A Strategy for Boosting Tourism Recovery in the Bay of Bengal Region

Along with Sri Lanka and Thailand, Nepal saw the sharpest decline in international tourism in the first five months of 2021. Photo credit: ADB.

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Activating theme-based, cross-border circuits can help BIMSTEC tourism recover from the impacts of COVID-19.  


Prior to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, tourism was a fast-growing sector supporting economic development in Asia and the Pacific, including in the BIMSTEC subregion.

BIMSTEC, which stands for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, is a multilateral organization composed of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

As the disease spread in the first quarter of 2020, international tourist arrivals and receipts sank worldwide to levels never seen before. By April 2020, tourism had dropped to zero as countries closed their borders. The slump in tourism highlighted how closely it was intertwined with nearly every other sector of a country’s economy. Jobs and incomes were seriously affected directly or indirectly. 

To recover from the impacts of COVID-19, BIMSTEC needs to update its tourism action plan with strategic objectives, such as focusing on thematic circuits as a chief path for cooperation and sustainable development.

“Circuits” are itineraries that many tour operators offer throughout the region. They have the potential to develop, organize, and manage sustainable tourism within and between countries since they could bring together public and private sector stakeholders for improvements in destinations along the circuit route. Fully realizing the benefits of cross-border tourist circuits, however, requires addressing multiple issues throughout the region.

Impact of the Pandemic

The tourism outlook for BIMSTEC and the rest of Asia and the Pacific was still grim when this piece was being written in late August 2021. Most countries had remained closed through 2020 and into at least the first three quarters of 2021 as COVID-19 and its variants continued to spread quickly and vaccine distribution was relatively slow.

Majority or 60% of UN World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) panel of experts do not expect a rebound of global tourism until 2022. Nearly half of the experts did not expect a return to 2019 levels until 2024 with vaccination rates and new variants as key factors affecting recovery.  As of May 2021, UNWTO reported that international tourism was down by 95% in most countries in Asia and the Pacific, compared with the same period in 2019.[1] Cross-border international travel among BIMSTEC countries was also down—an average of 94.95% less than 2019 levels.

Table 1: BIMSTEC International Tourist Arrivals in 2021 vs 2019
(% decreases, January-May)

UNWTO. 2021. World Tourism Barometer Statistical Annex. (19) 4. July.  
UNWTO. 2020. World Tourism Barometer and Statistical Annex. Volume 18 and past volumes.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan. 2015–2019 “Gross Earnings” Maximum Demonstrated Production Rate data. Provided on 6 July 2020.Department of Tourism, Thailand. Revised Figures for Thailand 2016–2019.
Note: Source for Bangladesh 2018–2019 arrivals is the Special Branch of the Bangladesh Police, but no data was available beyond 2019 for comparison.

BIMSTEC member states lost a total of 42.45 million tourism-related jobs and $177.4 billion in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.[2] International tourism receipts were down in January–May 2021 from the same period in 2019 for those BIMSTEC countries reported by UNWTO: Bangladesh, -75.1%; Bhutan, -100%; India, -55.8%; Nepal, -89.9%; Sri Lanka, -98.9%; and Thailand, -94.1%.[3]

Table 2:  Share of Tourism in Employment and GDP in BIMSTEC Countries



Total Employment (million)

Share of Tourism in Employment (%)

Total Contribution of Tourism to GDP (%)

Total Share of Tourism in GDP (billion)
























7.0 (est.)































Sri Lanka










8 .0








n.a. = not available
Source: WTTC Economic Impact Reports. Accessed 21 August 2021.
Note: Bhutan data was obtained from the Tourism Council of Bhutan, November 2020.

While international travel remained highly restricted or closed in 2020 and 2021 for BIMSTEC countries, most of them were able to sustain approximately two thirds of their pre-pandemic domestic visitor spending, which helped stave off even worse unemployment.

Table 3: Domestic Visitor Spending in BIMSTEC Countries, 2019 and 2020








Amount ($ billion)

Rate (%)





















Sri Lanka










Note: No data for Bhutan.
Source: WTTC Economic Impact Reports. Accessed 27 August 2021.

Issues to Be Addressed

To promote business recovery and return tourism to its pre-pandemic uptrend, BIMSTEC must address the following key issues:

  • Slow vaccination rates, with fully vaccinated populations ranging from 3.28% in Myanmar to 26.14% in Sri Lanka and 60.96% in Bhutan.[4]
  • Lack of uniform travel-related health and safety measures.
  • Recovery of 42 million travel and tourism jobs lost due to COVID-19.
  • Lack of marketing and product development that leverages opportunities, such as thematic circuits.
  • Insufficient cross-border ground and air transport connectivity to propel BIMSTEC’s multi-country thematic circuits.
  • Multiple visa requirements between BIMSTEC members hindering cross-border traffic particularly for multi-country thematic circuits.
  • Lack of equipped and trained staff capable of implementing enhanced health and safety standards, which are expected by the tourism industry and travelers.
  • Limited BIMSTEC Secretariat staff and budget for implementing tourism-related activities.
  • Updating of the BIMSTEC Tourism Action Plan, which was adopted by all member states in August 2006.
Strategies and Recommended Actions

Since resources are limited at the BIMSTEC Secretariat, an updated action plan that builds on the 2006 plan and activates theme-based, cross-border circuits as a chief path for cooperation and sustainable development could be the most effective way to help address these issues. The following are the six strategic objectives that could comprise the core of an updated BIMSTEC Tourism Action Plan:

  • Share best practices and policies for controlling the spread of COVID-19.
  • Harmonize COVID-19 mitigation and health guidelines and standards among BIMSTEC members. 
  • The BIMSTEC Secretariat could disseminate best practices and facilitate information exchange via a virtual Information Center.

