The tourism and hospitality sector – one of the industries hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic given all the border closures, travel restrictions and lockdowns – is facing an existential threat amid a lack of support from banks.
Industry insiders say in spite of being the largest among all industries in the service sector, they have not received any loan under the government-announced stimulus package meant for pandemic-affected industries and the service sector.
And left without any protective measures from the authorities concerned and staring at bleak business prospects in the near future, some of the investors in the sector are shifting to other sectors.
Toufiq Rahman, an inbound tour operator of the country, has been dealing mainly with tourists from the United Kingdom, countries in the European Union, and the United States of America since 1994.
His company, Journey Plus, has been offering two tour packages for foreign tourists in Dhaka, North Bengal and the Sundarbans. However, all of the scheduled group tours of his company for this year were cancelled by the tourists following the global outbreak of Covid-19 from January last.
The pitiable condition of inbound tour operators like Toufiq reflects the overall picture of the tourism and hospitality industry that generates employment for around 40 lakh people, according to the Tour Operator Association of Bangladesh (Toab).
Travel agents, tour operators, tour guides, Hajj and Umrah agencies, hoteliers and restaurant owners, resort and guest house owners, aviation and transportation (vehicles and vessels) owners are among the stakeholders of the tourism and hospitality sector going through the instant effects of the pandemic.
According to estimates by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) Bangladesh Chapter, losses incurred by the sector due to the pandemic may exceed Tk18,000 crore by December this year.
Besides, over 300,000 workers in the country's tourism sector may have lost their jobs by June this year amid the crisis, the organisation estimates, adding that the number has increased further in the last five months.
Meanwhile, industry insiders say the entire sector's recovery so far is not more than 20% of the pre-pandemic level and that too is mainly covered by the hospitality sector. Besides, lay off and furlough situations did not develop enough.
Even though the hospitality business started to turn around to some extent following the withdrawal of the general holidays in May this year, a spike in the novel coronavirus from November has led to a renewed slowdown in the business.
"In my 27-year career in tourism, I have never faced such a gloomy situation in business," said Toufiq of Journey Plus. He is also the secretary general of Pata Bangladesh Chapter.
"Around 550-600 foreigners visited Bangladesh last year through my firm. Normally, we get schedules from tourists one year prior to an upcoming visit. But we've not yet received any proposal for next year and don't see any hope until 2022," he added.
Amid such bleak prospects, the industry people are finding it extremely difficult to stay afloat as they have not even got any loan support under the stimulus package. The Bangladesh Tourism Board also acknowledged that the sector has been denied financial assistance by banks.
Md Rafeuzzaman, president of Toab, said, "The prime minister has announced a Tk30,000 crore support package for affected industries and service sector organisations. Despite being a service sector, we did not get any loan from banks."
"Many tour operators have shifted their business to other sectors as it is a question of survival. It appears that there is no one to see to our problems," he added.
"I have a travel agency business. But we cannot sell tickets as the number of flights is not sufficient. Therefore, most travel agencies are also sufferers like tour operators," he added.
Dr Jabed Ahmed, chief executive officer (CEO) of Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB), said, "Tourism and hospitality is the largest industry in the service sector. We have tried a lot to support the sector but failed to convince bankers to provide loans to the sector."
Syed Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of Mutual Trust Bank, earlier told TBS, "Historically, tourism is not an attractive sector for bank investment. On average, the default rate is high in this sector. So, banks are not interested in giving loans to them."
Zero recovery for travel agents, tour operator and Hajj agencies
Inbound tour operators deal with most foreign tourists but their recovery is at the zero level, as hardly any foreign tourists have come to the country since the lifting of the shutdown.
Outbound tour operators also are suffering in a similar way, as people are refraining from making foreign trips.
This is a reason why around 1,000 tour guides of the country have remained jobless for the last couple of months.
According to the Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB), the number of foreign visitors and tourists has increased by around 130% over the last five years.
In 2015, 1.4 lakh foreign tourists visited Bangladesh. In the following years, their number kept rising, with two lakh coming to the country in 2016, about 2.6 lakh in 2017, around 2.7 lakh in 2018, and around 3.2 lakh in 2019, according to BTB data.
However, the BTB did not have data of visitors till March 2020.
"We collect data from the special branch of immigration police. We have not got the data for this year yet," said a BTB official.
It is estimated that around 30-35 lakh Bangladeshis visit foreign countries for different purposes, including the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, every year. Of them, around 10 lakh go abroad through different tour operators.
But Hajj and Umrah-linked businesses have collapsed this year.
The Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (Haab) currently has around 1,238 members, while the number of its officers and employees, including owners of Hajj agencies, is around 20,000.
Besides, around 1 lakh people are involved in the sector indirectly in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, according to Haab.
M Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of Haab, said, "Although the Saudi government has lifted a ban on Umrah pilgrimage, it has set a number of conditions that include the maximum age limit of 50 years for international pilgrims. This will make interested pilgrims abstain from Umrah in the coming months. We expect Bangladeshis intending to go on Umrah pilgrimage to do so from next January."
Expressing shock over not getting access to the incentive package, he said, "We don't know who's got loans under the huge allocation of the stimulus package announced for the service sector."
Meanwhile, around 4,000 registered travel agencies that exclusively deal with air ticketing are one of the worst affected sub-sectors of the tourism industry.
Mahmodul Hoque Pearu, a travel agent, said, "Only 5 % of flights are operating now compared to pre-pandemic times. Because many countries have imposed too many conditions, airlines are not interested in operating flights. Passengers also are refraining from touring abroad because of this."
"Only International Air Transport Association (IATA)-listed travel agencies can sell tickets at this moment. The number of such agencies in the country is not more than 300, but their profit margin is only 1%, as tickets have become costlier and airlines are not giving profits in most cases."
Business in the aviation sector has also been hit hard, as travel restrictions imposed amid the pandemic have led to flight suspensions.
Mofizur Rahman, secretary general of Aviation Operators Association of Bangladesh (AOAB), said, "We were gradually recovering business till October. But the business has slowed down as the Covid-9 infection rate is on the rise again."
He mentioned that private aviation operators of the country lost around Tk1,200 crore till November this year.
Hospitality sector waiting for vaccine
Hoteliers say that they are not getting business as international guests are not coming amid the flight shortage.
Dhaka-based posh hotels and restaurants do not have sufficient occupancy. More than 200 resorts also are suffering from an insufficient guest flow.
Khabir Uddin Ahmed, president of Tourism Resort Owners Association of Bangladesh, said, "We were able to recover the guest occupancy to around 60% gradually till October. But now the guest flow is not more than 35-40%."
In such a situation, industry insiders are waiting for the vaccination programme to start in the hope that this will change their business status. ***