Local tour operators are going through a crisis period as foreign tourists are cancelling their planned trips to Bangladesh in droves due to the ongoing political upheavals.
“We have started to feel the pinch of the political turbulence,” said Masud Hossain, executive director of Bengal Tours, a leading inbound tour operator.
Five groups of Japanese tourists, who were scheduled to visit Bangladesh during March-April through Hossain's company, have already cancelled their trips.
It is the same story for other tour operators.
Journey Plus had bookings from around 100 tourists from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in April, but all of those were cancelled, said Taufiq Rahman, the company's chief executive officer.
A group of 17 tourists was scheduled to arrive from the UK via Journey Plus on March 24 -- but their number has now come down to two.
And the tourists who have made it to Bangladesh are now demanding compensation from their tour operators, for failing to deliver on the tours as promised.
The four days of shutdowns last week particularly dealt a massive blow.
Bengal Tours had scheduled visits to Sirajganj, Bogra and Tangail for 40 tourists from Japan and Europe, but they had to be forfeited.
“We cannot arrange the tours due to violence in these areas,” said Bengal Tours' Hossain, who is also the first vice-president of Tour Operators' Association of Bangladesh.
Another inbound tour operator, Tour Planners Ltd, had to cancel three tours to rural areas in March, arranged for three groups, each consisting of more than 10 tourists from Japan, according to Faridul Haque, the company's managing director.
Tour Planners Ltd has bookings for around 400-500 foreign tourists this year. “Those tours are now looking uncertain,” said Haque.
Tourist movement is a key challenge during hartals, as transport operators refuse to rent vehicles for fear of vandalism.
“The main challenge is to handle the groups who have already arrived in the country,” said Rahman of Journey Plus. To get by, tour operators rent ambulances or use waterways and air, all of which significantly increase operating costs.
Journey Plus, which has been operating both inbound and outbound tour packages for more than 18 years now, registered a 20 percent rise in operating costs due to the recent spate of hartals, Rahman said.
Syed G Qadir, general manager of Galaxy Holidays, another inbound tour operator, expressed his concern about the volume of prospective tourists in the next six months, following the political turbulence.
“The violence has already given a negative massage to the foreign tourists that Bangladesh is not a safe place to visit,” he said.
He urged the government to form a crisis management committee for the tourism sector.
About 2,500 local and foreign tourists were trapped in Cox's Bazar due to strikes and violent clashes that erupted over the death sentence to Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee on charges of crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971.
The recent tour cancellations at his company have cost the country around $60,000-$70,000, said Haque of Tour Planners.
And his company was deprived of around Tk 20-22 lakh, he said. In 2000, foreign tourist arrivals in Bangladesh stood at 199,000, according to a report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
The number has increased by 56.25 percent over the decade to 303,000 in 2010, the report said.
In 2011, foreign tourist arrivals generated Tk 380 million-odd, with the number forecasted to cross the $400-million mark in 2012, according to a study by World Travel & Tourism Council.
The travel and tourism sector raked in Tk 18,250 crore, about 2.2 percent of the GDP in 2011.
Bangladesh sees tourist arrivals mainly from Europe and Japan, with the overall market growing 10-15 percent year-on-year in 2012.