Robi, a young paraglider, was all smiles as a foreigner tourist approached him to fly in a popular tourist spot of Pokhara, Nepal on February 21. It was the first time in 11 months that the pilot in his 20s got a passenger for a ride.
"I am lucky today," he told this correspondent. His tale gives a glimpse into how deserted tourist destinations are in the pandemic even after countries have reopened borders with safety protocols in place.
The conditions in place to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus would dampen anyone's enthusiasm for relaxation and recreation overseas.
Travellers need Covid negative reports to get onboard aircraft and spend additional money for visa and have to stay in quarantine for durations fixed by destination countries.
Air operators have to take various safety measures with masked attendants. They operate planes having two-thirds of seats occupied at best.
As the cost of operation has jumped and the number of passengers has declined, ticket prices have been doubled to make up the revenue loss.
Still, some people would take the inconveniences in stride to visit popular destinations but the recent emergence of more harmful and contagious strains of the coronavirus has forced nations to reinstate restrictions on holiday and business travels.
Hassles of travel
Take Nepal for example to understand how difficult it has become to travel abroad. A tourism-based economy, it has opened its border but travellers no longer get on-arrival visas. They have to get Nepalese visa from the Embassy in their countries.
Travellers from countries, where new variants of the virus have been found, must stay in a hotel for 10 days in quarantine at their own costs. Visitors from other nations must get a Covid negative report.
A person from Bangladesh will have to spend an extra amount of Tk6,000 for a Covid test done twice before entering and leaving Nepal.
In this difficult time for tourism, only a few airlines are operating flights to tourist destinations.
Only Biman Bangladesh Airlines has been operating flights to Nepal since 18 February, incurring a huge loss as it has to limit the number of passengers on each flight. Biman could not escape the loss even after a 100% hike in the ticket price to Tk25,000-Tk30,000.
Countries Bangladeshis can travel and costs involved
Currently, five countries – Nepal, Maldives, Dubai, Egypt and Turkey – are open for travellers carrying a Covid negative report.
The Maldives allows on-arrival visas for tourists. Airfare has doubled now from pre-pandemic times. A visa to go to Dubai will cost Tk3,000 to Tk12,000 more now and the price of air tickets has also doubled.
A journey to Egypt and Turkey and back will also cost a lot more than before.
Borders that are open with conditions in place
People who want to travel to Singapore will have to spend 14 days in quarantine upon arrival. During the visa processing, a traveller will have to deposit SGD2,200 equivalent to Tk1.40 lakh for a quarantine package.
Entry to Malaysia is restricted to students and Malaysian residents only.
Thailand, one of the most popular destinations for Bangladeshi travellers, is issuing conditional tourist visas. Travellers are required to deposit Tk1 lakh each for a 15-day quarantine package to get a visa.
India is issuing business, medical and study visas only.
London is also welcoming tourists but they have to stay in self-quarantine for 7 days.
The USA is issuing visas on a limited scale and travellers are required to stay in quarantine for 14 days.
Beleaguered aviation industry
As many countries are restricting tourists, the aviation industry will take a long time to recover. Even though Covid vaccine rollout is underway, a wider coverage will need time.
Around 60 to 70 international flights, about half that before the pandemic, are operated daily from Dhaka Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport now.
With the largest ever fleet, Biman is now in trouble because losses are adding up for high operating costs.
The average aircraft utilisation of Biman has come down to 3.42 hours a day in October last year, while the efficient use of a plane is above 10 hours. The company saw the optimum utilisation of aircraft in July 2019 when its planes were in service for 12 hours a day.
Some 30% of the global fleet are still grounded, according to Cirium, an aviation-data company.
The hope of recovery has faded after more contagious variants of the virus led to a reinforcement of border closures at the beginning of this year.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a new analysis showing that the airline industry is expected to remain cash negative throughout this year. The previous analysis (November 2020) indicated that airlines would turn cash positive in the fourth quarter of 2021. At the industry level, airlines are now not expected to be cash positive until 2022.
Estimates of cash burn in 2021 have ballooned to $75 billion- $95 billion from the previously anticipated $48 billion, according to IATA.
Airlines have responded by slashing costs, getting rid of staff and grounding aircraft, yet carriers continue to burn cash at a rate of $5bn-6bn a month.
Some big companies have succumbed. Norwegian Air Shuttle, one of Europe's largest low-cost carriers, sought bankruptcy protection in November 2020. Dozens of smaller airlines, including FlyBe, a British low-cost carrier; and Virgin Australia and Avianca, based in Latin America, have gone to the wall.