When the tourism sector was struggling to sustain itself in the pandemic, Sumon Roy took an initiative. He decided to try organising virtual walks (since physical tours were no longer possible) through his tour organisation called, 'Lost Panorama.'
Before the pandemic hit, he used to organise Old Dhaka tours and walks on the weekends.
In order to adapt to the pandemic era, he made short videos and slides using Google Maps and photos to make exciting visuals for the virtual walks.
Consequently, travel enthusiasts from different corners of the world joined in.
If you think virtual walks cannot be as extensive as on-the-spot walks, you would be mistaken because Roy takes you to every alley of Old Dhaka explaining its historical background and current condition. And, one can also thoroughly enjoy the tours with the use of virtual reality glasses.
With the pandemic winding down, Lost Panorama now offers both virtual and physical tours and walks.
Why 'Lost Panorama'?
"Earlier in the mid-19th century, our Buriganga river had a nice panoramic view on both sides. Once a royal beauty, the river is now a narrow polluted canal. We cannot bring back that time or view, but we can reminisce and reintroduce Old Dhaka's lost history and culture.
Hence, we named our organisation Lost Panorama," explained Sumon Roy, the founder and Chief Innovation Leader of Lost Panorama.
The organisation started its journey in 2015 but until 2019, Roy had not thought of becoming commercial and making it his full-time job, even though, earlier, he earned enough pocket money from those walks and tours.
Before Covid-19 pandemic, revenue averaged at Tk70,000 monthly, which fell to Tk12,000 during the virtual pandemic tours.
However, things are looking up. Lost Panorama's revenue averaged at Tk50,000 in October 2021.
"As I grew up in Old Dhaka, I know every inch of it. One day my friend offered to arrange an Old Dhaka tour for his foreign friends. I hopped on though, at the time, I did not have a very sound idea of all the historical places. However, everyone enjoyed the walk," said an enthusiastic Roy, remembering his very first walk.
Roy said he always had a passion for getting involved in something that would allow him ample reading time and enable him to learn about different cultures, history and heritage.
He started his professional career working as a journalist and consultant with NGOs and INGOs. Later, realising the walks' demand, he and his team members decided to take a leap of faith with Lost Panorama.
It took time to form the organisation's core team. The current team members were also tourists, who learned about Lost Panorama when they participated in the walks as paying customers. The idea behind the organisation interested them so much that they got involved and started working further with Roy.
Lost Panorama offers nine tour packages, and the price ranges from Tk1,200 to Tk2,500 which includes breakfast, lunch and, sometimes dinner - depending on the walk schedule.
Currently, their number of tours average at 10-12 in a month.
As food is also a part of the culture, Lost Panorama takes its guests to authentic food places so that they can taste and explore Bengali food culture too. Moreover, one can also take customised tour packages of Old Dhaka, in which case, the cost is Tk6,500 per head.
Beyond the travel tours
"The first four years were experimental. In the beginning, I did not know many things but kept on learning over the years. We are very sensitive about information because carrying out original and accessible research is key to our approach. Hence, we always rely on authentic sources like Academia, ResearchGate and The British Library.
We have purchased an annual subscription of these sources to cross-check any data," said Roy.
Along with arranging walks, Lost Panorama also organises workshops to make responsible stakeholders preserve our collective heritage in the time of rapid urban expansion. Roy believes that it is high time we preserve our heritage sites as globalisation and industrialisation force communities to reevaluate how we interact with our pasts.
Unlike other tourism agencies, this organisation focuses on historical research and offers heritage walks, brand history and research consultancy for tourists and different organisations. It recognises the importance of raising heritage awareness and the value of these sites through its research-oriented walking tours for locals and tourists, so that they can experience historical cities in a new way and connect with diverse local communities.
Sadly, not many local people participate in such walks.
"While promoting through social media, a lot of people show their interest, but a very few join. Once, I walked with only one participant. However, this has never disappointed me because our service will always be the same whether it is for one or 100 participants," said Roy.
Gerrit Alex, a tourist from the Netherlands, shared his experience on the Lost Panorama website, writing, "The visit to the Armenian church was an eye-opening experience. Sumon gave me a tour of the church, talked about Armenian life and gave many historical references which I never knew," in a review.
Lost Panorama is planning to expand beyond Old Dhaka.
"Usually, foreigners do not know much about Bangladesh other than Ahsan Manjil or Lalbagh fort. And it has created an opportunity for us to execute our [expansion] plan. But we do not want to rush. It will take a minimum of five years," explained Roy.
In the future, the tour operator also aims to expand their operation beyond the country.
"We want to cover every historical spot of the world. It will be like a tour down the historical alleys. For that, we will provide training to each of our tour guides with historical knowledge," the founder said.
Their long-term ambitions aside, Lost Panorama has to deal with many different challenges. Not many Bangladeshi youths are interested in history, culture and heritage.
"It is because guardians themselves are not interested. How many parents want their children to be tour guides? How many of us know about our heritage? We visit a place but barely know anything about its history. To change this, we need to participate in walks and actively learn. But I think it will take a long time before we get there," Roy added.
He believes that this sector cannot grow until people are passionate about Bangladesh's history and culture, even if the government subsidises it.