-By Raquib Siddiqi
The eight SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh. Bhutan. India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka —are undoubtedly one of the richest in the world in terms of tourist attractions but unfortunately remained poorest so far, in respect of arrivals.
One of the fastest growing industries in the world today is tourism. And tourism has been declared as the major force for socio-economic development and has a very positive impact in foreign exchange earnings and employment generation, particularly in developing countries of the world.
International tourist arrivals grew by 4.4% in 2015 to reach a total of 1,184 million in 2015, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. Some 50 million more tourists (overnight visitors) travelled to international destinations around the world last year as compared to 2014.
2015 marks the 6th consecutive year of above-average growth, with international arrivals increasing by 4% or more every year since the post-crisis year of 2010.
“International tourism reached new heights in 2015. The robust performance of the sector is contributing to economic growth and job creation in many parts of the world. It is thus critical for countries to promote policies that foster the continued growth of tourism, including travel facilitation, human resources development and sustainability” said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.
Demand was strong overall, though with mixed results across individual destinations due to unusually strong exchange rate fluctuations, the drop in oil prices and other commodities which increased disposable income in importing countries but weakened demand in exporters, as well as increased safety and security concerns.
Asia and the Pacific (+5 per cent) recorded 13 million more international tourist arrivals last year to reach 277 million, with uneven results across destinations. Oceania (+7 per cent) and South-East Asia (+5 per cent) led growth, while South Asia recorded an increase of 4 per cent.
The SAARC region has not succeeded to the extent that it should to expand their tourism base. The current share of tourists visiting the SAARC region is very insignificant–less than one per cent of world arrivals. Situation concerning share of tourism receipts is also similar.
The efforts to develop tourism in the region have been taken by some countries but all are in isolation. There exists hardly any cooperation exist among SAARC countries.
Albeit, all the countries of ASEAN are well developed in tourism, they have joined hands to combinedly develop it further by promoting and marketing the region as a whole. But the countries of SAARC have this far remained isolated in this respect. There have been a lot of talks about cooperation in tourism development, but nothing positive has so far emerged.
Options and Best Approach
In addition to specific product diversification opportunities, within each country, the South Asia region generally would seem to have potential for further development of conference and convention tourism and the incentive tourist markets.
Convention facilities exist in some countries and there are meeting facilities in all the countries. Convention and Conference organisers are always looking for new and interesting venues, and South Asia particularly offers excellent opportunities of pre and post conference tours.
However, conference and convention tourism is also highly competitive internationally and its feasibility must be carefully studied before proceeding with development. The incentives are also looking for new destinations.
Sometimes the question arises whether South Asia should consider developing artificial types of attractions such as theme parks. For the international market, these would not be particularly important attractions because such specialized developments exist in other countries.
South Asia’s best approach would seem to be that of basing its attractions and facilities on those attractions’ unique features of the variegated natural environment and rich history and cultures of the region.
In respect of tourism, Bangladesh is far from takeoff stage and is expected to take some more time even to come closer, because of lack of sense and system in the efforts to promote tourism.
There is practically no holiday tourist in Bangladesh, though there are opportunities for development of holiday, general and special interest tourism for the international and domestic markets. Most potential area for development is the riverine tourism centering rounds the Sunderbans forest, an important habitat for interesting wildlife.
Other potential areas for development are the lake tourism in Rangamati, beach resort in Coxs Bazar, special interest cultural tourism based on Buddhist and lslamic archaeological and historical -monuments, general interest features in the Dhaka region and tea plantation and bird watching tours in the Sylhet area.
The tourism development programme had identified all these but no programme in sight for the development of required additional tourist facilities and services to market these as destinations.
Given limited or no attention to the development of tourism and an under-developed international market, destination development could best be approached on a staged basis. Conservation of archaeological and historic monuments and the important natural environments, specially the Sundarbans, will be essential. More facilities to private sector to encourage them in investing in this nascent industry, is also essential for the development of tourism.
So far development of tourism in Bangladesh has remained mostly on papers because of the low priority that tourism received in national development. The government and also the private sector are yet to fu1ly recognise the importance of tourism as an important source of foreign exchange earning.
