Abdullah Tuncer Kececi, the general manager of Turkish Airlines for Nepal, is returning after successfully leading the Nepal operations of the national carrier of Turkey for more than six years and taking up a position in Africa. In a candid conversation with Madan Lamsal, the editor-in-chief of New Business Age, Abdullah talked about his love for Nepal, the immense tourism potentials that the country holds and a wide range of issues related to Nepali tourism and aviation sectors. Excerpts:
How has been your stay in Nepal?
It's fine. I have been here for almost six and half years now. It was a nice stay, it was nice to work with Nepali friends. It was an experience of a lifetime for us.
We all are appointed for a certain term. The term was a little bit longer here because of the pandemic and other conditions. Wherever the company wants us to grow, we go accordingly. Since the company's growing, we have many destinations all around the world. We could be sent anywhere.
Since you are returning from Nepal, can you please share some of your good experiences in Nepal?
Almost all of them are good ones. There should be ups and downs in life. We too had some good times together and some challenges together. Sometimes you work together to manage the challenges. Also, we tried to survive at some time. During the pandemic time, it was not easy for us.
Since Nepal is a tourism destination, we try to bring many people from all around the world. I think one of our main activities here was to bring as many tourists to the country. That really motivated us. Because once we achieve something, we want to do more. You want to increase the number of flights. So, those are the challenges. But at the same time, it keeps you dynamic and of course, helps your company. So, those were the main good things. There are no bad things. We should focus on good things in life, I believe in that.
How is Turkish Airlines promoting Nepal as a destination?
Our main contribution is that we have 339 destinations all around the world now. Even in the pandemic period, we managed to increase our destinations. We fly to 128 countries. Our main contribution is that we can connect Nepal to all these destinations through Istanbul. Nepali tour operators and tourism stakeholders can market Nepal in those destinations. They can invite people from all those destinations. It is not limited to that. At the same time, as an office of Turkish Airlines in Kathmandu, we try to promote our own destinations also. We have our own agenda. Turkish Airlines also promotes Kathmandu as a destination for tourists. As part of efforts in promoting Nepal as a destination, the Kathmandu office of Turkish Airlines participated in 15-20 tourism fairs in the past six years like ITB Berlin, WTM in London, FITUR in Spain, MITT in Moscow, Matka in Finland and ITMM Istanbul. We have also done such marketing activities in the Americas. We are also bringing familiarisation trips, which we call fam trips, from many destinations in Europe like Sweden, France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Even in this year's conditions, we had groups coming in from Canada, the US and South America. We coordinate with our stations there and tell them to promote Nepal as a tourism destination. We tell them to send some tour operators here so that they can see a possibility, they can add Nepal in their tour packages and start selling Nepal as a tourist destination. These are the background works which we do almost throughout the year.
Recently, we sent mail to our stations abroad telling them that Nepal's tourism season is about to start and even off-season activities are possible. So whoever wants to do fam trips can contact us. We have already started making plans for the next summer because everything has to be planned prior because we are not the only ones. When Kathmandu wants to invite people here, other destinations, for example, Vietnam also wants people to go there.
So these are the background activities that we do. But the main thing for the passengers is to get an easy connection. Since we are the only carrier from Europe, it’s really easy to travel to Nepal, especially from European destinations, by using Turkish Airlines. As European travellers have the habit of using Turkish Airlines, it’s an advantage for Nepal. In Europe, we have 117 destinations which means people from 117 European cities can fly to Nepal easily with just one stop in Istanbul. We have more than 15 destinations in Germany alone. We fly to five-six cities in Spain, France and Italy. Definitely, this is the advantage. But all these advantages will count if you can use them, or if you know how to use them.
What are the challenges that you have faced as an international airline operating in Nepal?
Talking about challenges, Nepali is not an easy destination to fly. Because it is a mountainous country, you need to use some special kind of approach systems when you are coming here. You have to train your pilots accordingly. For example, instead of two pilots, we are coming with three pilots. All the pilots flying here are trained to fly in Nepali terrains. So this is the kind of background operation. It’s difficult. But it's our job at the same time and we have to adapt ourselves.
