Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation: In the throes of pandemic
"I worked for 15 days and was paid for those days. Then, a colleague did the same work and my turn came after the rotation of other colleagues."
Jewel Mia, a temporary employee of Motel Sylhet, has been working for the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation for the last four years.
Although not a permanent staffer yet, he had a decent life with a regular monthly salary and some extra money he got after the motel fulfilled its monthly target.
All that changed suddenly when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March last year.
The tourism authority was forced to close down the motel and sent employees on unpaid leave. In the first three to four months, the BPC did not pay them any salary. Then, it started rotating its skilled and multi-task staffers.
"For example, I worked for 15 days and was paid for those days. Then, a colleague did the same work and my turn came after the rotation of other colleagues," Jewel, not his real name, told The Daily Star over the phone.
"We had been now living a miserable life. I had to take loans from my relatives just to support the family," he said.
Other temporary workers of BPC, and even its permanent staffers, have faced severe hardships as the state-run corporation incurred huge losses due to the pandemic.
BPC establishments -- hotels, motels, restaurants, bars -- either remained closed for months or provided only limited services.
It had to count losses of around Tk 40 crore in the last two fiscal years and has been struggling to pay salaries to its existing staffers and provide pension facilities to its retirees, show BPC documents.
The BPC wrote to the cabinet division recently seeking its directives upon all government agencies to avail its services on a priority basis. The BPC even offered 30 percent commission to the government agencies for use of its hotels, motels, auditoriums, etc.
The BPC, the national tourism organisation, is tasked with promoting the country's tourism industry, but it has often been alleged that the body lacks professionalism, commitment and necessary planning to improve its service and thus the sector.
The dire straits of the tourism authority are reflective of the state of the rest of the country's tourism sector amid the pandemic.
According to Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB), the tourism sector has incurred a loss of around Tk 20,000 crore in 2020 alone.
Although all tourist spots were allowed to open from August 19, the sector is still struggling as inbound and outbound tourism is still virtually non-existent.
Inbound tourism refers to visits of foreign tourists to the country and outbound tourism means locals visiting other countries -- the latter is also a source of income for travel agencies operating under the tourism sector.
Against this grim backdrop, the country observes World Tourism Day today with its slogan of "Tourism for Inclusive Growth".
BPC IN DIRE STRAITS
Founded in 1973, BPC operates 23 hotels and motels, seven restaurants and 11 bars in different parts of the country. It has some 430 staffers, including the casual employees.
The corporation bears its expenditure with revenues from these establishments.
In a letter to the secretary of the civil aviation and tourism ministry on July 31, BPC Chairman Hannan Mia said all tourism spots, following the government's directives, remained shut or provided limited services amid the pandemic.
"As a result, hotels, motels and restaurants of the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation were almost without customers or guests, and the agency made huge losses," reads the letter.
It incurred losses of around Tk 40 crore in 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years due to the pandemic, it mentioned in the letter.
In 2018-19, it earned Tk 113.47 crore and Tk 97.34 crore in 2019-20, show BPC documents.
"Because of the huge losses, a serious crisis arose with regards to paying salaries to staffers and pensions to retirees," he wrote.
Following his letter, the civil aviation and tourism ministry wrote to the cabinet division on August 17 seeking the division's directive to all ministries and divisions to procure BPC services.
The cabinet division on August 19 wrote to all secretaries to take necessary steps regarding the request of the BPC. Different ministries, including the road transport and bridges ministry, have already issued the same directives to its agencies.
Contacted, Hannan Mia said they have spent Tk 20 crore from their savings to meet the necessary expenditures.
"We have sought Tk 10 crore from the government to meet our three-month expenses, but the money may not be required as the government has opened tourist spots," he told The Daily Star on Saturday.
"We hope we will be able to turn it around."
Replying to another question, he admitted that those who work as temporary staffers did not get regular salaries during the pandemic.
WHAT ABOUT THE PRIVATE TOURISM SECTOR?
TOAB, a platform of around 700 tour operators, said the sector has incurred a loss of Tk 20,000 crore last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several lakh people involved with this sector have been enduring misery due to the closure of tourist spots for around 19 months, said TOAB President Md Rafeuzzaman.
"Without reopening of inbound and outbound tourism, this sector will not be able to recover from the losses," he told The Daily Star on Saturday.
Rafeuzzaman, also a member of the governing panel of Bangladesh Tourism Board, said the tourism sector contributed 4.4 percent to the GDP in 2019-20.
About 40 lakh people involved in this industry are now living inhuman lives, he said.
Jabed Ahmed, chief executive officer of Bangladesh Tourism Board, another government body that mainly provides policy support to the sector, said apart from the pandemic, some other issues need to be addressed to shore up the sector.
Development of infrastructure, changes in people's mindset towards tourists and greater involvement from the private sector are required to reap benefits from tourism, he said.