Bhutan’s attractions are the mountain scenic beauty and related trekking activities, strong Buddhist cultural traditions, temples and monasteries, interesting architectural styles and traditional life patterns.
Bhutan is a special case of highly controlled tourism. Based on the principles of conservation of the culture and environment but wanting to earn some foreign exchange. the government has adopted a policy of allowing limited number of holiday tourists, not including those from the neighbouring countries.
Tourism development in Bhutan is now concentrated in the western region of the country and commencing in the central region with future development staged for further expansion of the central and eventually opening up of the eastern region and later development of wildlife tourism in the southern region.
India has already adopted a product diversification approach of developing new tourist attractions and destinations specially in south where tourism is oriented to beach resorts and the southern cultures and the northern areas for mountain tourism activities.
Historically based on cultural tourism which will likely —remain predominant; India’s programme is to further develop beach tourism, mountain trekking, wildlife tourism, winter sports, conference and convention and incentive market tourism.
New specific tourism products include Buddha’s Trail across northern India, which is being developed for the Japanese religious market. Orissa on the east coast is being considered for development of combination of beach, culture and some wildlife tourism. Goa on the west coast, already an important destination is being further developed.
India, it may be noted, is applying some imaginative product development approaches such as the Palace on Wheels. An historic train tour and development of the Palace hotels.
India’s diversification programme, which is designed for both domestic and international tourists, seems quite appropriate.
In the Maldives, the main tourism resource is the attractive small islands. beach and marine environment and -product diversification takes the form of establishing new resorts based on resource.
Apart from development of new resorts, existing resorts are being upgraded to meet present market demand. The main development challenge in the Maldives will be to maintain the unique character and diversity of types of resorts and overall quality of the tourism products, and not allow over development in any area or deterioration of the marine environment.
Nepal, which also has a well-established tourism sector, is planning diversification by developing new destinations outside of Kathmandu and Pokhara.
In addition to the development of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha in southern Nepal, other destinations including centers for trekking and mountain climbing are being planned. These new destinations, in addition to expanding the tourism product, are designed to distribute the tourist more throughout the country, relieving some of the pressure from Kathmandu and Pokhra.
Meanwhile, Nepal has adopted some progressive environmental controls with respect to trekking and mountain climbing activities.
Pakistan has much potential for product diversification and product development generally, catering to both general and special interest tourists.
Although Pakistan has a relatively large number of tourist arrivals, these are mostly travelers visiting friends and relatives and overseas Pakistanis visiting their families. The international holiday markets have not yet been greatly developed for Pakistan.
The ancient Indus Valley civilization, urban cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa have already been conserved and provided the basis for special interest tours. Taxila and other Gandhara mountains are important attractions for both general and special interest tourism. The beaches along the coast offer the potential for beach resort development.
Northern Pakistan offers outstanding mountain scenery and opportunities for trekking and mountain climbing. Opening of the Karakoram Highway into the Sinkiang area of China offers the potential for adventure tours and developing tourism facilities along the road.
Sri Lanka where tourism is based on a combination of beach and cultural attractions, opportunities exist to develop new beach destinations and to further develop and promote the ancient cities monuments of the CulturalTriangle as major feature.
The government has for some years been doing an excellent job of conservation of the archaeological sites. Some of the existing individual beach resorts on the west coast could be improved to keep them as viable quality destinations.
On paper only
The question of establishing air links between the capitals of seven SAARC countries and develop tourism in the region, is not getting the attention it deserved. This has remained dormant for years and there is no sign of any change of the situation due to lack of sincere political will and failure to find out a common ground.
The question of improving air services within the region in general and linking the SAARC capitals in particular has been on SAARC agenda for quite some time. During these years, except some futile exercises, nothing positive in this regard happened.
No progress about tourism
The establishment of direct air link between capitals of SAARC countries is no doubt complex, but promotion of tourism in the SAARC countries and markets it as a region, seems to be not that so. Yet, no significant progress has been made in this regard.