When landing, there used to be some congestion earlier especially before the airport opened round the clock. Domestic and international traffic were affecting each other, not in a good way. We are holding more than 45 minutes almost every day, especially noontime flights. This adds cost for an airline. And it affects connecting flights of the passengers. If your onward connections get late, you will definitely get into problems. We did everything to manage all those problems. We have managed most of those.
Nepal’s airport is difficult geographically. You land from one end, and usually depart from the same end. So it means that outgoing flights are affecting incoming flights and vice versa. It is causing air traffic problems. That was one of the issues because consuming fuel in the air just rounding around trying to find the place to land is not easy.
When we talk about cost, the most challenging thing for me is that the fuel costs in the country are too high, unacceptably high. This is definitely a big disadvantage. In the aviation business, airlines have to make feasible operations. When one airline does a successful operation and adds more flights, other airlines start doing that. At this moment, Turkish Airlines is playing a critical role because we are followed by airlines since we have more destinations. When we have more flights, definitely the other airlines will feel something good is happening here and start coming here. Landing cost too is high which discourages airlines to fly more. There are issues with ground handling too. But we try to increase the standard as much as we can. But there is still a way to go on that. So from an operational perspective, Nepal is not a very easy destination. But we are used to managing that also. We just see the big part of the county, the beautiful part of the country. On the operation side, when there are challenges we have to manage them.
How do you see the growth of Nepal's outbound passenger market?
Outbound segment in Nepal is increasing. I can see the difference. So compared with before, like five-six years back, it has increased a lot. Now we have more tourists going out, which is good. Because tourism, I think, is the backbone for everything. Tourism touches every field. So when people go from here as a tourist, I'm sure they also find business opportunities. We should not think like these guys just want to take two selfies in front of the heritage sites. They see opportunities, they see what they can buy, what they can sell, what they have, what kind of trade they can do between two countries. We try to encourage them to go and discover Turkey more. Our motto is to connect countries to each other using tourism. Our main role in Nepal is to bridge Nepal and Turkey - via Istanbul, all around the world. We are trying to bridge countries all around the world. These bridges help nations to understand each other well and to build good relations. When you go to see the beauty of a country, you always have good feelings about that country. You don't think the other way. The world is not like what we see in the news. You have to go and explore. ‘Widen your world’ was our motto for a long time. So we want everybody to widen their road to see the rest of the world. Now we are saying we are all connected, because we believe that we have many similarities between each other. Since we touch the similarities, there are 300 common words between Turkish and Nepalis. We know this only when we travel. We understand that they have many connections, which we don't even know well enough.
There are many Nepalis living in America, there are also many Nepalis living in the UK and different countries of Europe. We want them to use Turkish Airlines because we want to make their life easy. When you say North America, we have now around 12 destinations in America already. In Canada, we have three destinations. We just launched flights to Dallas and Seattle, and Denver is in the pipeline. I think Nepali population is increasing in those areas. We have started getting more queries from them. We want them to accept Turkish Airlines as their own as we are trying to provide them a good service and good connectivity for their own country and for their tours.
What suggestions do you have for the hospitality and travel sector in Nepal? How can they cope with the challenges that you have mentioned?
When I came to Nepal in 2016, everybody was targeting one million tourists. I felt when you are targeting one million, you are already having 700,000 or 800,000 arrivals. I am not counting the year 2015 because of the earthquake. If you just start with one million, honestly you don’t do too many things. You just try to do some marketing. Nepal was needing some structural changes and infrastructure development at the same time. For that, you have to target a little bit more. In one of the meetings we had with the tourism stakeholders, we said you should target 2 million in four-five years’ time. Also, you should target five million for the future. Nepal accordingly set the two million target for 2020. We should not really focus on the number. Numbers are just a kind of motivation. The main thing is what you are doing on the way. In terms of infrastructure, good changes started happening. New hotels started coming up. You have to go step by step. Nepal tried to reach 2 million, but it reached 1.3 million. Although it didn’t meet the target, it was still successful. You shouldn’t feel that you couldn’t meet the target. The tourism business is not like that because everything is not under your control. You have to put bricks on top of each other step by step. Then you can reach your targets. What you are doing will make you reach that number. You have to understand this part of the story.
