The World Economic Forum recently published its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, which provides an insight into global trends and the state of the travel and tourism industry across the world. With international tourist arrivals reaching 1.4 billion in 2018—two years earlier than previously anticipated—this is clearly an industry that is expediting global connectedness and mobility. Currently, contributing to 10 percent of the world’s GDP, the travel and tourism industry is, by some estimates, poised to take this number to 50 percent within the next decade.
But first things first: Bangladesh ranked 120 amongst the 140 countries that were considered for this report. We are at the foot of the table if ranked in the context of South Asia, where India (34), Sri Lanka (77) and Nepal (102) are—not surprisingly—ahead of us, and we only have Pakistan behind us, ranked 121. There is usually a general feeling of apprehension amongst industry stakeholders whenever a global ranking gets published. People’s responses vacillate between polemics against the ranking system and a sense of general despair. Neither approach is completely desirable if we want to learn from these rankings, which is one of the major reasons for publishing these indexes. We should look at these indexes from a more analytical perspective and assess where we are within the world. This should guide us towards an honest reflection and some much-needed soul searching to understand why are we lying at the bottom of the list, despite having two of the most unique natural attractions of the world, in Cox’s Bazar and the Sundarbans.
To understand the underlying causes behind the poor performance, let’s take a look at the framework which was followed when building out the index. The index looked at four broad areas: enabling environment, travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions, infrastructure, and natural and cultural resources. These broad areas are further divided into 14 pillars, which themselves are subdivided into 90 indicators. The pillars encompass a variety of sectors including business environment, price competitiveness, tourist service infrastructure and natural resources, to name a few. Among the pillars, which really are building blocks of this competitiveness index, Bangladesh is shown to have been severely wanting when it comes to infrastructure. According to the report, the tourist service infrastructure is one of the poorest in the world where Bangladesh has made no significant improvement in the last couple of years, with our ranking in this specific category remaining unchanged at 133.
Then if we look at the rest of the world, we can identify one of the biggest findings of this year’s report: growth in tourism-friendly infrastructure—roads, ports, airports and hotel accommodation, for example—has languished at only 1.4 percent. So, on one side of the continuum, we are seeing an increase in international tourist arrivals, and on the other side, there is a dearth of investment going behind developing infrastructure to support the tourists. This is easily a recipe for disaster in terms of sustaining the natural ecosystem and socio-cultural characteristics of a destination. It is quite evident that this is a problem not just for Bangladesh; the whole world is also struggling in that respect.
An example of investment in infrastructure done right can be Spain, a country which, not coincidentally, has topped the ranking for three years in a row. Spain had spent millions of euros in the past decade on updating its roads, railways and airports, the benefits of which are being reaped right now. Infrastructure—including air, ground, port, and tourism services like hotel rooms and car rental services—plays a vital role in travel and tourism competitiveness, serving as the arteries of the industry.
But there is another side to this infrastructure investment story, that of overtourism, a phenomenon defined by tourists pouring into a destination and going beyond its capacity. Nowhere in the world is it truer than in Barcelona where the annual influx of visitors—32 million versus the city’s 1.6 million residents—has caused a groundswell of anti-tourist sentiment among locals. Competition for accommodation has driven up real-estate prices and tourists have overwhelmed the city’s coastal areas, in some cases accelerating shore erosion. A parallel can easily be drawn with Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, especially during holiday seasons.
It is also worth remembering that competitiveness relies on more than just infrastructure. Emerging economies like Bangladesh also have more work to do when it comes to improving business environments, addressing safety and security concerns and reducing travel barriers. Natural assets, which attract a significant number of visitors internationally, also need to be better protected. For example, South America and Southeast Asia outscore the global average for natural resources by about 27 percent and 11 percent, respectively, but these regions scored below average for environmental sustainability. Consequently, many countries following this trajectory may be at risk of damaging the very assets that make great travel destinations.
The problems that we are facing in the 21st century are very different from what we faced in the last century. The very nature of technology, people and society is changing rapidly in the midst of what many people are calling a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Any tourism policy in today’s world has to take into account the nuances of how the tourist experience changes in response to this global phenomenon. Investment in better infrastructure in a thoughtful manner is the beginning, but certainly not the only tool in the horizon of opportunities that the tourism sector brings with itself. Bangladesh’s position will improve if we make an effort to develop our tourism policies considering the future, not based on what has worked in the past.
Sabrina Rahman is an assistant professor at the American International University-Bangladesh (AIUB).