_By Raquib Siddiqi
Dhaka : Despite gaining, increasing global importance for multifarious benefits-in both developed and developing countries--, development of tourism in Bangladesh, has again failed to get, the importance it deserves. It continued to fail, getting out the circle of neglect in development priority.
In 2015, following announcement of Visit Bangladesh Year-2016 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and increased allocation for civil aviation, tourism in national budget for 2015-16 by Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, a strong ray of hope beamed, that neglect to tourism, is going to end and there would be no shortage of fund this time. Unfortunately, that is not to be.
While formally announcing visit Bangladesh year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the government has taken a decision to celebrate 2016 as the tourism year or "Visit Bangladesh Year-2016" for further strengthening the campaign and marketing of the tourism industry.
"We have given utmost priority to publicity and marketing of the tourism industry side by side with its development, while steps have already been taken to project Bangladesh's tourism attractions abroad, she said, adding Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB) has been working to this end to further brighten the country's image".
On the other hand, while presenting national budget, Finance Minister AMA Muhith in his brief statement on said, "The year 2016 has been declared as Tourism Year to revitalise the tourism sector. Although local tourists will play the key role in observing this year, initiatives will be taken to gradually increase the number of international tourists to around 10 lakh and income from this sector to US$200 million by 2018 through improving the facilities at different places of tourist interest."
Unfortunately, however, the hope that generated from the two above mentioned statements turned to be just false. Because, in line with what the Prime Minister said, no supporting appropriate government action followed-even no fund for publicity and marketing tourism industry was given.
Even no campaign fund
In the current 2015-16 fiscal's original budget, aviation and tourism sector was allocated Tk 372 crore. The figure was later revised to Tk 290 crore. Of this budgeted money, no fund was given for campaign, but how much is used for development of tourism is not known. Best efforts to know the information failed.
It is very surprising, because the Prime Minister herself said that her government is giving "utmost priority to publicity and marketing of the tourism industry".
The global campaign, to project Bangladesh as an attractive tourist destination, as well as to erase negative image of the country, that was planned during Visit Bangladesh Year-2016, is yet to take off, due to non-availability of necessary fund.
Bangladesh Tourism Board, the national tourist organisation, unsuccessfully shuttled around different ministries, for much reduced fund of Tk 69 crore, for campaign and some essential improvement at tourist sites (attractions).
The end of fiscal year 2015-16 is just couple weeks away and so is the end of the first half of Visit Bangladesh Year-2016, yet campaign could not get going, due to lack of fund. Is not it mockery in the name of tourism development?
The non-release of fund for promoting Bangladesh tourism, once again demonstrated government's lack of commitment and seriousness, about development of tourism sector.
What is said in 2016?
In the backdrop of such highly unhappy situation, in the national budget for 2016-17, now under consideration in the parliament, the Finance Minister proposed to allocate Tk 549 crore to the civil aviation and tourism ministry, including Tk 100 crore for the tourism development.
While placing the budget for 2016-17, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said, "We are planning to undertake a project with view to promoting our tourism sector in the international arena, creating tourism awareness at the local level and developing tourist sites in the country".
"As the ongoing year has been selected by the Hon'ble Prime Minister as 'Tourism Year', I propose to allocate Tk 100 crore initially for this purpose in this budget," he said and added "We are also considering building Tourist and Entertainment Village in Cox's Bazar, an international-standard Tourism Complex and a Five-star hotel in Sylhet under Public-Private Partnership (PPP)".
However, there is hardly any reason to be happy about the allocation in the budget. One is not sure about actual fund to be released and for what purpose - is it for development of infrastructure or campaign to market Bangladesh?
The allocations in the budget itself carry no meaning, if no fund is made available for spending. In national budget for current 2015-16, fund was allocated for development of tourism in general and for Visit Bangladesh-2016 campaign in particular. Where has the fund gone? Why no fund was made available for the campaign?
Meanwhile, tour operators of Bangladesh, the mainstay of tourism in the country, are not at all happy.
Akbaruddin Ahmed, President, Tour Operator's Association of Bangladesh (TOAB) told a leading Bengali daily that for the past several years they were demanding some tax relief and tax free import of tourism transport vehicles, but those have been ignored in the budget. Better transports and other tax relief are necessary to provide better services to tourists. They have failed to make government understand this, he said.
TOAB president said that they demanded reduction of 15 per cent VAT on hotel rooms and 7 per cent VAT on food in restaurants, to 7 and 4 per cent respectively. But this was also ignored.
He also suggested that responsibility of branding Bangladesh should be given to tour operators. Bureaucrats, responsible for the job now, are wasting money by using the fund for foreign trips only.
A must, but
Global promotional campaign is a must for any country wanting to position itself as a tourist destination. All the well-established tourist destinations in the region such as-Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal-are continuing the campaign with newer slogans, to keep tourist interested to visit.
It is more important for Bangladesh, not only to let outside world know its diversified attractive tourist attractions, but also to erase the negative image, the country has acquired over the years, due to bad international press.
Fantasy or real?
To the delight of many, while presenting budget for 2015-16, the Finance Minister informed about construction of a 'Convention City'. He said an initiative is being taken to construct a convention city under PPP, about 25 miles away from Dhaka metropolis, he said. He also mentioned about seven other PPP projects in tourism sector.