There are many things that can be done. In one of the meetings we were having those days, I said just make the road fine enough to reach Chitwan in two and a half hours. They were saying ‘Ok Abdullah, but what is with the airlines?’. I said, okay, let me tell you how the system works. Passengers land at 6:30 in the morning, they do the immigration clearance by 7:15 or 730, rent the car in half an hour and start the journey at 8. They reach Chitwan by 10:30. They have their breakfast there. If you offer good things here, easy accessible things, you don’t need to focus on what you sell as an airline. That will bring enough. I realised that most of the people here are just focusing on getting a big piece of the cake. We tell them this cake is not enough. So let's focus on how we can make the cake bigger for everyone. If the cake is big, it will be big enough even if you get the same ratio.
I believe that Nepal is a country with big tourism potential. So believe me getting five million tourists is not a dream. By saying five million, I am not just focusing on the numbers. We need to focus on quality tourism and preserve our nature and the environment. That is something which everybody has to worry about and make their plans accordingly. But at the same time, the country has a capacity and it should be used.
Let me tell you my honest opinion. Nepal is sending more than 400,000-500,000 people abroad to work every year. That's a very huge number. The world is starting to understand how the youth population is important. If you have an opportunity for them in tourism, and if you can, like bring around five million tourists, many of them will be staying in the country. At the beginning, it may be the tourism sector, but at the end of the day it will be agriculture, taxi service, media sector and many more sectors because tourism touches the whole ecosystem. From art to restaurant owners, from farmers to let's say big business owners, everybody will get benefits. Nepal needs this big moment.
Every year 40,000-60,000 students are going abroad for higher studies. If at least half of these students come back, this country will fly. Nepal needs to encourage them to come back by creating more business opportunities.
You highlighted the importance of having better infrastructure. Nepal has built two new international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara. Will they really help?
They will help. But we should be patient. Widebody aircraft cannot land in Pokhara, but narrow body planes can fly there directly from regional markets. Pokhara is a popular destination, so the airport was needed. We cannot expect to get big results immediately. It happens step by step. Bhairahawa has a big potential. But that potential has to be realised, it doesn’t happen immediately. There are many Buddhist countries around. If you start with pilgrimage tourism, those countries have to be encouraged. Tourism stakeholders from here should go to destinations which are regionally close to Nepal for promotion. You also need to have an ecosystem ready. When Bhairahawa, Lumbini and nearby towns start offering better services, the numbers will definitely start increasing. Tour operators should be encouraged to start their tour packages from there. We have to create some activities. Workers, hospitals, everything has to be around. The airport brings many positive changes. It will not happen in a minute. This is a journey and it has to be planned.
Do you have any plans for these airports?
It’s not easy. Bhairahawa is not a destination for us at the moment. We bring tourists mostly from Europe for the nature and culture part. To be honest, to do operations in two different destinations in a country is not easy. At the moment, it is not in the short-term plan. But as I said, in aviation everything changes very quickly. We can speak different things two years later or three years later. But at the moment looking at our passenger profile, it's not very feasible to start.
First of all we want to increase the number of passengers in Kathmandu. That's our first target. But as I said earlier, the operational ecosystem has to be better in Nepal. The fuel prices have to be lower so do the ground handling charges. There is a big competition with other destinations. We have to make Nepal a welcoming destination for sure. We have to work on it. For example, when you check any webpage about Nepal, you just see activities for March and April, and September, October and November. But Nepal has many off-seasonal activities. We have to focus on promoting these activities because tourism has to be for 12 months. In Nepal, the mountains are a very strong point. But if you just promote mountains, it becomes your weak point. People already know that Nepal is home to mountains, you don't need to tell that to anyone. Everybody knows that. If a traveller is not a trekker or a climber, how do you attract them? That is why we should focus on promoting attractions that others don’t know about. Nepal can be one of the best places for photo shooting. Given the natural attractions, it can be a destination for film shooting. If you want to do rafting, there are over 6,500 rivers in Nepal. I think Nepal can be developed as the best destination for rafting lovers. So when you talk about cultural activities, there are more than 120 different ethnic groups. They are active and have their own rituals. There may be ethnic groups all over the world, but they no longer are continuing their rituals. You also have wellness and yoga. When people are in the mountains, you should tell them about yoga because they already know about the mountains. Nepal is a fantastic destination for mountain biking. There cannot be a better destination than Nepal for this adventure sport. Our motto for Nepal is ‘Nepal, more than mountains’. When we say this, we tell people that Nepal has more than mountains to offer.
