Riverain Tours, an inbound tour operator, mainly organises tours for Italian and South Korean travellers. Every year the tour company handles 10-12 groups of tourists, each group comprising 12-16 members.
A foreign tourist pays at least $1500, excluding food, for a 14-day package. The last time the company provided such services to foreign tourists was in November 2019.
Tour operators are now finding it tough to bounce back from the coronavirus shocks, with many of them not getting positive responses from banks over loans under the stimulus package.
They are resorting to either laying off their employees or furloughing them in an attempt to ensure their survival by cutting costs.
"October-April is a peak season for inbound tourists in Bangladesh. Besides, we get some visitors over the year. But all of our scheduled tours have been cancelled till October this year due to Covid-19," said Syed Mahabubul Islam Bulu, chief executive officer of Riverain Tours.
"We started feeling the impact of coronavirus since the deadly virus made inroads into different countries in January. We have not had any tourist in the last two months even after the shutdown was lifted," he added.
"I have never experienced such a stalemate in my 20-year business and its effect will be there for a long time. I could pay my 11 employees only 60 percent of their salaries in the last few months. Now, I am finding it very hard to bear my office maintenance costs," Mahabubul said.
He applied for a bank loan from the government-declared stimulus package, but he did not get any positive response from the bank.
"I sought Tk30 lakh in loan under the stimulus package from it. But the bank informed me that the Bangladesh Bank's circular containing eligibility criteria for a loan did not mention anything about the tourism sector."
"I am a cent percent foreign currency earner, and I have documents too. But the bank declined to give me a loan. The future of my business is now uncertain," he added.
The tour operators are mostly contemplating reopening their businesses from next year. So they are seeking some promotional activities on the part of the government on the sector's reopening.
"Tour operators in a few countries in Europe and Asia have been approaching us to know about our standard operating procedure as well as domestic flight and hotel operations since they are interested in reopening travelling towards the end of this year," said Toufiq Rahman, chief executive officer at Journey Plus, a tour company.
Masud Hossain, managing director at Bengal Tours, said, "The youth are now the main target group for tour operators across the world as they have more immunity to coronavirus. Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and some other countries have made promotional videos to attract young tourists in the post-pandemic period."
"Our tourism ministry has not taken any initiative to promote our country's tourism," he added.
Outbound tour operators suffered an estimated loss of around Tk2,500 crore, while inbound and domestic ones incurred losses of Tk100 crore and Tk1,000 crore respectively between February and June due to the pandemic, according to the Bangladesh chapter of Pacific Asia Travel Association.
Woes of travel agents
Travel agents in Bangladesh exclusively deal with air tickets. However, these agencies' operations have stopped completely as airlines across the globe have significantly limited their activities.
Operations of most international flights have not resumed yet, resulting in almost zero business for travel agents.
Mahmodul Hoque Pearu, owner of Hoque International, said, "My monthly ticket sales amounted to around Tk50 lakh before the pandemic hit us. Now, after the resumption of domestic flights, I can sell two or three tickets worth Tk6,000-7,000 per day."
"We still cannot sell tickets for international flights. If international flights are not resumed fully, the number of domestic passengers will not increase," he added.
Travel agents suffered an estimated loss of around Tk5000 crore till June this year due to Covid-19, according to the Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh.
Bank loans elusive
Md Rafeuzzaman, president of Tour Operators' Association of Bangladesh, said, "As a service sector, we are eligible to get loans under the stimulus package. But the banks are denying loans to most travel agents and tour operators," he added.
While contacted on the issue, Syed Mahbubur Rahman, managing director of Mutual Trust Bank, said, "In any disaster, the tourism industry gets affected before all other sectors but recovers last of all. However, historically it has not been an attractive sector for banks to invest in. On average, the default rate is high in this sector. Therefore banks are not interested in giving loans to this sector."
"However, they should exert pressure for mentioning the sector specifically in the government's circular so that the banks feel the pressure to give them loans," he added.
Monsur Ahmed Kalam, President of the Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh, said the body had sent a letter to the civil aviation and tourism ministry, mentioning the problems associated with not getting bank loans.
Md Mohibul Haque, senior secretary of the ministry, said, "If an agency does not get a loan after giving a mortgage, it can complain to us, and we will look into the matter. Besides, they should submit documents related to their foreign currency earnings."