No hope of picking up tourism in BD before 2022 Inbound tourism in BD needs more policy support than financial aid from govt

_By Raquib Siddiqi16 Nov, 2020 | 317 Views|-+
Dhaka : The tourism of the country as a whole is now in dire state and tour operators are in great distress. To get out of this unexpected and unprecedented dark hole and for the greater interests of Bangladesh tourism, some leading tour practitioners of the country underscored the importance of more active government policy support than financial aid.

When inbound tourism in Bangladesh-the main stay of tourism industry and significant foreign exchange earner all over the world-was showing the sign of recovery from setback it suffered following the Holey Artisan incident in 2016, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard, so hard that it is threatening the very survival of the industry. Industry leaders now do not see any hope to pick up tourism in the country before 2022.

Almost entire world including developed, developing as well as conservative Muslim countries are now fully aware about importance and benefits of tourism. But policy makers of Bangladesh are yet to accept this reality. This far, the development of tourism has not gone beyond rhetoric.

Till now, the progress that Bangladesh has achieved in attracting holiday tourists is the result of relentless efforts by the private sector tour operators of the country.

The greatest problem that tourism development in Bangladesh is facing, is lack of government support-both policy and financial, private sector stakeholders allege. "We have never received financial help; we do not expect now. All we need is policy support", they said.

Another great problem is bureaucracy. Tour operators are finding difficulty in getting past bureaucratic labyrinths to get necessary permission in time. Despite great potentials, failure to get regular sea cruise and cross-country river cruise started, are examples.

The extent of neglect to inbound tourism is great. One of the proofs of this neglect is that, this far there is no system of registration for the tour operators of the country. The Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism (MoCAT) has registration system for travel agents, but not for tour operators. Tour operators are functioning on the trade license.

That the government is yet to acknowledge benefit of tourism, especially inbound, is demonstrated from the fact that tour operators receive no incentive for earning foreign exchange.

These were revealed in a virtual interview of some of the leading four operators with The Bangladesh Monitor, to focus on the current situation in the sector and the way out of it. Four leading tour operators of the country who handle inbound tour from most of the major source markets-Masud Hussain of Bengal Tours, Syed Mahbubul Islam Bulu of Riverine Tourism, Syed Ghulam Qadir of Adventure Escape Asia and Taufiq Rahman of Journey Plus.

Updated situation

Since the interview was taken more than a month back, there have been some changes in aviation and tourism sectors.

Noticeable among the changes are-gradual reopening of domestic travel destinations-latest being the Sundarbans from first of this month and air travel bubble with India and Singapore.

India has created an air travel arrangement with Bangladesh with effect from October 28, 2020. This arrangement is valid till January 31, 2021. Indian and Bangladeshi carriers are now permitted to operate services between India and Bangladesh and carry passengers with valid visas on such flights.

The tour operators of the country are fully dependent on inbound and outbound travel-not domestic tourism. So, reopening of domestic tourism destinations is of no help for them.

Air travel bubble generated some hope for them. But due mainly to COVID-19 protocols, imposed by different countries, including Singapore and India, there has been no noticeable change in traffic movement. As a result, deplorable condition of tour operation business remained as it is.

Not before 2022

Considering the mood and situation in the source countries in Asia and Europe and situation in Bangladesh, the tour operators of the country, see no possibility of reopening holiday group package tourism, before the year 2022.

Even so, to reopen holiday group tours in 2022, the effort should start right now. But unfortunately, the tour operators cannot do that in the absence of guidelines from the government. While a large number of the countries in the world-eager to open boarders for tourism-have already spelled guidelines, Bangladesh is yet to take any step in this regard.

No GIT

According to these tour operators, after reopening of holiday tours, Bangladesh is not likely to get GIT travellers. FITs are likely to dominate the market.

GIT stands for Group Inclusive Tour while FIT means Free Independent Travellers. The FIT package is costlier than GIT due to group size, customisation etc.

To get out of the current predicament, the tour operators are strongly in favour of development and promotion of regional tourism in general and tourism between close neighbours like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.

At present, a large number of Bangladesh citizens are visiting these countries. But visitors from these countries to Bangladesh are comparatively very low in number. To encourage visitors of these countries to visit Bangladesh, the tour operators urge to introduce easier visa facilities like visa on arrival as well as other promotions.

However, availability of vaccine against COVID-19 is expected to change this pessimistic situation to a great extent.

Views and issues

From the views expressed by these four front ranking tour operators of the country, various current and long-standing problems concerning development of tourism in the country, came to the fore. These views and issues are closely connected with future of tourism in the country.

Masud Hossain

Masud Hossain of Bengal Tours who handles Japan market said that most of his counterparts in Japan are eagerly waiting for tourism to start. "We will have to wait longer for holiday group packages," he said and added, initially, FIT business tourists and special interest group are likely to come.

Speaking with sales people in tourism source countries, Masud has developed, as per interest of foreign tourists, about 40 products, in and around Dhaka city. Most of the spots for short tours-neglected in the past-are only two to two and half hour's journey from Dhaka.

About tourism in the Sundarbans, Masud said for the greater interest of saving this world heritage site, mass tourism should not be allowed. He demanded formation of policy concerning nature and eco-system of the Sundarbans and suggested a meeting of all the stakeholders in this regard.

Mahbubul Islam Bulu

Syed Mahbubul Islam Bulu of Riverine Tours expressed firm conviction that there is no possibility of receiving big holiday package group before the year 2022. This opinion is based on the views he received from his counterparts in source countries, especially Italy.

From different countries in general and Malaysia in particular, Mahbub is receiving queries about situation in Bangladesh. There are tourists, who want to come, fortified with COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

But the absence of policy or guidelines about restarting inbound tourism is posing serious problem in planning tour operations for recovery.

Syed Ghulam Qadir

Syed Ghulam Qadir of Adventure Escape Asia said most of the eyes are focused on 2022 for restart of tourism. But he alleged, "There is no effort or initiative to face the existing situation.”

"In handling tourism, there is no coordination among related government agencies or departments. There is also no thinking about from where and how tourist will come. There is also no effort to increase flow of tourists from India," Qadir said.

With immediate prospect of GIT package is fairly gloomy, Qadir suggested shifting of focus. "We must give importance to new types of tourism-families and individuals,” he suggested.

Taufiq Rahman

Taufiq Rahman of Journey Plus said in the prevailing depressing situation "there is hardly any chance to pick-up tourism in Bangladesh before 2022 and we do not see light at the end of the tunnel".

Expressing doubt about receiving GIT groups when tourism will restart, Taufiq said domestic tourism must be on focus. But domestic tourism alone is not going to save the industry. So, he suggested broadening of horizon and giving enough importance to regional and cross-border tourism, under the prevailing situation, between Indian states bordering Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Expressing firm belief that there is great scope for improvement in this regard, he mentioned that in one of the recent years, 21,30,000 Bangladeshis visited India, but Bangladesh received only 77,000 Indians. With attracting more Indian visitors, this gap can be significantly reduced to the benefit of tourism industry in Bangladesh.

Start now to restart

In the opinion of Taufiq, in order to restart tourism in 2022, we must start putting things in place right now. So the first thing to do is to announce possible date for reopening of border for the restart of tourism, similar to other countries. The date can be shifted if required, but there must be a target to put things in place. It is because, to market GIT and FIT packages, preparation must begin two years ahead of the actual travel date.

Taufiq demanded inbound tourism friendly government policy and simple bureaucratic procedures. He recalled that in respect of cross-border river cruise, the permission process had to go through 17 bureaucratic hurdles to get necessary permission. "Tourism will not be successful, if things are note made simple,” he concluded.

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