If these kinds of things are more well explained and well marketed, Nepal has many potentials. Instead of just saying trekking, maybe we should say nature walks. This way even the people, who think that they cannot do trekking, may feel encouraged. You are not promoting Nepal as a destination for bird lovers. You need to create the stories. If you go to a beach destination, you can just go and swim and maybe have a drink and some dinner. What next, swim again?
Nepal has big potential. I am sure many people know that. But sometimes it has to be triggered from some point.
It’s already been nine years since Turkish Airlines started operations in Nepal. What is its achievement as a service provider here?
Turkish Airlines has grown all over the world in this period. When you grow all over the world, it positively affects all your destinations because you create new markets, you create new passengers and new potential passengers. You try to get people from one station to other destinations. So that growth will affect Nepal positively. Now, everybody knows about Turkish Airlines in Nepal. During hard times also, we tried to continue operations and give connectivity to people here. For us, all the passengers are important. But we know the nature of the Nepali people by heart, so we try to make them comfortable, we try to make them feel that. When they see a Turkish Airlines plane in, let's say, Dallas, we want them to feel they are close to home. We have good relations with almost all the bases. If you ask me what we achieved more, we didn't just focus on selling the tickets. We tried to make that bridge between two countries. I think the most successful point for us, me and my office, is that we have been trying to explain more about Turkey and Turkish people since we don’t have a Turkish mission here yet.
We have done many events and activities in Nepal. We tried to touch on many activities that could help people to improve themselves and to improve their businesses. We may have supported more than 15 entrepreneurship days in Nepal - almost three-four events every year. We supported from banking to the infrastructure summit. We support programmes ranging from award ceremonies to school futsal events, from basketball to cricket and street children football to wheelchair basketball. We try to be active in almost every field. We were also a part of many programmes involving teenagers and youth. We will try to support programmes related to women, youth and children empowerment which is good for the country. Sometimes the word ‘support’ means a lot. I think that's the biggest achievement we have. When somebody has something good to do for the country, they first approach us and we are very proud of it.
Most of the foreign airlines flying to and from Nepal seem deriving their main business from the migrant workers. So how is the passenger composition of Turkish Airlines?
We respect all passengers. Migrant workers also need to fly. Sometimes they also fly with us. We are not focused on this segment. But we are very happy if they fly with us. Because going to another destination to work and bring something back to your country is something really spectacular. But the main thing here is that we see Nepal as a tourism destination. Our focus is on contributing to this country by bringing more tourists. That is one of the reasons we are supporting entrepreneurship events because today's entrepreneurs are tomorrow's business people. This is how you make that cake bigger for everyone. These are the people who will make that cake bigger for everyone. We look at it from this angle.
So Turkish Airlines has branded itself as a premium airline?
Yes, of course. We have the highest number of destinations. Our main goal is to connect all the world to each other with bridges so that people understand each other better. They have more trade options, they have more tourism options and all the industry can benefit from that.
How about the tourist market?
Most of the tourists are from European countries especially during tourist season. Today, we brought more than 150 tourists. Most of our passengers are from Europe. We are bringing passengers from America as well as from South America. If you look at data from March-April, I think around 90% of our passengers are tourists. Sometimes it is even higher. During the off-season, the passenger composition is mixed. In the October-November season, it’s mostly tourists as well as Nepalis coming for Dashain-Tihar celebrations. We have diversity, but we are mostly focused on bringing tourists. We have made special agreements with destinations, tour operators and our stations to bring more tourists. We try to operate premium quality flights at a reasonable price. We continuously try to improve ourselves. Given the environmental concerns, we now have biofuel aircraft flying for sustainability. Every week, the aircraft is going to new destinations. Initially it was one flight a week, but the numbers are increasing.