  • Plan better for supporting the industry and assisting with eventual re-employment with more precise data.
  • Continue focusing on domestic visitors while international travel is not possible.
  • Continue all government assistance to businesses, such as subsidized low-interest loans, training support, temporary employment for furloughed workers, and financing of enhanced health and safety measures until international travel can resume.

  • Establish a central online BIMSTEC repository for plans about tourism-related infrastructure to inform members about best practices and lessons learned.
  • Establish travel facilities along circuit roads, which include toilets, petrol stations, restaurants, cafes, and shops for snacks and souvenirs.
  • Enhance roads along or near circuits, such as the Buddhist Circuit, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, and the Highway from West Bengal (Hilli) to Meghalaya (Mahendraganj). 
  • Establish tourist infrastructure, such as hotels, at key points along circuits.
  • Focus on infrastructure to strengthen popular circuits and cross-border projects such as the following representative list of circuits which are highlighted as priorities in the tourism marketing activities of these countries:
    • Ramayana Circuit for Nepal and India,
    • Buddhist Circuit for Nepal and India,
    • Himalaya Circuit between Nepal and Bhutan,
    • River Cruise Circuit between Bangladesh and India,
    • Ocean Cruise Circuit between Sri Lanka and Kerala in India, and
    • Heritage Site Circuit from Thailand to Myanmar starting from Vietnam.
  • BIMSTEC assists in coordinating the implementation of the recently published Transport Connectivity Master Plan.
  • Facilitate the restart of low-cost carrier operations. The rapid growth of this segment can help increase intra-regional tourism.
  • Facilitate implementation of the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA). Implementation of this agreement could provide a multilateral framework for the movement of tourist vehicles across borders and thus boost intra-regional visits to single country and multicountry circuits. It would, for example, enable tour operators from Nepal to take groups across the Indian border to continue Buddhist Circuit tours.

  • With BIMSTEC leading, coordinate with members on activities related to joint branding, market research, and marketing.
  • Conduct an inventory of existing assets that could comprise the circuits, which could then form the base materials for the online repository and app for the BIMSTEC tourism information portal. Include lists of BIMSTEC tour operators from member countries that are already offering or interested in offering circuit tours.
  • Promote the sharing of domestic marketing campaign strategies among BIMSTEC members.
  • Improve research in target markets via a BIMSTEC Visitor Arrivals Dashboard, like ASEAN’s.
  • Implement regional product development strategies, possibly circuit-based and including wellness tourism, cruise tourism, and ecotourism.
  • Create digital marketing that encourages audio and video tours and experiences from each member state. Experiences could include virtual cooking lessons and online dance and music lessons and performances, as well as live virtual tours and interactive cultural experiences.
  • Conduct familiarization trips (organized by each member country) for journalists and tour operators.

  • As a forum for cooperation on human resource development, BIMSTEC could help members exchange sample curricula and arrange visits to one another’s facilities.
  • Develop “tourism consciousness” or awareness programs to help local communities become more engaged in circuit development.
  • Offer online training and capacity building for tourism and destination management organizations via hospitality and tourism schools and, if available, local university public administration programs.
  • Consider adopting the short-term training courses of the Greater Mekong Subregion. “Strategic Direction 1” of the GMS Tourism Strategy focuses on human resource development and support capacity building for public officials.

  • Liberalize visa requirements across BIMSTEC. Establish uniform visa access for visitors and operators who wish to visit a cross-border circuit.
  • Collect information on investment regulations, incentives, and opportunities. Establishing a related database could incentivize investments, particularly in multi-country circuits where more than one set of investment requirements and incentives might be in effect.
  • Prioritize restoring aviation connectivity when it is again safe to travel. Consider becoming an open-skies aviation market.
  • Reconstitute the BIMSTEC Tourism Working Group as soon as possible to update and implement the tourism action plan.

[1] UNWTO. 2021. World Tourism Barometer Statistical Annex. (19) 4. July.

[2] WTTC did not have data on Bhutan. 2019 data was provided by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

[3] UNWTO. 2021. World Tourism Barometer Statistical Annex. (19) 4. July.

[4] Share of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. OurWorldInData.org. Accessed 28 August 2021.

Li Dongxiang
Lead Regional Cooperation Specialist, South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Li Dongxiang has 30 years of experience in development finance, project management, regional cooperation and integration, public-private partnership, and knowledge management. Mr. Li currently leads ADB’s support for the regional cooperation and integration initiatives of the BIMSTEC and the SAARC. He developed methodologies for cross-project learning, published prototype knowledge products, and established the Asian Think Tank Network. He served as director of the ADB Division in Ministry of Finance of the PRC, and advisor in the World Bank’s PRC Office.

Scott Wayne
President, SW Associates, LLC, Sustainable Destination Development Consultancy

Scott Wayne has been a senior consultant on sustainable tourism for the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. He teaches a graduate course on destination planning for Georgetown University’s Urban and Regional Planning and Global Hospitality Leadership programs.

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Lani Garnace
Senior Economics Officer, South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Lani Garnace has over 15 years’ experience in the areas of socioeconomic research, project management, and knowledge management. She supports the regional cooperation and integration initiatives for BIMSTEC and SAARC, processing policy-based loan for Nepal, and other economic research work of SARC. She has a bachelor’s degree in statistics from the University of the Philippines and a master’s degree in public policy from Victoria University of Wellington.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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