Dismayed by short duration, South Asian business leaders on Sunday called for a relaxed visa regime to help strengthen trade within the region.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) introduced SAARC visa exemption scheme in 1992 under which 24 categories of people can obtain SAARC "stickers" from the respective member countries to travel other countries without getting country-specific visa.
But the leaders said that the duration of SAARC Visa, valid only for three months, is "disappointing" and "ineffective".
Business leaders made the call at a roundtable discussion on "Unleashing South Asia: Imperatives for Action: Revitalising SAFTA: Beyond Barriers" at a city hotel.
They also underscored the need for removing non-tariff barriers, harmonising customs rules and improving connectivity for greater economic development in SAARC member countries.
SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry organised the event in cooperation with the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) in Dhaka.
"Initially, the SAARC sticker was for one year, but I am quite disappointed to learn that now it has come down to only three months," said Salman F Rahman, private sector adviser to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
"How do businessmen do their trade in the region with such a restricted visa facility?" he questioned while delivering his speech in the inaugural session of the programme.
Mr Rahman, who is also a former president of SAARC Chamber, urged the policy makers of the region to reinstate visas with one-year validity.
In the business session, Sanjeevn Nandwani, a former additional director general of foreign trade and development commission of Falta Export Promotion Zone in India, supported the need for a flexible visa regime.
"Personally, I don't understand why we have to face rigid visa regime," he said. "SAARC visa should have validity of three to five years with multiple entries."
He also suggested that the SAARC chamber should arrange training for customs officials of the regional countries so that they could understand each other and also the language of exporters and importers.
Mr. Shafiqul Islam, additional secretary of Bangladesh's commerce ministry, said that without having three to five years' SAARC visa, the whole visa waiver scheme wouldn't be beneficial.
He also said that intra-regional trade in SAARC is around 6.0 per cent of the region's total trade.
Statistics available with the International Trade Centre (ITC) back up that. SAARC intra-region trade declined to $46.51 billion in 2015 from $ 49.35 billion in 2014.
Shafqat Haider, an executive member of the SAARC Chamber, said if politicians of the region didn't talk, it also didn't mean that the private sectors could not do so.
"The main impediment to the way of the progress of SAARC as well the free trade regime in the region is the unwillingness of politicians," said Mr Haider, who moderated the business session.
Earlier, in the inaugural session, Vice- President of SAARC CCI, and also vice-president of FBCCI Mahbubul Alam delivered the address of welcome.
President of SAARC CCI Suraj Vaidya said the SAARC had yet to deliver its promise to fulfil the high aspirations of its people in the face of current global economic and financial crisis.
"SAARC's new vision could be seen as a bridge between East Asia, rich in its human resources and technology and West and Central Asia, rich in natural resources and finance," he said.