Biofuel is produced in Turkish Airlines’ own company. We have around 18 subsidiary companies under our umbrella dealing in IT, fuel processing, aviation training etc. Everybody is talking about the environment these days. But when we look at our archives, you realise that from 2008 onwards we have continuously worked in that area. More than 100 projects have been implemented to ensure less carbon footprint. It will also be one of the main agendas from now on since the company recently brought new policies about the environmental concerns.
What do you think Nepal should do to bring more tourists?
I think Nepal needs to just explain that Nepal is more than mountains. When you explain that, then everybody will find many options. When people start coming, improvements will happen. Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) is already doing the marketing part. Marketing is not a one-time thing, you have to do it continuously to keep that alive. The main thing is we should explain to potential tourists that Nepal is more than mountains. Then people can come for other reasons even during off-seasons.
And what about policy issues?
I am not in a position to teach people what to do. I am sure they know. Sometimes things take time. I am sure everybody is on the correct track. Having said this, there are still many things to be done. Definitely, we are continuously reporting issues that need to be touched. We provide them with suggestions when we are asked to. Because we are here for that also. But the main thing is, ground handling is only with Nepal Airlines at the moment. Similarly, fuel is only with Nepal Oil Corporation. I think these are the first areas we should touch. When you encourage more airlines to come, the system has to be improved accordingly. It is always fine when there are more players as it will help you to make your policies better.
Would you please share more about Turkish Airlines support for entrepreneurship?
We are very happy with the entrepreneurship part. Because, as I said earlier, we see those people as business people of the future. When there are more entrepreneurs, when there are more startups in the country, and when there are more success stories, it will encourage the rest of the population. Those people living abroad, who are deciding not to come to Nepal yet, will be more willing to when they see this climate and ecosystem. We recently did a startup event with Confederation of Nepalese Industries (CNI). We gave them a small support from our side, they did the event which was very successful. These kinds of things are needed. We are also giving importance to future collaborations between Turkish companies and startups here. I think that is the main area we need to focus on because sometimes you will find more opportunities in these kinds of countries where there are many areas that need to be touched. Many things can be done from infrastructure to technology. Compared to five, six years ago, we are doing really great.
So what are the future plans of Turkish Airlines in Nepal?
We want to increase our flights, and we want to continue promoting Nepal as a tourism destination. We want to give more focus on strengthening bilateral relations. Trade volume between Nepal and Turkey has increased by 70 times over the past nine years. This is something we have achieved already. We should not focus on the numbers between Turkey and Nepal. Through Istanbul, you can trade with other places. Nepal can now trade with different cities of the world through Istanbul. The main target, of course, as an airline is to increase the number of flights, to increase the load factors and to be present forever.
These are your objectives. What are the things you will be doing in say one or two years?
The operational difficulties have to be gradually solved. We are pushing for that. If the operational environment becomes more feasible for airlines, I'm sure all the airlines, not only us, will try to increase the number of flights. That is the number one target. As a commercial airline, the main target is to add more flights, bring more tourists, and give more connectivity. We have around 400 aircraft now and our target is to have 500 very soon. So when you reach 500, how will you fill these aircraft? You have to either add new destinations, or add new passengers or increase flight frequency. So that is our main agenda for sure. Istanbul is one of the best hubs in the world. So we definitely want all the Nepalis to fly via Istanbul, do a stopover in Istanbul for three-four days to know more about the culture. I am sure we will have much better relations in the near future.
When you say operational issues, you mean ground handling and fuel prices right?
Yes, these are the main things. These two are the main costs for the airlines. If they are very high, the operation becomes less feasible. So we are continuously trying to explain that. We want a good business environment. This is not for me personally and this is not for Turkish Airlines only. This is for the growth of aviation and tourism as well as trade. More airlines mean more business coming into the country.
