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Right time to strengthen regional tourism cooperation in SAARC

South Asia, which is expected to see nearly 47.7 million travel and tourism jobs getting affected due to the COVID -19, needs to adopt a regional approach to in order to revive tourism sector. While the governments in the region moves from crisis to recovery planning, governments and destinations have an opportunity to think strategically about the future of their tourism sectors and implement policies that will improve the industry. Regional collaboration could help tourism throughout South Asia rebuild itself as a stronger, innovative industry, says World Bank.

Meenakshi Sharma, DG – Tourism, Govt of India opines that tourism in the neighboring countries is very crucial for India.  “There are so many things: history, heritage, culture, religion, architecture, cuisine etc. which we share all among our neighbors. We also have a lot of connectivity with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan etc. There is no reason that why we should not have a very strong regional tourism. We do get numbers from region but there is a whole new scope of improvement on Buddhism, the Himalayas, beaches, Sundarbans etc. The linkages are very strong. Only thing is how to take benefit of this. India is very keen, and we are working on the Act East policy,” Sharma said.

Almost all countries from South Asia feel that regional tourism is the way forward. “The enhancement of regional cooperation on tourism will be not only useful to the successful restoration of tourism but far beyond. This could be pursued at the government level through the existing structures like the SAARC or even create a new body.  This body could discuss various matters such as minimum common standard and protocols under new normal tourism, facilitating seamless transit, entry, exit of tourists, development of regional circuit tourism packages, common marketing and promotional strategies. Special arrangements like the travel bubble and green lane could be also discussed and developed,” Dorji Dhradhul, Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan, says.

Maldives, which depend on tourism for 60 per cent of GDP and jobs, reopened its tourism sector on July 15 with strict safety standards to protect vacationers and employees from the coronavirus. “This pandemic has definitely brought countries closer together as we fight against a common threat. Thus, it's important for us to strengthen the relationship between tourism promotional bodies, tourism regulatory bodies & NGO’s within the region, to assist in cross promotional activities,” Thoyyib Mohamed, MD, Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation, said and added that each country is gifted with its own uniqueness thus by utilizing the media and various mediums in each country to promote the similarities (cuisines & culture) we share within the region to restore the tourism sector to its prior status.

Javed Ahmed, CEO, Bangladesh Tourism Board, also shares the similar opinion. “Due to pandemic, it is better to promote short-haul tourism than long-haul. In this connection, regional integration like extended group tour programs, regional MICE, study trips, health tourism etc. can be formed to restore the tourism sector,” Ahmed said.

Dhananjay Regmi, CEO, Nepal Tourism Board opines that supporting each other’s’ tourism is crucial for the restoration of regional tourism. “Cooperation and collaboration should be the main ‘mantra’ in the recovery phase. Intense homework has been done previously on regional tourism promotion; BIMSTEC, SASEC, Great Himalayan Trail to name a few.  We must fall back on the knowledge and experiences collected earlier for these projects. We share the Buddhist heritage, and the grand nature and culture of the Himalayas. I believe that with strategic promotion, customized packaging, effective branding, tourism sector of the region will definitely gain momentum once the crisis takes a backseat,” Regmi opined.

Challenges

Despite so much of similarities, the regional tourism is prospering in the region.  South Asia is blessed with diverse cultural and natural heritage; however, the potential remains largely untapped. Together, we can take tourism to the next level, by improving air connectivity, streamlining immigration procedures, sharing of information and best practices, promoting collaborative research and innovation, enhancing the quality of services, promoting private sector participation, etc. However, the biggest impact will come from improving the personal safety of a tourist,” Dhradhul said and informed that while COVID 19 has added the health safety as a new priority for everyone, but all along even without COVID 19 or similar health pandemic, South Asia does not have a good reputation as far as personal safety is concerned. “South Asia in general is viewed as “not so safe” to travelers. Therefore, South Asia needs to do a lot in correcting this wrong reputation. This will have a significant influence on making South Asia a popular destination. This is of course a major task that will demand concerted efforts from all countries and more critically from every citizen,” Dhradhul suggested.  

According to Regmi, the prime factors that constrain the growth of tourism in South Asia are lack of access, tourism infrastructure and lack of trained manpower. These are inadequate in the rural areas especially in the Himalayan region that have high tourism potential. Similarly, sanitation and hygiene standards are sometimes not on par international standards, and we are losing out to that. Insufficient promotion of products and destinations play a part. Apart from these, I also think we position ourselves low due to our developing economy. If we can brand and position as high-value tourism region, our tourism sector will move towards quality and sustainable,” Regmi opined.

