The tourism and hospitality industry people say they always remain at the top of the casualty list of any adverse situation and at the bottom of the recovery list. This statement appears to be true. At least, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has proved them right. As the deadly coronavirus started spreading, the countries across the world, at the first instance, closed their borders, leading to an international travel ban. Countries affected by the virus also imposed lockdown from time to time, hurting different economic activities, including tourism.
When restrictions were relaxed, taking advantage of a notable decline in infection and fatality rates, some sectors got the permission to operate, but not the travel and tourism industry that contributes modestly to the country's gross domestic product (GDP). So, it has been incurring huge losses throughout the pandemic period. The relevant industry association estimates the loss at about Tk.114 billion.
The country's travel and tourism, both domestic and foreign, had been on a growth trajectory until the pandemic struck in the early part of 2020. The international tourism expenditure in Bangladesh was over 1.2 billion US dollars in 2018. Most spectacular development was being noticed in the internal tourism. Domestic visitors developed a habit of thronging all tourist spots throughout the year. Hotels and resorts in those places also did brisk business. Thus, a booming industry started creating a substantial number of jobs. This was possible because of the availability of spendable cash in the hands of a burgeoning middle-class.
But the shock the industry has got from the pandemic is overwhelming. Many units have been closed permanently, and about 0.3 million people working in hotels, restaurants, travel and tour operating agencies lost jobs. Hotels, including the posh ones, also suffered heavily. Their occupancy rate was as low as 20 per cent during the lockdown periods. Now, the government has partially withdrawn restrictions on the tourist spots and the hospitality industry. Some have started operations, but the response from the people has been lukewarm for understandable reasons. The rate of Covid infection, though declining, is still high, and tourism is not on the priority list of most people now as the pandemic has eaten into their savings. So, this industry, unlike others, would need more time to be in business even if the pandemic retreated.
The tourism and hospitality industry needs financial support to survive the ongoing crises. The government has made available a stimulus package worth Tk.10 billion for it. But its disbursement, reportedly, has not begun as the banks are yet to receive instructions from the central bank. The disbursement of loans needs to be expedited to help this important sector start operation and recoup its losses, at least partially.