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Bangladesh tourism and COVID-19

Shihab Sarkar | Monday, 23 March 2020


Since the very beginning of the onslaught of novel coronavirus, its impact on world tourism has been quite graphic. A spot was the coast off Japan. A cruise-liner filled with hundreds of tourists was seen to have been docked at the place as the terrible virus started wreaking havoc on China, not too far from Japan. The liner was alleged to have 174 coronavirus-positive holidaymakers on board. After a few days, the corona victims were evacuated from the luxury ship.

This incident was perhapsthe first casethat demonstrated the disease's assault on tourists and tourism.

A distressing scenario vis-à-vis the negative impact of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 on Bangladesh tourism began unfolding weeks later. By that time, a number of the COVID-19 cases had been detected in the country. Media photographs of the country's two beaches without tourists amply showed the plight of the sector. Tour operators nowforecast a bleak future awaiting the sector.

Still, a section of domestic tourists dared to visit a few spots amid the panicky situation caused by the pandemic in the making. Many noticed in the desperation of these tourists their inherent love for moving out of home and visiting the sites of their choice. However, they couldn't go further. In a few days, the district and local administrations slapped stringent bans on visiting tourist spots. Hotel and motel owners were asked to discourage the eager tourists from staying at those accommodations.

Apart from the government directive, fear of contracting the disease has in the recent days led to tourists dropping their tour programmes. Cancellation of domestic and international flightshas added to the worsening of the situation. At the same time, on-arrival visas for tourists from all countries remain suspended for now. The suspension is set to be in force till March 31. In this highly depressing, as well as fraught situation, the popular tourist spots lie vacant. Apart from Cox's Bazar and Patenga, the places include Kuakata, St. Martin's Island, Sitakunda and a number of tourist resorts constructed deep inside the forests of Bandarban and Rangamati districts. Tourists are also found not much enthusiastic this season to visit the sites in the greater Sylhet and Moulvibazar.

Against this backdrop, tour operators have invariably arrived at the conclusion: Bangladesh tourism and hotel sector has fallen on real bad times. The impact of COVID-19 has proved so massive that it might take years for the sector to return to its normal shape. Following the terrible Holey Artisan incident in 2016, tourism in Bangladesh witnessed a headlong plunge in terms of visits to its attractive places by both domestic and overseas tourists. Over the last four years, Bangladesh was able to experience a spectacular revival. Tourists once again began rushing to the popular spots. A number of new beaches were discovered in greater Chattogram. Similarly following their spotting, tourists started visiting in droves the newly located sites in the interior zones of Sylhet and Moulvibazar. In short, the country's tourism sector got back its past splendour without having to wait inordinately.

In 2020, the novel coronavirus dealt a fresh blow to the recuperating sector. It fell on the nation like a bolt from the blue. Like all sectors, people involved in the tourism business have started drawing a picture on the estimated losses that may have to be incurred in the future. With the popular spots lying deserted, hotels closed and the means of reaching there not operating, a sense of foreboding has already gripped the tour operators.As they have observed lately, they are finding themselves to be the 'worst victims' of coronavirus outbreak. Though it may sound a little overstatement, the ground realitycorroborates their observation. Conforming to the imperative of coping with the bad times pragmatically, the tour operators association has put off the plan to hold the Bangladesh Travel and Tourism Fair on April 3-5. According to reliable sources, the number tourist arrivals in the last couple of months have fallen by 70 per cent. This portends a calamitous future for the sector, which had started witnessing a spectacular resurgence.

According to tourist experts, the months of February-March have long been the season most ideal for visiting the country's major beaches. Many tourists pick this time for visiting the St. Martin's Island as well. In fact, these post-winter months see domestic tourists fan out across almost all the tour spots. A few venturesome tour enthusiasts choose the Sundarbans during this time just before the start of the stormy season accompanying rain. Almost all plans by domestic tourists on visiting these spots this season have either been cancelled out of fear of contracting coronavirus, or due to the emergency restrictions imposed by local authorities. It is really sad to note that an unforeseen adversity has befallen the sector, when the number of domestic tourists has started registering a steady rise. To add to the tour operators' optimism, newer tourist sites have kept being discovered --- at least one in every three months. At the same time, overseas tourists also began trickling in to visit the largely overlooked country. Perhaps this quest has driven over a dozen German and eight Japanese tourists to undertake a short trip to the country this March. The programme has been cancelled.

Thanks to its limited number of sites, Bangladesh could hardly attract tourists from abroad. Prior to the present rise in the number of domestic tourists, the local middle and upper-middle classes used to be reluctant to visit far-away places as a pastime. Due to foreign TV footage based on tourism and tour operators' campaigns, this mental set-up has kept undergoing slow changes. In the last couple of years, the tourism sector has managed to muster capability to be recognised as a catalyst, though negligible, to the national economic growth. But the coronavirus dread is feared to blur the achievement.

shihabskr@ymail.com