The woes of travel agents have deepened after the government suspended international flights to and from Bangladesh in a bid to curb the spike in Covid-19 infections, resulting in many struggling agencies getting no business at all, and some surviving by the skin of their teeth.
Though the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) had launched special flights to selected countries so that thousands of migrant workers can return to their workplaces, the move did not help the industry much because many workers already carry return tickets.
Mahmodul Hoque has been working as a travel agent in Chattogram since 1999, and never before he faced such an unprecedented challenge in his career spanning 20 years. Compared to the pre-pandemic times, he received only 1% of the usual business in the last ten months.
Just like Mahmodul, around 4,000 travel agents across the country have been fighting for their survival since the Covid-19 outbreak struck around the globe, said the Association of Travel Agents in Bangladesh (Atab).
The association further pointed out that only 5% of the international flights from Bangladesh had resumed since the withdrawal of the first shutdown in 2020. During that period, around 75% of travel agencies completely lost all business.
Travel agents in Bangladesh exclusively deal with air tickets, and circumstances arising from the Covid-19 crisis have forced many of them to engage in other types of work to make ends meet.
The agencies that did receive some business amid the pandemic are not that lucky either, as their sales dropped below 5% compared to the pre-pandemic times, and it remained low as most international flights from Bangladesh did not resume since the first shutdown ended.
Amid the fresh lockdown, introduced on 14 April and extended till 28 April, the suspension of international flights further compounded the hardships faced by the industry.
The CAAB later decided to operate special flights for migrant workers stuck in Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Singapore, Kuwait and Bahrain. But the move has not provided much business to the local travel agencies.
"As most of the stranded migrant workers already have their return tickets, we are only getting 10% of the ticket sales. My firm used to sell tickets worth Tk50 lakh every month in the pre-pandemic times, but now we have hit the rock bottom," travel agent Mahmodul said.
He continued, "I used to have 11 employees, but now I have only six. It has been very difficult for me to pay them regularly and bear the maintenance cost of my firm for the last one year. Several agency owners have temporarily shifted their business to other sectors for now.
"One of my colleagues is currently working as a contractor for the Chattogram City Corporation."
At least 25% of the travel agents have shifted to other businesses. Many did not get any support from the government or banks despite asking for it a number of times
On the issue, Atab President Monsur Ahmed Kalam said, "At least 25% of the travel agents have shifted to other businesses. Many did not get any support from the government or banks despite asking for it a number of times."
Akbar Ali, the proprietor of At-Tyaarr Travels International who shut down his business on 28 February last year, said, "I was in the travel agency business for the last 25 years. I believe that it will take a couple of years for this industry to return to normal.
"This is why I left the industry and started a fruit orchard in Rajshahi in May 2020. I am optimistic about returning to the travel agency business when the flight operations become normalised."
Pleasure trips drop almost to zero
Atab President Monsur Ahmed Kalam said, "Pleasure trips have dropped almost to zero all over the world amid the crisis, which has also severely affected their business. Some popular destinations like Malaysia, Thailand have yet to permit regular flights.
"Aside from registered agencies, thousands of others are involved with this sector."
Travel agents suffered an estimated loss of around Tk5,000 crore in turnover till June last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said Atab leaders, adding that the losses almost doubled in the last 10 months.
Airlines blamed for high ticket price
All local and foreign airlines that operate international flights have doubled or tripled their ticket prices, resulting in a rise in migration costs.
A Saudi-bound worker has to pay around Tk70,000-80,000 now, which was Tk25,000-30,000 in the pre-Covid times. Workers bound for other Middle Eastern countries are facing the same situation.
Travel agents claimed that the high ticket prices have affected their business as many people are not travelling unless they absolutely need to. Many migrant workers are bearing the high cost of tickets only because their visas are expiring soon.
The high airfare is also discouraging job seekers, they said.
"Some of the foreign airlines are selling all their tickets to a particular travel agency. Then the agency is selling the tickets at double or triple price. The responsibility over this issue falls on the shoulders of these airlines, as they are not being fair with their ticket sales," a travel agency owner said on condition of anonymity.
Industry insiders also told The Business Standard that many chartered flights had operated amid the Covid-19 pandemic in international routes, but the airlines sold the tickets under their own management.