Echoing the similar opinion, Mohamed says that strengthening the air connectivity further from the key cities within the region could play a vital role in promoting tourism within the region. “During this time, charters also could be something that will work. Additionally, strong relationships between tourism boards, tourism NGO’s can help to create awareness within the region. Our simple lifestyles & welcoming culture are interconnected within this region; hence we believe that this could be an added advantage in terms of regional promotion,” Mohamed added.

Ahmed also speaks on similar line. “Lack of regional integration, unstable social and political situation, excessive tour cost and lack of security are the main constraints for the growth of tourism in South Asia. To overcome this constraint, we should be more supportive for each other and more tourist friendly.

Long term measures

Currently Maldives is perceived as a honeymooners and couples only destination among Indian market. “Maldives offers varieties of options for families, adventure with lots of water spotting activities, health & wellness, MICE combined with leisure, hence we strongly believe that we should heavily promote these segments among Indians to create a more resilient region. Additionally, penetrating into other niche segments, such as the multi-billion Indian film industry. In terms of location, we are blessed to have amazing natural beauty, both above and under the water which is ideal to shoot movies, travel documentaries, travel magazines etc.,” Mohamed said.

Dhradhul suggests formation of a regional tourism body to facilitate effective networking and solidarity. “One important mandate of this body could be to give a new reputation to the region - that "South Asia is a very safe for travelers". The region could also champion the practice of sustainable tourism driven by the development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Development of strong regional and domestic tourism could be other measures to build resilience in the tourism sector. The region could also have a regional tourism development fund which could be also used for recovery and rebuilding during such unforeseen difficult times,” Dhradhul suggested.

Regmi feels that this is the right time to prepare for a more sustainable and resilient future of the region’s tourism industry. “We must invest in eco-friendly infrastructure, train tourism manpower thoroughly, promote sustainable-responsible-green tourism exclusively to build resilient destinations and communities. Similarly, we need a tourism industry that works closely with the governments and communities. Raising the bar in tourism services through close adhering to safety protocols and hygiene, diversified products for quality experience of visitors could also play a role in the same. We must also try to cut off heavy dependency by promoting to increase arrivals from within the region,” Regmi said.

According to Ahmed, primarily we should focus on the strong regional integration to build resilience in this region. “After this, we can initiate a comprehensive approach for tourism development and promotion that can be ranged from low cost tourism to build up a common platform for promotion and marketing,” Ahmed revealed. 

Instilling confidence

Meanwhile, countries are working on confidence building measures (CBM)to draw tourists. “Reinstating traveler’s confidence in Nepal, as a destination, especially pertaining to health, hygiene and sanitation, is our prime priority now. To ensure safety to tourists as well as the industry and the public, we have come up with "Covid-19 Safety and Hygiene Protocol for Tourism Industry". The protocol guidelines aim to support the industry in gaining back confidence of clients in the domestic and international market, and in mitigating the crisis among staff and the industry,” Regmi informed.

Fortunately for Bhutan, due to their long-standing tourism policy of High-value Low volume, the Kingdom would not require big changes in their policy and practice. “We will be focusing on reinforcing the tourism policy of High-Value Low Volume, which we have been practicing for the last fifty years. Under this unique policy, all tours in Bhutan is guided to ensure safe and exclusive experience of tourists, which could be an important element in the new normal in tourism. This will be further reinforced with our story of, how successfully we are containing the COVID 19 pandemic as evidenced by the fact that Bhutan has the lowest positive cases in the region and no loss of life to date,” Dhradhul said. Bangladesh will maintain frequent communication with our their consumers and provide excellent offers to rebuild the consumer trust and confidence for the tourism recovery.

To ensure safety of all travellers, Health Protection Agency of Maldives has made it mandatory for all inbound travelers to present a negative PCR certificate on arrival. “This has to be done within a maximum of 72 hours prior to departure to Maldives. Tourists will be allowed to visit the Maldives without any form of quarantine and travellers are required to submit a health declaration card before arrival and it is available online too,” Mohamed said.

According to World Bank, a full recovery of South Asia tourism is likely to take 18 months or more. “Domestic tourism will recover first, followed by intraregional travel between areas designated as “COVID-19 safe zones.”  International long-haul travel will likely be the last to reappear,” the World Bank said in a blog.

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