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27 Jun, 2005

Bangladesh Executives Bemoan Tourism Woes

DHAKA — Bangladeshi travel & tourism officials and executives got a chance to let off some steam at a seminar on sustainable development organised here last week by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific and the World Tourism Organisation.

Thirty four years since gaining independence and 32 years since the establishment of the Bangladesh Parjatan (tourism) Corporation, officials are frustrated that visitor arrivals in 2004 have totalled a meagre 271,270, right at the bottom of the South Asian heap, ahead only of Bhutan.

Of this 2004 figure, only 39,840 are actual tourists; 44,627 came for business and a solid 173,369 for “other purposes” which means members of the Bangladeshi diaspora holding UK and US passports returning home to visit friends and relatives.

Boasting major attractions like the world’s longest beach at Cox’s bazaar and the ecological magnificence of the Sunderbans, the world’s largest littoral mangrove belt, and one of the world’s biggest Buddhist monasteries at Paharpur, Bangladesh feels it deserves a higher visitor headcount.

During the seminar, funded by Japan, officials blamed everything from the poor image of the country to non-existent marketing budgets and politically-motivated musical chairs at the tourism corporation that has seen the chairman being changed literally at the rate of one a year.

There is considerable potential. With the Asian Highway coming on stream, Bangladesh is a bridgehead between south, southeast and northeast Asia. The Asian Development Bank is spearheading a programme to promote the Buddhist circuit.

There is talk of the Chinese Approved Destination Status being granted this year. This will see a major rise in Chinese visitors, which totalled 9,238 in 2004, up from 6,681 in 2002 and 7,021 in 2003.

In 1992, the Bangladesh government tourism declared tourism an ‘industry’, meaning that it was worthy of priority recognition. It took another seven years, until 1999, before it came under the “Industrial policy’ and was identified as a ‘thrust sector,’ meaning fast-forward.

But a Tourism Council, formed in 1992 under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, has met only once since then. “The hibernation of the council shows how little we are committed to develop tourism,” said a paper presented to the seminar by tourism consultant Faruque Hasan.

Mr Hasan listed several other constraints.

He noted the lack of budget. In 2003-04, the Tourism Corporation, which is responsible for marketing, was given only 10 million taka (about US$ 158,000). But for the fiscal years 2004/05 and 2005/06, “no fund has been allocated” making it impossible to conduct marketing campaigns in a highly competitive market.

Mr Hasan said, “Complicated visa formalities and irritating attitudes of the employees in most of the Bangladesh missions abroad discourage many tourists. Visa procedure should be simplified. Facilities for visa on arrival should be reintroduced for as many countries as possible.

“Bangladesh missions abroad, with a few exceptions, lack initiative to promote tourism. We have found (only) the Bangladesh embassy in China very much active in promotion tourism. The people in foreign missions need orientation course as to tourism,” he said, suggesting that employees of Bangladeshi diplomatic missions need to be “trained to be more friendly to the visa seekers.”

While immigration and customs have recently improved tangibly at Dhaka international airport, “it is terrible at land-ports, especially those which divide Bangladesh and India,” he said.

“When a group of international tourists comprising 15 to 20 members crosses the border through the Haridaspur border on the Indian side and Benapole on the Bangladesh side, it takes them about four hours at Haridaspur and more than tour hours at Benapole to complete the immigration and custom formalities.”

Mr Hasan said the quality of promotional materials and their distribution also need to be upgraded.

“The brochures we print are dull in quality in terms of contents, and printing quality, and hackneyed at the same time. Year after year, we print the same sort of brochures, containing the same pictures….The website we publish are also monotonous, and the brochures need to be printed in more languages.

“Bangladesh receives most of the leisure and cultural tourists from Japan, and only two private operators have their brochures in Japanese. There is no government publication in Japanese on tourism products in Bangladesh.

Mr Hasan said the most important consideration was the country’s “negative image abroad” which leads to be being projected as a country of “abject poverty, floods and cyclones.”

He said that indirectly Bangladesh itself is to blame for that negative publicity because it had become “so much obsessed with getting foreign aid” in the 1980s, that it had “sold” its floods and natural disasters as the reason for getting the aid.

“Perhaps, now we have got rid of that mentality, but a dent we have already caused to our national image,” Mr Hasan said.

He said that Bangladeshi participation in international travel fairs like ITB, World Travel Market and JATA in Japan is “not emphatic, half-hearted with poorly decorated stalls that do not attract the imagination of the would-be tourists.”

The seminar ended with a list of recommendations on how to fix these problems, the most important of which, according to UN ESCAP’s tourism unit chief Mr Ryuji Yamakawa, was to ensure that tourism got a higher priority on the Bangladeshi economic development agenda.

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