The year 2020 is probably the worst year in the history of tourism across the world. Due to the rapid spreading of the Covid-19 virus worldwide, many countries have stopped issuing tourist visas to foreigners and allowing only domestic tourism to some extent.
The major sectors that are suffering immensely due to the sharp decline in tourism are the airlines and hotel industries with Bangladesh being no exception. While there is no sign of a rebounce in the tourism sector to its pre-COVID-19 level anytime soon, there are certainly ways to mitigate the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
This column aims to look at some of the initiatives that can be taken to chart the course.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries located in South Asia, having borders with India and Myanmar, with access to the Bay of Bengal. Being a riverine, low-lying and located in a strategic geographical area, Bangladesh has been bestowed with treasures of natural beauty, hundreds of significant relics from old and middle age civilisations and thousands of man-made establishments (e.g., the tea garden).
Despite having plenty of tourist destinations, the tourism industry is still in its nascent stage even after 49 years of independence.
Undoubtedly, tourism is one of the important components of the service industry for most countries nowadays, and many East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) have used this platform to develop and diversify their economies. Ample literature has investigated the link between tourism and various aspects of an economy and found positive effects such as growth, employment, foreign exchange earnings, productivity, community development, the welfare of the residents, etc.
Despite having tremendous potential, the tourism industry in Bangladesh did not perform well when compared with some of its South Asian counterparts.
For example, Figure 1 shows the tourist arrivals in Bangladesh and that of the selected South Asian countries from 2000 to 2014. While the arrivals of foreign tourists have substantially increased for Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal from 2009, Bangladesh has observed a slight decline since then. This has not only raised the question of tourism policies undertaken by the government of Bangladesh but also raised concerns for the future development of the tourism industry.
On top of that, tourism receipts as a percentage of total exports also shows a declining trend from 2000 to 2015, which indicates that Bangladesh has failed to enjoy the maximum economic benefits of tourism. The potential outcome of this declining trend also revealed that the economic activities of the tourism industry also suffered an economic slump and poses a credible threat to the employment of thousands of people involved in the industry.
While many countries are now transforming and diversifying their economy and economic activities, Bangladesh should also reduce its dependency on apparel export as a core contributor to her export earnings to cope with various external shocks. Recently, oil-dependent Saudi Arabia has taken major economic reforms to reduce its dependency on oil exports and to engage in other economic activities especially tourism. As a result, the Saudi government has taken several initiatives that include visa-free travel for some nationalities and exemptions of various rules for foreign tourists, among others.
In a recent report published by the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh has improved in travel and tourism competitiveness index (TTCI) from 125th position to 120th among 140 countries in 2019. While the recent report may bring some hope to many, it also implies that the tourism industry in Bangladesh has certainly disappointed many stakeholders due to its slow pace. It also raises concerns over why Bangladesh has done so poorly in tourism growth and what would be the solution to overcome those challenges.
While there is no shortcut and one-size-fits-all strategy to revive the tourism industry overnight, there are certainly ways that the government can undertake to promote tourism in the country. For example, some of the countries became successful in attracting tourists by eliminating visa requirements, such as Indonesia. Indonesia observed a sharp rise in tourist arrivals after it started issuing free visas (literally no visa is required for hundreds of countries) and aggressive promotion. Moreover, countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have started issuing e-visas to many countries to ensure hassle-free travel. Issuing e-visas has a couple of implications. For example, it can save resources for the issuing country and earn foreign currency by minimising the issuing cost.
While Bangladesh has recently taken several initiatives to issue visas to foreign tourists, the majority of the people still have to apply for a visa manually through the embassy/consulate in different countries. While most officials and diplomats can travel to Bangladesh without a visa, some countries are entitled to get on-arrival visas or e-visas. However, if Bangladesh wishes to attract more foreign tourists, we have to liberalise the visa application process by allowing more countries to get on-arrival or e-visas.
Generally, not all countries will succeed in promoting tourism. Some countries are naturally blessed while others are not. Geographically, Bangladesh is blessed with plenty of tourist spots and the capacity to host thousands of tourists. Unfortunately, tourist arrivals and export earnings from the tourism industry is experiencing a declining trend, which exposes the inefficiency of marketing and promoting tourism to the outside world. Moreover, the infrastructure development in the country may not be at the ideal level yet, hence, transportation facilities within the country should receive special attention from the respective authorities. Moreover, coordination among various ministries/departments should also be enhanced to ensure that there is no ambiguity in implementing the tourism policies effectively.
It is imperative to understand that for a country to excel in a particular sector, a well-planned execution of policies through strong institutions is a prerequisite. The importance of proper and effective tourism policies to cope with many global challenges should be given special attention by the policymakers and respective authorities. To formulate effective tourism policies and enhance institutional strength, a visionary mindset is significantly important due to rising geopolitical issues. Well-equipped and resourceful tourism organisations in Bangladesh could be the stepping stone to support future exponential growth in the industry.
The author is a senior lecturer at the School of Management, University Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.
Note: This short column is based on the author's previous book chapter, which is available at, https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781003007241/chapters/10.4324/978...