers and make the best out of them, either by investing or by giving them a real environment that enables them fly to other countries uninhibited. Floating national carriers is not the best option right now, because we really don’t have the resources and even if we do, there are other things that deserve it.
Talking about resources, does it make smaller African countries thriving in aviation are better than Nigeria?
They are thriving because they have accountability, and they make the best of what they have. Here, we have been distracted by our oil. If Ethiopia had oil today maybe they won’t concentrate on their aviation. I think we need to divert our attention from oil and let it be an alternative. We have the population, therefore, I see aviation as the next main stay of the economy – if the government can pay attention to it.
As the president of a body that supervises aviation, have you made a formal proposal to the government as regards these?
The good thing is that we have a very good relationship with government as a pressure group, and we’ve always made it known that they need to have a change in policies or renewal of policies. We make suggestions to them from time to time, just to make sure that they are given proper guidance concerning the policies.
And all these while, have they been listening to you?
Yes, we have had situations where we have agreed on issues, and other times we have conflicting opinions. Nonetheless, we are making good progress.
Are there situations where they implemented your policy?
Yes! Like when they were having ‘light’ issues at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport and they were giving excuses. We came in advising them that if generator is available, it will handle the situation. Immediately, something was done about it, and since then, they’ve not had issues with light. A lot can still be done.
Are there challenges that have ever made you regret going into this business?
Well, it depends on how you see challenges. I have always seen challenges as a stepping stone to a greater height. When there are no problems, solutions can never come. All you need is to walk around it, look at it from a positive angle and you will see opportunities. Therefore, challenges to me are opportunities.
Tell us a little about your background?
I finished from the University of Lagos, and I’m a Bachelor’s degree holder in Economics. Thereafter, I went into banking and I took different courses just to improve myself before I found myself in this (tourism and aviation) industry.
What honors have you picked up in the course of doing this job?
I’ve picked up quite number of awards from different bodies. When you have substance, people are always willing to call you out.
Has there been a situation where you apprehended fake NANTA members?
NANTA was established under a regulation under Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), and because it is an Act under the government, we depend on the government to get some things done. But what we have done on our own is to push for a bill in the house, which has passed through the first reading. When we have an Act, we would be able to enforce.
What are you promising members of NANTA, come convention in Port-Harcourt?
We’ve been encouraging members and the general public to come to Port-Harcourt. There is a wrong impression about Port-Harcourt which is about oil and insecurity. We want to showcase Port-Harcourt as a destination that is not just about oil, but as a tourist attraction and also to pull people to the eastern part and let them know that there is peace and stability in that area. Therefore, we want to showcase domestic tourism and luckily for us, we have the chairman of NDDC coming as a keynote speaker. We have the Minister of Aviation coming as well. The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who is in charge of tourism, is also coming. And we are waiting for confirmation from Governor of Rivers State, and we hope government would be able to take certain decisions.
On a personal note, how do you relax?
Any little time I have, I try to spend it all with my family. I listen to music to ease the nerves too. I am an ardent tennis player. The work is extremely challenging. And if you are going to make an impact, you have to do more than enough. To be fair to myself, I think a lot of my time has gone into the job. All the zones can feel the presence of NANTA; from the Northern zone to the Eastern zone, to the Western zone, Lagos and Abuja, they all know that we reckon with them.
What food makes you happy?
How many kids did you have?
When you travel, do you take your family along?
No, they have to be in school. But most of the times, I just keep in touch with them to ensure that there is no gap. And they’ve come to realize that their father is the President of NANTA, and one who has a lot of commitment. They understand it. However, I ensure we take family holidays every summer.
Apart from NANTA, what other body executive did you belong to?
I am the Treasurer of SACO. I’m a member of IOD; I am a member of their hospitality and tourism committee. And by the time I play all these roles, I wonder what time is left.
What advice would you give to people who would want to make a living in the world of tourism?
Chase your passion! Don’t chase money, chase your passion. This is my passion, and that is what has brought me to where I am. The passion would eventually bring food to your table. Passion is not what you study in school. Passion is who you are, and it is what drives you. Passion is something you are always happy to do.