Travel used to be really exciting, didn’t it? Especially travel by air – going to the airport, seeing all those planes, boarding and taking off,heading for pastures new. Even travelling around Africa could be fun, with travellers’ tales abounding about how awful this and that airport is,which side of the aircraft to sit to see Kilimanjaro, and tips on what to do and to avoid.
Today, travel is a real chore, in some cases downright unpleasant until you get to cruising altitude at 30,000 feet. We have to get to the airport earlier and earlier, because of the security checks (granted, we can check in on-line, but at many airports I go through, I still have to go through “normal” check-in, where they tear up the boarding card you printed, and give you a new one).
Before check-in, there’s a machine for your bags to get through the terminal doors, two or three people to look at your passport, another two to look in our luggage (guys, if you’re going to do it, do it properly, lifting the corner of a shirt or two isn’t security). At passport control, you might have three or four people looking at your passport. Currency control, food & drugs control, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. At the gate, more baggage screening (desultory shirt lifting), more passport checking. Then there’s the personal screening, laptop, belt, shoes, fluids, jackets, phones etc., hardly ever the same requirements from one place to another.
All done with a snarl. When they say “You’re welcome”, it certainly isn’t sincerely meant!
And now, there are the health checks, due to the Ebola crisis. In Lagos, there’s one by the Ministry of Health before you check in, another right next to that done by the airline, and a third, byt the Ministry of Health again at passport control. There’s a form to fill in, about who I am, how I feel, and where I’ve been recently. The form says “have you been to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia or Nigeria”? So on arrival in Kigali (note that I had filled one in at the airport in Lagos), I tick yes to Nigeria, that’s where I live, and that’s where the fight came from. The health official was shaken. “You’ve ticked yes? You’ve been in Nigeria?”. Well yes, that’s where the flight came from, I live there, is there a problem? The thing is he couldn’t work out whether that was a problem or not! He hadn’t been told what to do if someone ticked “yes”. In the end I was allowed through, having had my temperature taken again – I was so worried that I wasn’t going to be allowed in that my temperature must have been going off the scale!
My point here is that everything I encounter at airports is so disjointed, and unnecessary. “Unnecessary?!” you exclaim indignantly. Of course I don’t mean that airports shouldn’t have security, shouldn’t be checking for Ebola, I want to be secure when I fly (which I do virtually every week of the year), and I fully understand the terrors of spreading Ebola – it scares the hell out of me. But why do they need to take my temperature three times within the space of ten minutes? Why do 12 people (yes, 12!) feel the need to check my passport when I am leaving Lagos? In most airports, including most in Africa, it’s just three people – check-in, passport control and boarding.
The reason for this “multiplication” of security is that no-one trusts anyone else, the different agencies are just not joined-up in any way. No-one is coordinating the physical security of travel, and now the Ebola screening, there is no co-ordination. There is no sense of treating travellers as guests to be welcomed, and hope to see you again. For a visitor, it generates feelings of anxiety and animosity, and not particularly wanting to repeat the experience. That’s bad for business.
Talking of which, the Ebola crisis in West Africa is seriously impacting the travel and tourism business. In Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the outbreak is at its most serious, there is no business for the hotels. In Lagos, where Ebola has not taken hold, the hotels are running at 30 to 40 percent below what they expected at this time of year, the schools have been closed until mid-October, and the event centres are empty. People don’t want to take the risk of going to places where they might contract the disease, and that means fewer international travellers, cancellations of social events, folks are staying at home.
It’s not just West Africa, I have been travelling in East Africa, and I have heard of cases of American and Chinese tourists cancelling trips to Tanzania, for fear of Ebola. This fear is such a personal thing, you can’t say “look at the map, will you?”, if they’re scared, they’re scared, and let’s be honest, it could happen.
So as well as the human tragedy, there is the impact on the business world, and thatlinks back into the populace, as workers have reduced wages, or are laid off.
If people are afraid of travelling, and going to restaurants and events, there is little the hospitality industry can do about it. We pray for a speedy end to the Ebola crisis, and for those directly affected by it.
W Hospitality Group, Lagos