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SAARC nations must strengthen tourism ties to boost regional tourism

Globally, it has been an accepted fact today that covid-19 is here to stay. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Governments across the globe have majorly focused on striking a balance between lives and livelihood. Tourism and hospitality industry have been the worst hit segments and will be one of the last ones to revive. With majority of the governments giving a green signal to restart tourism cautiously, domestic tourism will be the fuel to keep the industry running.

Experts are of the opinion that regional tourism will act as a starting point for the international travel. Neighbouring destinations are now looking at bilateral travel and devising ways to enhance regional tourism. India being the main stakeholder of the SAARC Region, developing strong relations in the tourism front across the region is the need of the hour.

To further brainstorm and discuss the opportunities to strengthen tourism ties within the SAARC region SATTE Bangladesh and T3 organised an e-conference recently titled, ‘COVID -19: Regional/Short-haul Tourism is the only Way Forward’. Moderated by Murari Mohan Jha, Editor, T3, the e-conference witnessed eminent speakers from across the fraternity including; Suman Billa, Director, Technical Cooperation & Silk Road Development, UNWTO; Subhash Goyal, Honorary Secretary, FAITH; Madubhani Perera, Actg Managing Director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau; Deepak Raj Joshi, Former CEO, Nepal Tourism Board;  Jabed Ahmed, Chief Executive Officer, Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB); HM Hakim Ali, President, Bangladesh Int. Hotel Association- (BIHA) and Rezaul Ekram, President, Bangladesh Inbound Tour Operators Association

Fostering regional connect

SAARC region has been very closely knit and have various ties with respect to trade and commerce. Tourism is one segment which needs more of G2G talks and the present scenario is an opportunity to develop this relation.

“The principle across the world is that domestic will lead. At the second level, regional travel will surely happen. It’s important how SAARC can structure this. We need to make alternate arrangements to make sure hotel and tourism industry is supported. Also, the Governments confidence level is low. If you are not to be quarantined, you need to step into the country with an antibody test with a certificate. The second option is with a vaccine certificate, whenever it’s out. Globally, we see development of travel bubbles or safe travel zones as an interim arrangement made to restart travel before vaccines are introduced. These are done by countries which are very successful in handling the pandemic like Baltic countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), second is the Trans-Tasmania (Australia, New Zealand), UK and France are in a state of active discussions, also Greece is looking at an arrangement with Cyprus and some other countries. In the interim, it will be the regional arrangements that will go forward,” Billa said.

Speaking about the challenges which needs to be countered, Billa added, “SAARC Countries have a huge challenge of perception in terms of safety and hygiene. We may not rank very high, we need to work on this. We need to restore consumer confidence. There also needs to be health protocol by the Health Ministry apart from Tourism Ministry. Governments need to sit and discuss how to go forward. We need to establish testing and border control protocols so that risk gets mitigated. It will take some time to come with these SOPs in place. We can carve out zones initially before opening the entire country. It’s an opportunity for SAARC and can be led very strongly. If there is a strong protocol in place things can be seamless.”

There has been a lot of private connects in the region, but somehow Governments have never discussed tourism at greater lengths within the region.

“As other parts of the world, even in Nepal, travel and tourism is the worst hit which is eight per cent economy revenue generator. I see a potential of the region coming together, with such incredible offerings. India in 2019 received nearly 18 million ITAs including NRIs, Sri Lanka 2.3 million, Bangladesh near 1 million and Nepal with 1.2 million. So roughly when we talk about these four countries, we have received around 22.5 million international tourists. When we talk about outbound, these four countries send around 31 million travellers altogether. There is a huge market here for us. In private sector, there has been some collaborations over the years, but it is very low in Government level. From private perspective, we have to network more and jointly market these destinations. We need to communicate our strength and market more aggressively. From Government side, we need to work together for a seamless collaboration,” Joshi stated.  

One of the first countries in the region to open up inbound tourism is Sri Lanka. The destination has comparatively a smaller number of cases and has successfully contained the spread of covid-19. Sri Lanka is set to restart international tourism from August 1.

Divulging the plans and SOPs in place, Perera said, “Sri Lanka is very fortunate as we have controlled the situation to an extent with very few cases. The Covid-19 Combat Task Force headed by the President has decided that tourism will be open to the world from August 1. The committee is already working on the protocol to open the tourism sector. For the moment the decisions taken regarding inbound, travellers need to take a PCR test 72 hours before boarding the aircraft. Once the reach they will again be tested and put in a hotel for 24 hours. If they are positive, they will be sent to a quarantined hotel else they can enjoy the tour. Once again 5-6 days later the traveller will be tested. We will make sure that traveller is safe in the country. Travellers should minimum stay for five nights to enter will be the new protocol. We are also considering with five-year multiple entry visa with maximum six months stay which will encourage repeat clients.”

Bangladesh Tourism is now working on a plan to restart and revive tourism segment with a major focus on domestic and cross border tourism. The destination has suffered over US$1500 million alone from the tourism segment during the covid-19 pandemic.