The tourism potentials of the SAARC region are enormous. The region can cater to every aspect; a holiday maker is looking for. Yet, the tiny city state of Singapore is drawing twice as high a number of tourists than the seven member countries of SAARC put together. It is a pity that this region receives only one per cent of the total world tourists.
The need to make concerted efforts for attracting foreign tourists to SAARC region and to work collectively to promote tourism was felt long ago. During the first half of 1980s an important step towards promotion on a regional basis was taken with the formation of a South Asian Marketing Committee (SAMC) linking Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But the initiative failed to produce anything significant.
A Technical Committee on Tourism was established in 1991. As an integral part of its agenda, the committee reviewed the progress on the SAARC Scheme for Promotion of Organized Tourism and the Action Plan. The activities of the Committee included training facilities by the member states in the field of tourism and hotel management; production of a SAARC Travel Guide and a SAARC tourism promotional film on the theme “A Unique Holiday with Diversity: From Top of the World to the Sunny Beaches”. But before something could be achieved it was merged into SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industries in the late 1990s.
Absence of adequate air link
Among the causes for sorry situation in respect of tourism, inadequate air transport links is believed to be a leading one. There is no doubt, linking of SAARC capitals is an important positive thought in the area of promoting tourism.
The Civil Aviation Authorities of SAARC countries have so far achieved nothing substantial. There were steps taken, but the expectation that the steps would transform into a leap and move faster towards achieving the objective, is yet to be materialised.
In the past Civil Aviation Authorities of the member countries of the SAARC agreed in principle to the two pool proposals of Male-Colombo-Katmandu-Dhaka and Delhi – Dhaka -Islamabad direct air services. This far, the agreement has remained in paper only.
Time for action
It may be noted that not so long ago The World Tourism Organisation organised a meeting of South Asian Tourism Ministers in New Delhi to explore the question of joint marketing and promotion. The meeting was the first of its kind, where the pioneers of travel and tourism came together to address common issues and develop tourism within the SAARC countries.
The speakers highlighted the importance of immediate action to realise the full potential of tourism in South Asia and said that the time for making policies and forming action committees was over. The need at the moment was quick and decisive action, which if not taken now would never be taken. Unfortunately, there has been no follow-up action.
While a large number of countries in the world including some in Asian continent, reaping a very good harvest from current worldwide tourism boom, the region of South Asia has remained far behind. Due, mainly to lack of proper government initiative, the region by and large has remained a region with poor infrastructure and marketing. Negative image of the region due to poverty and political unrest, is also one of the major reasons for backwardness in attracting tourist. Poor security and hygiene; inadequate air/rail/road connectivity; cumbersome visa procedures and exorbitant hotel rates are also contributing in this regard.
What needs to be done is to embark on joint marketing strategies in a very aggressive manner in tourism generating countries. As far as international tourist traffic to our region is concerned, we have a choice to follow one of the three routes viz stand-alone marketing; gateway approach and joint marketing. The first route will require a relatively higher level of investment. The second will result in congestion being created at identified hubs. It is therefore the third alternative, which countries of our region must consciously adopt and take immediate action to jointly market what one would call ‘ancient land with a modern face’, together we can achieve more. Besides, joint marketing of neighbouring destinations will considerably reduce costs and would possibly lead to issue of SAARC visa – resulting in eliminating one of the major barriers to tourism, namely, cumbersome visa procedures.
At a time when long haul traffic is severely affected on account of several factors beyond our control, the seven-countries of the region stand to gain by joint marketing. So, they should look at developing intra-region tourism, since we have common characteristics such as: Culture; Climate; Food and Language.
Imaginative approaches such as the Palace on Wheels in India and Elephant rides in Chitwan National Park in Nepal could be further applied in the region. For example, the heritage site approach has much potential for application in South Asia. This approach, which involves designing imaginative and educational interpretations of attraction features, is one, which is currently very popular with tourists and has been creatively developed in Europe and North America.
We should exploit these characteristics to our fullest advantage. We hope the forthcoming SAARC Summit in Dhaka would address this issue and come up with some positive action plan.
(The writer is forner editor of The Bangladesh Times)