Bengal Tours, a leading inbound tour operator, had around 100 visitors from Europe and Japan due in between October and the first week of November but all of them abandoned their planned trips, according to Masud Hossain, the company’s executive director.
Local tour operators in Bangladesh are passing through a slump with foreign visitors calling off their trips in droves for fear of getting caught in political turbulence.
“We have been badly hit by this volatile political situation,” Taufiq Uddin Ahmed, president of Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB), said.
Similarly, Galaxy Holidays, another inbound tour operator, had bookings from around 60 tourists from France, Germany, China, Taiwan and Japan in November, all of which were cancelled, said Syed G Qadir, the company’s general manager.
“And the ones who braved it, it was a wasted trip for them,” said Hossain, while citing the case of a group of 15 tourists who recently arrived in Bangladesh on a 23-day tour to be struck with 17 days of countrywide and district-level shutdowns.
The company has bookings for upwards of 100 tourists towards the end of this month, but Hossain expects them to be cancelled as well.
The recent spate of cancellations, he says, has cost the company around $50,000. “And it will get worse in the coming days.”
Hossain is not alone—the other tour operators, too, share his gloomy outlook.
A large number of foreign and domestic tourists usually go to the Sundarbans at this time of the year for the ‘Ras Mela festival’, one of the biggest traditional festivals for the Hindus, said Mohiuddin Helal, director of Green Holidays Tours.
“Frustratingly, we had to cancel the tours this year because of the shutdowns,” he said, adding that his company has abandoned its tours on the Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar route as well.
But it is the long-term impact of the political turmoil that worries Helal the most.
“Foreign tourists generally make their travel plans 6-12 months in advance ahead. I am pretty sure the ongoing turbulence will put off a good number of prospective tourists.”
Qadir also expressed his concern about the volume of tourists in the next six months, while citing the case of 21 Russian tour operators who got caught in the ongoing hartal. “Naturally, they would go back to Russia and forbid their social network from visiting Bangladesh.”
Tourist movement is a key challenge during hartals as transport operators refuse to rent vehicles for fear of vandalism, said the TOAB president.
To get by, tour operators rent ambulances or use waterways and air, all of which significantly increase the operating costs.
It is not just the tour operators who are affected by the political unrest; hoteliers and airliners are also incurring huge loses.
For Cox’s Bazar’s hospitality sector, the political unrest could not have come at a worse time, as November to February is the peak season for tourist arrivals at the seaside town.
For instance, Hotel The Cox Today, which usually have nearly 70 percent occupancy at this time of the year, have only 10-15 percent of its 276 rooms in use, said Mohiuddin Khan Khokon, the hotel’s director for sales and marketing.
“We are almost ruined as there are no tourists in hotels here,” said Omar Sultan, president of Cox’s Bazar Hotel-Motel and Guest House Owners Association, adding that around 95 percent of the bookings with different hotels, motels and guest houses in Cox’s Bazar have been already been cancelled.
As a result, some 5,000 staff members have been laid-off, he added.
Airlines, too, are staring at losses, with the Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar route either getting cancelled or bringing in refunds.
“We usually cut down our flights during shutdowns, but nowadays we are failing to run even the handful of flights due to the thin presence of passengers,” said Mofizur Rahman, managing director of Novoair, a new operator on the domestic route.
The airline had to cancel few flights on the Jessore and Cox’s Bazar route over the last couple of days.
If the situation continues for long, the country will incur huge revenue losses every day from the tourism sector, the TOAB president said.
The travel and tourism sector raked in Tk 19,300 crore, or 2.1 percent of the GDP, in 2012, and was forecasted to improve on the figure by 7.7 percent in 2013, a study by World Travel and Tourism Council found.
In 2012, the sector also registered Tk 3,730 crore investments, which is 1.6 percent of total investments for the year, according to the study.