“Tourism is an important economy driver for our region. The most prolonged impact across the globe will be in tourism which contributes up to 10 per cent of the global GDP. Nearly 1.18 million direct and 2.3 million indirect are working in this sector who are impacted in Bangladesh.  Recently, Bangladesh Tourism Board has experienced a loss of US$1500 million in tourism to Bangladesh. We have come up with an integrated plan to restart tourism. Tourism establishment and services should follow strictly the protocol released by the Government. Our immediate focus will be on the short haul and domestic tourism instead of the long haul. With less money in the pockets of the people they would want to travel, long haul seems difficult. In this backdrop, regional and cross border tourism could be our first choice to restart the business. I do call for a solidarity and a greater unity in our SAARC region,” Ahmed said.  

Private Perspective

Over the last couple of months, the tour operators and travel agents’ segment were looking for a few reliefs from the government. With a few relief measures in place, the private sector is now looking to build new relations within the region to give a major impetus to the cross-border and regional tourism.

“The entire Indian tourism industry has been completely impacted. For the hoteliers also there is a 95 per cent impact, the rest five per cent are near airport or used as quarantine centres. Recently, the domestic flights restarted with all protocols and precautions in place, only passengers who are fit to travel are allowed. We have now learnt to live with covid-19. FAITH has made representations to the Prime Minister and the Tourism Minister; the government is looking at providing some relief. A lot of countries have successfully contained the virus and have started living with the virus, we also need to adopt similar protocols. In India, we are working as one team with Ministry of Tourism. We can also think of collaboration in a lot of fronts. My recommendations to the tourism boards is that we must live with this virus. We can carry certificates till vaccines come that we are corona negative. All protocols by IATA and ICAO needs to be strictly followed,” Goyal said.

Bangladesh has been the number one source market for India as per the latest statistics. But industry experts from Bangladesh don’t see a similar reciprocal from their neighbours in terms of inbound traffic.

Ali said, “We have already advised all the owners to be prepared with all SOPs and be ready to open hotels. Unless Bangladesh is included in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka tour operator’s itineraries, there won’t be regional travel. Bangladeshi travellers are going across the region, but the reciprocal is very less. We are all ready to cater to regional markets, but we would want Bangladesh to be included in itineraries.”

Echoing similar opinion, Ekram added, “We should now stand together to fight and bring back tourism to the right place. We are in a geographical location with 25 per cent of the world population living, which means our tourism can bounce back. Our travellers will be eager to travel within the country and later in the region. We will start our domestic tourism first with SOPs in place. Cross Border tourism is very important as we have good connectivity with Nepal and India. We are the top inbound travellers in India, but we are not getting that big numbers from India. Cross border tourism will happen, in terms of regional travels we need to have bilateral itineraries. When SAARC started there was a special airfare for the region, which we need to reinforce to attract more travellers. The SAARC entry fee should be implemented by all nations. If possible, like ASEAN, we need a NTOs research cell where we can come out with data to revive.”

Responding to the scenario, Goyal added, “Bangladesh needs to do more roadshows in India for visibility as other regional tourism boards are very active. When tourism was down, we started various travel marts across the country. Similarly, Bangladesh is a beautiful destination but needs marketing. We have been going to Europe, America and other countries but we need to promote within the region. We need more buyer-seller meets in our region. We want to promote Bangladesh in a big way. SAARC tourism fares was there where all national carriers were giving 25 per cent discount, we need to introduce that. Visa fee for travellers within SAARC region should be very less. Also, we need to mull for a joint SAARC visa similar to Shengen region. We need to have a bilateral exchange of our currencies; this will help us making our money more effective.”

Role of SATTE

Over the years SATTE, South Asia’s largest travel and trade expo has played a major role in binding the tourism interests of the region. The exhibition has been a major platform for the entire region to collaborate and network. Regional Tourism Boards feel that SATTE needs to be the platform to foster regional relations.

Speaking about SATTE, Goyal said, “I am one of the founder members of SATTE, when I was the president of IATO, as we wanted inter-regional tourism in the South Asia region. Small tour operators could not attend big events across the globe, so this platform was created. SATTE has to now play the historical role to connect the entire region, it has over the years done a brilliant job. We need to have regional cooperation between South Asian Countries.”

This year, SATTE was set to debut in Bangladesh with SATTE Bangladesh in August, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition has been pushed to the next year. “SATTE was looking to organize in Bangladesh but has been postponed for another date. We are looking forward for such an event to network and connect with our counterparts from across the region,” Ali opined.

Similarly, some experts feel that SATTE should be held across the region to boost tourism in those destinations. Joshi said, “Experts feel that Asia is a source of hope for travel to the world. We have to come closer. SATTE itself is a big platform which brings the entire region together and you are planning to come up with an event in Bangladesh. I would propose that you can also organize in Colombo or Katmandu to further strengthen the collaboration.”

Echoing similar opinion, Perera added, “When we consider regional travel, we need to make south Asia the most flexible region for travel. SATTE was long back held in Sri Lanka, we can once again revive that with help of SAARC region.”

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