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     Volume 4 Issue 43 | April 22, 2005 |

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A treasure untapped


In the recent tsunami disaster, Asia's most thriving tourist beaches in Indonesia, India, the Maldives and Thailand have been washed away. Bangladesh, having the world's longest unbroken sea-beach with hills and rare forests in the background, remained at a safe distance from the perils. That benediction of nature should turn Bangladesh into a safe haven for backpackers.

Literally, tourism means business of providing accommodation and services for tourists; and a tourist is a person travelling or visiting a place for pleasure. By a broad definition, tourism is a hospitality industry catering to backpackers (tourists) as well as all others on tour as business-seekers, various policy-advisers, participants in meetings and functions and the like.

Bangladesh's tourism guardians go by the broad definition --to reckon the annual figure of tourist turnout they count as a tourist even a foreign head of state or government, or a government functionary, who comes on a serious mission to do politics or diplomacy, not on a jaunt for pleasure. And the annual turnout figure oscillates around 200,000 over the years.

For growth of the tourism sector, the target, naturally, is to attract the backpackers, holiday-makers, nature-watchers, researchers in ecological, historical and archeological splendours and the like. An increase in the number of tourists in the categories of traders, investors and government functionaries would depend on increased economic activities and geopolitical importance.

Wolfgang Vollmann, UNESCO representative in Bangladesh, told the opening function of the Dhaka Travel Mart that, including the three world heritage sites, Bangladesh has a total of 355 archaeological sites that are currently "conserved and documented in a poor manner".

A survey found that with policymakers' visions blurred by domestic political disquiet, more often than not, many potential pockets of Bangladesh's economy remained untapped. Tourism is one. In a span of three months, political governance is replaced with a nonparty caretaker administration ahead of national elections in the country. As it has nothing to do with political jargon other than arranging the polls and doing routine government functions, the tourism ministry, during the tenure of the last caretaker government, gave serious thought to giving Cox's Bazaar a facelift as a tourist resort with world-class facilities.

It was a follow-up action on a proposal submitted by the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) to the interim government for building necessary infrastructure for the entertainment industry. The tourism corporation had suggested the government to declare Cox's Bazaar as a "duty-free city" in the model of Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand just across the Bay.

All the hotels, motels and restaurants of the corporation in different tourist sites were to be refurbished for comfortable stay of tourists under the plan. Reports say the present political government also picked up the plan.

"Tourism development will accelerate the economic development of the country," said a BPC executive, echoing the recommendation laid down in a feasibility study report many months ago.

President of the Bangladesh chapter of the Asia Pacific Travel Association, Abdul Mannan MP, a ruling party lawmaker, regretted at the Travel Mart that the tourism industry here is "moving very slowly as the country has so failed to identify what to do to promote the sector".

The Tourism Week got instant feedback: the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) proposed to the government that it would develop eco-tourism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The Centre's DG, J Gabriel Campbell, submitted the plan to Deputy Minister for CHT Affairs Moni Swapan Dewan, who hails from among the indigenous community of the hilly region, measuring a tenth of Bangladesh in territorial size.

Nepal thrives on tourism cashing in on the world's tallest mount summit, Mount Everest, and ranges of mountains situated in the Himalayan kingdom. Not too far, a small Muslim island-state, the Maldives, survives on incomes from services to the tourists flocking on the archipelago's 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius is also not far away.

And with the longest beach of the world lying in the south-eastern district, Cox's Bazaar also stands out as a unique spot for a retreat. Looking over the vast expanse of Bay waters, it has a picturesque backdrop dotted with unending ranges of hills. On the high seas there are a number of islets that present eye-catching scenes.

Furthermore, hours' voyage by trawlers can take an excursionist to Southeast Asian lands across the Bay while land and air trips to other South Asian countries. Apart from sightseers and holidaymakers, there is immense potential for attracting business tourists here as Bangladesh's main seaport of Chittagong is nearby and is the gateway to South and Southeast of Asia.

In the meantime, Chittagong and Chiang Mai have been linked by airway. In the latest development, the Bangladesh-Myanmar Friendship Highway would open up a vast eastern horizon.

The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, lies along the coast of the Bay in the south-western corner, with the country's second seaport situated close by. The vast panorama of flora and fauna is home for a specious population of wildlife, the world-famous Royal Bengal Tiger and spotted dear leading a long list of species.

No other country is blessed with such natural wealth, tourism experts said. Malaysia, a byword for development in present times, has got a big mangrove forest. But the Mastang forest is second to the Sundarbans, only in respect of area, not on the count of huge bio-diversity.

Malaysia is cashing in on it to the full, adding value to the gift of nature as well as other kinds of tourism products through the use of modern know-how. Tourism is an important part of life in developed countries where people have enough and more to spare. But how many of them have ever seen this captivating tourist haunt like the Sundarbans?

Kantaji's Temple in Dinajpur is the largest terracotta temple in the world. According to a report, a former Director General of UNESCO in Bangladesh, on his visit to the temple, had given his opinion that the temple could be a world heritage. "The government department concerned may apply to UNESCO for the designation of the temple as world heritage site," he was quoted as saying.

A small landlocked country of arid hills like Nepal has 12 world heritage sites. To attract international eco-tourists to Bangladesh in larger numbers, the country needs to get UNESCO recognition for the world-class national heritages that it has in its repertory.

What is needed now is develop the tourism products and ensure foolproof security in the tourist resorts. The exchequer certainly has the means and funds to spend on both and the authorities, of late, have fixed the choice. However, wavering and foot-dragging are all too evident in these areas.

Dr Syed Rashidul Hasan, professor of Marketing at Dhaka University, has suggested that foreign investors may be allowed to develop tourism "at par their taste, demand and standard in some exclusive islands of Bangladesh".

Meanwhile, things are now learnt to be moving fast towards building attractive tourist resorts in the offshore islands. A high-level meeting on January 16, 2005 declared St. Martin's Island in the heart of the Bay as a restricted zone.

Under the plan, tourist resorts will be built interconnecting islands and islets from Inani Beach to St Martin's Island with improved communications network, strict security arrangement and modern recreation facilities at affordable costs.

Tourism is one of the vital economic sectors. Developing the sector can help, to a great extent, check the trafficking of women out of the country on false promises of jobs and then being abused in foreign lands. It can also prevent children being traded out for drudgery, being pegged to slow death playing as camel jockeys of Middle-Eastern monarchs.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005