Ease, isolation and awakening
The apparent return to basics, the turn to healthier living, the leap to soliloquys have turned out to be beneficial. At least in theory, we all agree that the world needed a correction. On principle, most of us side with the concept of the small and the intimate. The corporate world has become smitten with virtual platforms that allow us ease of being visible and invisible at the same time, or of being heard or unheard. What flexibilities and what freedom for a few. Amen.
Mornings don't begin with a thud. The meetings online don't require us to be dressed to the hilt. And while the world turns to ease and comfort, business in leisure and lounge wear is going up. Casual and Covid-special apparel are a hit, and business in relaxed knitwear is on the rise.
Communication has been the easiest and we have all crossed continents in a matter of seconds. Platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams make lives seamless while StreamYard turns us all into mini movie stars. All these platforms have chat boxes that allow interventions or questions or instructions. There's no overlapping conversation. The admin can silence a nagging speaker. The freedom to appear the way one wants to and yet be under control, exists. Screens can be shared; presentations are more focused. No meeting exceeds 120 min at the max and mostly, stays within the ideal, civilised frame of 60-90 minutes. Bravo. The new world (not necessarily brave) has begun. This new world has isolation encrypted in its software. Being alone is not a curse anymore. Rather it adds joy to one's stream of consciousness.
Travels around the world are restricted by flights originating from certain destinations. With time, people have become smarter in figuring out how to work around and with quarantining rules and how to spend the least number of days in quarantine. Needless to say, the testing business is booming. In England, where I quarantined in April, before Bangladesh was included in the red list category, I was asked for two tests: Day two test and day eight. Additionally, if one wanted an early release, one could take a test on day five to get released and gain freedom. The first two tests cost around 199 pounds. And on top of the two, restless as I am by nature, I paid another 144 pounds to get a test result in 24 hours. Strangely, the testing costs are astronomical and private tests have glitches in the testing kits being delivered. In the meantime, testers have become multi zillionaires in the process.
Serco, which is in the services business, just through NHS's track and trace programme, has raised its profit forecast by millions of pounds.
England is now gradually opening its borders partially and has begun including more countries in green or amber lists, and is eventually planning to get rid of all lists. The incredibly low air fares, the incredible hotel offers which now include increasingly more silence and calm, more farm-to-table menus, have all started.
In a remote village in Europe, a small codfish, corn bread and cabbage accompanied by a nano starter cost nothing less than 40 euros per person. The dessert often arrives again in a nano platter with microscopic servings of a meringue, or a sophisticated, stingy serving of farmhouse oranges. Point is, why do our hill tracts, our hills, our sea beach, our northern borders, remain unbranded? Even with the lockdown, if proper social distancing could be practiced and if these resorts are revamped and offered a 50 percent capacity offering to the guests, why don't we attract foreign guests and charge a premium? Why is our farm-to-table concept not claiming our claim to originality?
Perhaps it's time to realise that while, once upon a time, these exotic trips to the west used to sound like a dream, it is now only a case of us realising what we miss out on in our own country. In reality, at our end, we need to realise that we have the beauty but what we don't have is branding.
With a crucial need to diversify our exports, it's quite evident that a service economy focus should include tourism. According to a report of Policy Research Institute, Vietnam's export of non-factor services in 2019 was USD 16.6 billion and recorded an astounding growth rate of 21 percent per year, whereas Bangladesh's non-factor services stand at USD 6.8 billion and is growing at a rate of 15 percent. The top non-factor service of Vietnam is travel, which stands at USD 11.8 billion. How about looking at similar opportunities for ourselves?
Hotels and resorts have been open since August 19. People have been flocking to these places. In all honesty, a number of these resorts are close to world class and offer the best of cuisine and services. Cox's Bazar, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and Sylhet have been prime destinations. Almost five to six million people travel to these destinations. Covid has been a serious dampener for these thriving businesses. However, after reopening of these hotels and resorts, multiple tour operators have also been enjoying good business. Much of this business is through Facebook. Hence, f-commerce has become popular and, as a result, start-ups have started to see the light at the end of their first tunnel.
This is one chance we have to rebrand our own culture, our own hills and our own tastes. A return to originality, the old and our own is inevitable. The original, age-old ideas are all springing back to life. After all, nothing is new except that which has been forgotten or ignored.
Rubana Huq is a former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.