Actor, businessman and tour guide operator, Hasan Shahid is a man of many skills trying his best to revive his tourism business after the fallout of the pandemic.
“There had been days when I had just one meal a day during the pandemic. My business was shut down, I did not know what to do. But I, as always, never lost hope. I knew if I am alive, I would manage some way or another,” Hasan Shahid Babu said about his business, Petro Aviation, a tour and travel operator company that was closed amid the pandemic.
In March 2020, when the Covid pandemic hit Bangladesh, Hasan had nothing left to do but cancel all the reservations he had made for his clients.
“There was a medical conference in Turkey that we were organising. As a tour operator, I always pay the reservation bills in advance for the transportation and hotels so that we do not have to face any complications later. And then the pandemic came, every penny that I invested in arranging that conference got stuck and so did we,” Hasan was talking about his last project.
Hasan Shahid is the manager of Petro Aviation in Bangladesh. He organises international tours and conferences.
In 1983, at the age of 18, Hasan had his first job as a cement supplier at the Tongi bridge. “One thing my family taught me well is that, once you are an adult, you ought to pay for your expenses, be self-dependent. I guess, that lesson stayed with me”, Hasan said.
From that business, he joined the Bangladesh office of an international shipping company, as a courier delivery person.
“My first salary was Tk650. And then over the years, I became the manager of Bangladesh Air Express.”
Then from the air cargo sector, Hasan jumped to leather. In 1987, as the Manager of Lira International, Hasan’s salary was Tk20,000. In between these jobs, Hasan used to run a small business like exporting local handicrafts to Japan.
In 2013, Hasan started acting, first as a hobby, then as a profession. He first appeared in ‘Zero Degree’, a film by Animesh Aich. Then he appeared in several advertisements and then in dramas as well.
“But I never saved any money. I feel like, if you are a nomad in the journey called life, you have to enjoy it now, do not save it for the future,” he said thoughtfully.
“It was in 1972 when I came to Dhaka with my parents. My father was looking for a school for me. That day as we were walking through the roads and alleys of Mohammadpur, it felt like we were exploring. Maybe that feeling of wonder associated with exploration lingered within me and I turned out to be a tour operator in my later life.”
In 1991, Hasan was offered the Army resort in Neelgiri, Bandarban in the hopes that he would bring tourists to the resort and increase their income. As transportation infrastructure back then was far from ideal, and people were fearful regarding the hill tracts for political reasons, common people were reluctant to visit the hilly parts of the country. From that point on, Hasan and his team started working.
Hasan said, “What I did was I used my network from all the places I offered to bring their families to the resort. With time, gradually the resort got up to speed and after three years, we handed it over to the authorities.”
From that point, Hasan and his brother started exploring other hilly parts and the rest of the country.
How he came into his own
“There was a time when Nafakhum, Amiyakhum, Shatbhaikhum, Remakree, Tindu, Thanchi and other parts of the hill tracts were less travelled. I still remember the time I met Shachin Tripura, a young man who took me to Tindu in Bandarban in 2006/07,” Hasan said, walking me through his stories.
“My brother Hasan Jahid and I went to Thanchi that year where the headman forbade us to explore the deep mountains and woodlands. There we met Shachin, a young guy, who was ready to take us through the deep forests, springs and muddy mountain tracks. And at the end of the trail, we found the majestic Tindu spring.”
After that, Hasan along with his brother started organising tours for the public. They explored their network and started to invite people to visit such places inside the country.
“People usually visit India, Nepal or Bhutan for its nature or to hike. I wish they knew how beautiful our country is and what a diverse landscape we have. I wanted our tourists to spend their money here, in our country rather than in other countries. That way, our economy would get stronger.”
Hasan believes money is an instrument, not something to sit on. Instead of sitting idle, money should be circulated within the local economy.
“That is how you survive with the community because there is no point in prospering alone while your community lags behind,” the philosopher inside Hasan posited.
And that is the reason why Hasan later included the local people of the hill-tracts in his business as tour guides. This way the local people also got an earning source.
For the last 10 years, they were doing pretty well, for example, getting the dealership of Petrochem International in 2010. “Moreover, in 2019, we were operating and organising corporate tours in Oman, Turkey, Thailand, Goa, Kochin…” Hasan kept going.
Then the pandemic struck
But then one day it all got worse when the pandemic arrived. Hasan’s money got stuck abroad and gradually clients cancelled everything, in short- Hasan was on the brink of losing it all.
Yet, as he spoke again, the philosopher Hasan had a calm voice as if nothing really happened. “I got bored of doing nothing. So I became a Covid volunteer. If I am lucky, I will get my business back. If not, well, so be it- there are many other things in this world to live for.”
Being a Red Crescent volunteer for the last 45 years, Hasan joined the Covid volunteering team in the middle of 2020, where they disinfected offices and campuses around the city, cooked and distributed food to the underprivileged. Once he had even been quarantined inside the Red Crescent office.
Later as he recovered, Hasan went back home and started yet another business of organic food like honey, mango, mustard oil, etc. He named his venture HS Agro. Afterwards, he started another business of producing plastic bottles for hand sanitisers and other disinfectants.
“I knew I had to survive, so whatever I found, I did. And still, I do not save any money- I invest because, then the money will move and the economy will be functioning,” Hasan is still doing the agro-business while giddying up for the tour operating one.
“Travelling and moving is my philosophy and this is the perfect profession for me. The pandemic did not stop me, just gave me some new ideas for the new world. I feel like a phoenix bird, revived with some new ideas.”
But it will take time to recover
For Hasan, it will take another year or more to restart the business and get it back up to speed. Although the tourism sector is recognised as an industry here in Bangladesh, the policies are not favourable, he says.
According to Hasan, the banks do not want to give the tour operators loans, so when they have to pay advance money for reservations, sometimes they have to pay it themselves. Again, the tourism sector needs proper experts in the government, not random MP’s who have no experience in handling this industry. They do not know how to uphold our country’s tourism sector in the world.
“We tend to beg, we show our poor people to the developed country so that we get donations. Rather we can show how beautiful our country is, then people will visit and spend money here. It is a matter of self-respect for our countrymen.”
He said there are many ways a country can be made tourist-friendly- we could start with clean and hygienic toilets in the bus and train terminals. Private companies can be included in the process.
The Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB) could also organise regular workshops and training for young tour organisers on how to develop more sustainable, climate-friendly tours.
Hasan thinks if the administration were functioning like this, he would not have had to go through such a tough situation. The tour operating business would have been more cherished in this country as more and more people are now into travelling.