Bangladesh will become a traveler's destination, but not the way you imagine, argues Mikey Leung
The number of reasons that travelers avoid Bangladesh cannot even be counted on two hands.
On foreign television screens, riots and floods are the leading actors; their supporting cast is no less extraordinary. Pseudo-Islamic extremism garners a major role, while abject poverty plays like a forgettable soundtrack. Inter-minable corruption adds to the atmosphere of a Shakespearean tragedy: the characters always suffer inescapably under the weight of their own extraordinary gluttony.
For a country whose world reputation seems to be constantly drowning, it is hard to imagine that Bangladesh will one day become a traveler's destination on par with its neighbours. How is this possible? In five years, the Bangladesh travel industry will be totally unrecognisable compared to the industry of today.
Tourism in Bangladesh is inevitable
Consider the Chinese tourism experience, a path this nation already treads. Little more than 10 years ago, Chinese domestic tourism was infantile, in the same way that Bangladeshi tourism is now embryonic. Powered by an upwardly mobile middle class, the industry evolved new tourism products while promoting existing destinations. The market was literally captive: very few Chinese had the means to travel outside China. Even today, very few do.
Even if Bangladesh's tourism market wasn't growing, worldwide travel trends, by virtue of their exponential increase, would inevitably prop it up. This is because intrepid travelers can and do hunger for new cultures and unvisited frontiers, as it is in the adventurer's nature to seek both the exotic and the unknown. Each year, more and more travelers are willing to look over India's border and discover what this country is really about. Seen in this light, Bangladesh is truly an unexplored treasure.
Responsibility lies with operators to drive the market
That being said, it is totally unrealistic to expect Cambodia's overnight success or even India's robust growth. The Sundarbans, as Bangladesh's prime attraction, is simply not spectacular or iconic enough to prop up an entire industry the way that Angkor does. Nevertheless, local operators are now aware that people, both Bengali and otherwise, want to take holidays from their high-pressure urban lifestyles, and that untrammeled beauty lies just outside the atrocious conditions of Dhaka.
Like it or not, Bangladesh's interim government now provides travelers with a form of relative stability, which goes a long way when planning trips inside the desh. But as the government remains unaccountable to its people, we cannot look to Parjatan, the national tourism organisation, for stewardship. The responsibility to manage and drive the industry forward lies squarely on the shoulder of Bangladesh's tourism operators, who also have the most to gain from this growth.
In order for local operators to increase their share of the meagre but lucrative inbound market -- i.e. the market that spends dollars, euros and pounds instead of taka -- a change in priorities is required first. Marketers must realise that Bangladesh can only promote itself as an alternative travel destination and on the grounds of poverty alleviation, using means that go far beyond the slogan: "Visit Bangladesh Before Tourists Come" [sic].
"Responsible Travel" (RT) -- www.responsibletravel.com -- is a philosophy that is redefining the way people travel around the world, and the term is much more broad and encompassing than the well-battered word "eco-tourism." Nowadays, under the auspices of RT, the discerning consumer wants a holiday that minimises his/her impact on the environment and detrimental influence on local cultures, while simultaneously enlightening themselves about the world abroad. Events such as the Banglalink International Coastal Cleanup, held in 2007, are encouraging in this regard.
Travelers, especially the kind that would travel to Bangladesh, aren't content to lie like beached whales for weeks at a stretch. People want trips that broaden their life perspective and teach them far more about the diversity and cultures of our world. Bangladesh offers plenty of life lessons and eye-opening experiences, none of which top any of the "best of" or "top ten" lists -- so why bother focusing on that humdrum market? Local operators must strengthen themselves on the responsible travel niche market and brief themselves on its requirements.
Serious perception changes are needed
Speaking of markets, the industry lacks marketing professionalism, which is severely crippling the industry's inbound tourism growth. Because international travelers have a much higher service expectation than most domestic travelers, they judge operators (and hence destinations) on the basis of their professionalism. And although there may be many professional operations in Bangladesh, both large and small, there is a terrible lack of connection between their products and the discerning dollar-spending traveler.
Marketing is all about influencing the consumer's perception of the product, and Bangladesh should stop leaving the determination of its image to the world's merciless mainstream media. Instead, local operators should begin providing truthful, well researched and easy-to-understand information on what a journey to the country will be like, and why it will be memorable (see the Bangladesh section of www. undiscovered-destinations.com for an example of good, straightforward marketing).
