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Tour operators eye rebound as opportunity knocks

World Tourism Day to be observed September 27
Arifur Rahman Rabbi with Shamim Ahmed
26 Sep 2022 00:00:00 | Update: 26 Sep 2022 01:13:15
Tour operators eye rebound as opportunity knocks

Tour operators throughout Bangladesh are expecting a robust turnaround amid the upcoming holidays, hoping to capitalise on fresh opportunities brought on by the Padma Bridge, and the steady easing of Covid-19 restrictions worldwide.

Industry insiders say the operators are now busy chalking out different initiatives and packages to attract both foreign and local travelers towards the country’s top tourist destinations.  

The Padma Bridge – following inauguration in June this year – has made traveling to the country’s southwest regions much faster and easier, which in turn significantly boosted the number of people visiting the Sundarban and Kuakata areas.

Bangladesh will mark this year’s International Tourism Day 2022 – under the theme “Rethinking Tourism” – next Tuesday (September 27) with the goal to revitalise the country’s tourism sector.

Speaking to The Business Post, Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB) President Md Rafeuzzaman said, “The tourism sector began regaining its momentum after the Covid restrictions eased gradually. We are working on accelerating this growth.

“We want our tourists to enjoy Bangladesh instead of going abroad. We are working on different initiatives and campaigns in collaboration with the government and private organisations to attract foreign tourists.”

He continued, “We are working towards the goal of developing the tourism sector by learning from the epidemic and all the mistakes of the past, Tourism is not an industry that can achieve rapid growth.

“We cannot make a speedy comeback. It will be slow. However, we are making serious efforts in this regard. Although the fuel prices and inflation have gone up significantly, the industry is optimistic about making a gradual comeback in the post-pandemic period.”

The government is also giving a special importance to the tourism industry by providing a budgetary allocation of Tk 7,004 crores to the civil aviation and tourism sector in FY23, an increase by Tk 2,619 crores when compared year-on-year.

According to the Tourism Satellite Account 2020 report by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the tourism sector contributes 3.02 per cent to the country’s GDP in FY19, and provides 8.07 per cent of the overall employment opportunities.

Padma Bridge boosts potential

The country’s tourism sector got a big boost immediately after the opening of Padma Bridge, as it offers visitors heading towards any of the south-western districts a significant drop in travel time.

TOAB’s Rafeuzzaman said, “Previously, tourists using the ferry system suffered a lot due to the time-consuming process of crossing a river, which was necessary to visit Bagerhat, Kuakata and the Sundarbans.

“It used to take at least four hours to cross the river, and it discouraged potential visitors.”

As the bridge shortened travel time, people began visiting those regions more. Meanwhile, people living in the southern part of the country also began traveling to Cox’s Bazar, Rangamati and hill tract regions as tourists, thanks to the improved infrastructure.

The Padma Bridge and its adjacent areas are turning into a tourism hub, boosting the country’s economy. Project Hilsa, a restaurant, built nearing Padma River in 2021 has already gained much popularity among travellers and tourists.

Owners have also begun relocating their tourism businesses there to survive, insiders say.

Challenges faced by tourists

According to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) report, domestic tourists spent more than Tk 74,959 crore on tourism in FY19. The average cost of a day trip per person was Tk 2,260. On the other hand, the cost of an overnight trip was Tk 9,071.

Besides, it is estimated that around 29.21 lakh Bangladeshis traveled abroad during this period. In FY19, 16.4 lakh tourists visited Bangladesh, 13.5 lakh or 80.28 per cent of which were non-residential Bangladeshis, and the rest were foreigners.

The expenditure for outbound tourism is more than Tk 33,686 crore. Of this figure, more than Tk 7,494 crore was spent on traveling expenses.

Discussing challenges of tourists both foreign and domestic, Bangladesh Travel Writers Association President Ashrafuzzaman Ujjwal said, “There are no good travel guides featuring details about our top tourist destinations.

“When a foreigner leaves the airport to enter Bangladesh, there is nothing to guide him or her to popular tourist hotspots.”

He continued, “The hotels charge visitors exorbitantly for rent and food during the peak season in Cox’s Bazar. No one is regulating these businesses, and people do not know where to go to resolve any issue.

“Our tourism industry will never witness further development with traditional thinking. We must keep in mind how other countries in the world are upgrading their tourism industries. We have to follow in their footsteps.”

Tourism Resort Industries Association of Bangladesh (TRIAB) President Khabir Uddin Ahmed said, “We do not get many foreign travelers. Our own people are the lifeline of the local tourism industry. There are no initiatives to attract foreign tourists.

“We have no coordination with the authorities concerned. Besides, we cannot leave a good first impression on any foreigners visiting our country because we lack a good transportation system, coupled with gridlock, and bad road conditions.”

He continued, “There is no coordination or communication at the inter-ministerial level. People need good buses and cars to journey from a local airport to their destination. We simply do not have them. The government can provide some vehicles there under a duty-free facility.

“When people do not get to enjoy even the fundamentals of a tourist experience, they look elsewhere, especially at neighbouring countries. Besides, more people are now economically sound enough to embark on foreign trips.”

A number of industry insiders however said they are satisfied with the development of the tourism sector in the past several years. It is necessary to focus on marketing and branding to trigger an optimum growth in this sector, and above all, people should be tourism-friendly, they added.

Professor M Badruzzaman Bhuiyan, former chairman of Tourism and Hospitality Management Department at Dhaka University, said, “The government is focusing on tourism, but there is a lack of coordination and management, as well as professionalism in the industry.

“We must choose the right people in the right places to develop our tourism industry, to take it to its full potential.”

Initiatives underway to grab more market

Speaking to The Business Post, State Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism Md Mahbub Ali said, “We must present a positive image of our country to the world, and the government is working towards that goal.

“A tourism master plan is being prepared for planned and integrated development of tourist attractions across the country.”

He continued, “We have improved our infrastructure to attract and facilitate tourists. We have Padma Bridge built and Metro Rail and elevated expressway are under construction.

“The construction of Dhaka airport’s third terminal is underway, and flights will land on Cox’s Bazar runway touching the sea shore. These initiatives will help the country’s tourism industry move forward.”

He added that Bangladesh organises various tourism fairs to promote the country’s tourism industry, in a bid to attract both global and domestic travelers.

Echoing the same, Bangladesh Tourism Board Chief Executive Officer Abu Tahir Muhammad Zaber said, “We are working on a master plan on boosting tourism, and it will hopefully be completed by December this year.

“We have identified 1,051 tourist destinations across Bangladesh, and of these, we will create structural, investment and marketing plans for more than 50 hotspots. We will try to take our tourism forward with such initiatives.”

Bangladesh’s tourism sector has directly and indirectly incurred losses amounting Tk 60,000 crore due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s impacts, and 1,41,000 people lost their jobs, according to a research of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

Of the total losses, 40 per cent was incurred by the transportation industry, 29 per cent by hotels, and 25 per cent by resorts and restaurants.