How is the competition among the international airlines coming to Nepal?
There is always competition. We are okay with healthy competition because that helps airlines also to improve themselves and their services. I wish one day Lufthansa, British Airways and KLM flies to Nepal and see what Turkish Airlines have achieved. It will mean they are coming because we have achieved something. We will be the proudest airline at that time. We will have more flights than today for sure. If we can create that environment, we will be more than happy.
Seven or 10 years ago we used to have other names in mind while talking about international airlines. In just five or seven years, it's Turkish Airlines at the top. How did it happen?
We really work hard. We try to do our best whatever the conditions are. We always try our best. We want everybody to be comfortable. I think that goodwill and that ethical approach have affected people in a positive way. Everybody in our team works without any excuse just to make people travel more comfortable. Believe me, everybody has worked very hard to make things happen.
Did your stint as a professional football referee help?
That has helped me a lot. It is physically demanding as a normal person cannot even walk from one side of the football pitch to the other. You have to be really strong for that. When you come to the field, you see 22 players. Everybody has a different rhythm, different mindset and different approach. Sometimes they are very clever. Everybody puts in a lot of physical effort. The ground is 6,000 to 8,000 square metres big and you need to see and hear everything in that area. You need to be very much exempted from all outside effects. And you have to make the decision even if you are also putting physical effort in almost like less than one second. That's really tough.
What matters most to you - speed or quality of the business decisions?
Speed alone doesn’t mean anything because you have to make correct decisions with that speed. In the airline business, they say, you should expect the unexpected a little bit. You should have your plan B, C or D ready. Plus, you should have your game plan. When things happen, you don't have time to deal with them. So you have to be ready for that. In a team, you have different people with different education and different marketing skills. My refereeing career has helped me a little bit. When something happens, you should know what to do. If you don't, you'll be in big trouble. You have to make your BCD plans very carefully. If you're going to a game and your tire bursts, you should find ways to reach the ground in time. You cannot say sorry, I came a little bit late. That is why your plans have to be ready. In aviation also, there is no room for sorry. You have to make things correct and on time. It creates a bit of stress and pressure on the team. But, as professionals, that’s our job.
If you try to make your plans better, then you stress yourself less. For example, when the aircraft departs from Istanbul to Kathmandu, we are following the flight. Before it lands in Kathmandu in the morning, we all are ready for what might happen and how it should be handled. All our team members are briefed before the flight lands in Kathmandu. That is how we should operate. If something technical happens or if any delay happens, we keep our team standby all the mornings. In the pandemic times, almost five-six people were on standby for any kind of thing which could happen.
We just want to work to make people feel comfortable. If they feel comfortable, we will feel happy. That motivates us. Recently, a higher official was flying with us. She thanked us for making everything smooth. With this motivation, we can move for three-four days.
Any parting words before you leave Nepal?
I am about to leave this country. I as well as my family loves Nepal a lot. We had great times, we made a lot of friends and we have great memories. Wherever we are, Nepal’s tourism will always be in our minds. When I see Nepali tourism growing, numbers increasing, quality getting better, infrastructure improving, I will feel happy for sure. I am leaving most of the jobs to our friends who were working with us. Our new friend, who will be joining the Nepal office, will work in the same areas. Nepal has big potential. Everybody looks at GDP and other indicators to see if a country is rich and poor, but we shouldn’t forget that the main richness is its culture. Nepal should preserve it for sure. It should be able to put the young population in the country as much as it can. You may say I am dreaming, but I feel Nepal will meet its big targets soon. The new generation is coming very strong. I can see that potential. They will achieve many targets. I have seen them work, I have seen them getting good education abroad and even here. Young people are coming back to do something in the country. Tourism will grow and it will be able to cater to five million tourists one day. Hopefully, more climbers will come from Turkey to Nepal. Also, I want both countries to have an embassy in each other's land. As I told you, Turkey is preparing to establish an embassy here. I hope Nepal too opens its mission in Turkey. I love to see trade between the two countries growing further.