Most operators have also seriously overlooked how to capture the captive market, i.e. locally based expatriates, and decent marketing would also help in this regard. Most of these expatriates suffer from a lack of knowledge on what to do and how to do it, as there is very little local or up-to-date info on the nuts and bolts of a journey in Bangladesh. Many perceive travel in the country to be inconvenient, unsafe and/or insecure, a perception that is mostly unfounded because of a lack of objective and adequate travel information.
At this point, you may have noticed the use of the term "traveler" instead of "tourist," and this demonstrates the subtleties of effective marketing. A tourist is the kind seeking an ordinary holiday, where as the traveler seeks unique experiences that broaden their world. Because most expatriates who live in Bangladesh have already had the benefit of living outside their home nations, most consider themselves "travelers" and have more sophisticated tastes than the simple Thailand tourist.
Focus on strengths
To recap: thus far we've established that a) Bangladesh has a terrible world reputation that must be changed, and b) there already exists a captive market in Bangladesh (i.e. locally-based expatriates). So the question thus becomes: how do we change the perception of this target market? A good start would be to improve Bangladesh's already existing "draw-cards" in the eyes of those who live here already.
The Sundarbans should be the first and foremost target of this image improvement. But it would help to actually improve the visitor experience of the Sundarbans first. Such initiatives need not be difficult, costly nor complicated. A visitor information centre, even one with the most basic of facilities such as posters and photographs, would go a long way in assisting the curious visitor to understand the unique eco-system at work in the mangrove forest. It would also help tourists to envision the lives of understandably shy wildlife, especially that of the Royal Bengal Tiger. As tourism growth occurs in Bangladesh, its impact needs to be carefully managed in the Sundarbans, lest the tourists destroy what they've come to experience.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) could also use a perception adjustment, as most local people who live there will tell you that it is safe to travel inside the tracts and that the security risk is terribly overblown (of course, there are some caveats depending on where you go). However, most foreign countries advise against travel to the CHT (or all but essential travel, depending on which country).
Again, the truth is that the CHT is one of Bangladesh's most beautiful regions, and quite a treat to visit on the basis of its cultural, geographical and culinary diversity. When taking local advice, a journey to Rangamati and Bandarbans can be quite safe and very much a highlight of a visit to Bangladesh. Perhaps adventurous travelers are willing to look deeper, ask more questions and learn the truth about potential visits to the CHT. But, like it or not, the great majority of people are content to listen to their government's advice, which in turn takes the advice of the Bangladesh government when creating its advisories. It is a shame that the Bangladesh government and its military still has so much to hide about the hill tracts, which makes visitor arrivals all the more important and necessary.
A not-so-obvious suggestion: Focus on the captive audience
Draw-cards aside, the tourism industry needs to create and aggressively market new products that focus solely on the expatriate market, as there are a tremendous number of expatriates who rarely leave Dhaka, and so their perception of Bangladesh is based solely on their impressions of the capital city. Not only is this a serious and grave error, these are the impressions that expatriates take to other countries around the world.
The fact is that expatriates are the springboard for accessing new tourist markets as one can never underestimate the power of the word of mouth. It is very rare to meet short-term visitors to Bangladesh, and the ones that do visit for less than a month are usually here as guests of people that already live here.
Currently, this same expatriate market generates a section of people who mostly choose to take their holidays outside Bangladesh instead of inside, which once again demonstrates the terrible lack of linkages between Bangladesh's professional operators and the proposed target market.
It will be expensive and ineffective for local operators to reach the worldwide market at the current time, so this is why operators should focus on the captive audience. The goal of these initiatives is to create a buzz that will generate new visitor arrivals in the country and eventually drive the tourism market forward. But operators need to convince the captive market first, before it can do any kind of job reaching the outside world.
For all of its downsides, Bangladesh does have extraordinary tourism potential. Opportunities for exploration abound, the countryside is beautiful and Bangladesh's economy is plodding forward despite some unfathomable hindrances. In order to progress to another level in the worldwide tourism playing field, the country must go about the difficult task of changing its world image, a process that first begins from within.
Mikey Leung is a freelance travel journalist. He is currently researching a new book on Bangladesh (www.joybangla.info) for Bradt Travel Guides, a UK-based alternative guidebook publisher. He is also a former tour leader with Australia-based Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com).
Photos: Mikey Leung