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     Volume 12 |Issue 06| February 08, 2013 |


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Newlyweds, families and school tours have flocked to the sea side resort town of Cox's Bazar for decades in pursuit of sun, sea and sand. Bangladesh's government has ambitious plans to boost the country's tourism revenue by up to $5 billion (Tk 40,000 crore) over the next 10 years. Cox's Bazar's 125km of unbroken sandy coastline, the world's longest natural beach, is a large part of achieving that goal. the Star visited the Bangladeshi holidaymaker's destination of choice, and found, while charming and picturesque, Cox's Bazar has a lot of domestic travellers' needs to address before it can really compete with beach destinations abroad for more foreign visitors.

Soraya Auer

Photos: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Signposts alert visitors to hotels such as Radisson and Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts to be built in future but remain ugly empty plots.

Cricket players of different ages shout and cheer as they lift up an elderly man in a punjabi for having out bowled another player on Cox's Bazar's crowded Laboni beach. The man waves to his clapping wife and family before returning to his position to bowl for the next tourist-cum-cricketer. Hundreds of people, young and old are watching the ongoing game, taking pictures of themselves and the setting sun, sipping tea and coffee while chatting, shivering and yelling in disbelief at how cold the water is and shooing away kids with products made from sea-shells. The sheer number of tourists roaming along the beach front gives the impression that the people are having the time of their lives.

“I am having a great time here,” says Jamal Ahmed, a 22-year-old engineering student on holiday with friends. “The beach is big, busy and beautiful.” Having never seen the ocean before, Jamal says his expectations were neither low nor high. “We're staying at a nearby hotel, our room doesn't have a sea view so we're staying out until it gets dark, and then we'll wander around the market and find somewhere to eat.” When asked what other plans Jamal and his friends had, he said, “We'll be here again tomorrow, we might try jet skiing. I mean, what else is there?”

Unfinished construction exists across the town, including next to the busy Laboni beach.

This sentiment by Cox's Bazar visitors was echoed repeatedly with some saying that beyond their own resorts they expected to do little but eat seafood and sit on the crowded beach. “There are a handful of things we could do but we're just here to get away from the bustle of Dhaka because we can't afford to go abroad,” says Rubaya Islam, a school teacher, before asking for her photo to be taken with her husband of three years.

The good news for local tourists like Rubaya and her husband, who only opt for domestic holidays out of financial and time constraints, is that the government has been increasingly putting emphasis on developing and improving the country's tourism industry. This is to encourage Bangladeshis to spend their holiday budget within the country and also to cater for an international audience, boosting the country's tourism revenue. Over the next decade, the government has plans that will hopefully earn the country up to $5 billion (Tk 40,000 crore). This goal is ambitious considering the country earned only $70 million (Tk 556 crore) in 2010 according to Bangladesh Bank statistics.

Markets selling products made from shells and pickles cater for a very Bangladeshi audience.

“We're taking a lot of steps to develop our tourism activities in Cox's Bazar recently,” informs Nurul Islam, Member Secretary of the Beach Management Committee. “There are a lot of local tourists and I think there is great potential because despite there being more than 450 hotels, sometimes people are unable to get rooms.” Islam, who oversees the tourism industry between Cox's Bazar and St Martin's Island, asserts, “The number of foreign tourists is small, perhaps less than two percent, but domestic tourism is increasing at a fast rate.”

The government has begun environmentally-friendly initiatives and plants thousands of trees in surrounding areas.

With a population of 150 million, many of whom who are financially solvent enough to plan holidays, it is an unfortunate reality that Bangladesh only has a handful of local destinations to cater to them. Of the 2.2 million Bangladeshis who travelled out of the country in 2009, almost half a million left for tourism. The country did not receive as many foreigners that year, in fact less than 270,000, many of whom came for work and not tourism. Holidaying Bangladeshis and foreigners alike are heading to other countries in the region, like Thailand for beaches and Malaysia for shopping, indicating that the tourism sector in Bangladesh has to improve extensively to compete for business.

In the sea side town of Cox's Bazar, two visiting cousins, Tadib Muqtada and Ishnad Chowdhury, were inspired to take it upon themselves to bring something to the beach that would interest otherwise bored visitors.

“Cox's Bazar, the rate at which hotels are growing, is not balanced out with things to do so when you go, you'll see people on the beach, and then they return to their hotels in the evening,” says Tadib Muqtada, a young Bangladeshi entrepreneur who grew up abroad. “There needs to be more to do from cafes to nightlife to concerts. There needs to be a big boost in things to do for people once there,” he adds. The 'things to do' Muqtada and Chowdhury, now Fun Directors of their company FunFest Beach Activities, have decided to bring to Cox's Bazar are a first for Bangladesh: parasailing, landsailing and a zorb ball, the latter of which was featured at Bangladesh Premier League's (BPL) launch.

Having started only a few months ago on Himchori beach outside Cox's Bazar city, the news of something alternative and fun to do has spread across social media and hotels and resorts in the area. “We started with about 15 people a day visiting us and now we sometimes have over 50,” shares Fun Director Ishnad Chowdhury, as he watches his staff instruct a client how to bring down the parachute she is about to go up in. “At the moment we don't have competition. We're not competing with the local market on the main beach doing jet skis and banana boats. We want to keep being unique and bringing things that haven't been done before so we always stay ahead of the market.”

The zorb ball is a plastic inflatable for people to strap themselves inside and be rolled down a ramp.

Security on and off shore is a priority for local authorities; there are more than 30 Navy-trained lifeguards and more than 80 tourist police patrolling the main beach at night.

Still growing and still intent on bringing more unique activities to Cox's Bazar and Bangladesh, Muqtada shares that the beginning was not so easy. “Not knowing anything about this business we did a lot of research and brought in a French trainer with over two decades of international beach activities experience.” After acquiring permission from Cox's Bazar's Beach Management Committee for a stretch of Himchori's beach and an import licence to bring in a boat and equipment from Japan, Malaysia and India, the hopeful entrepreneurs were then dissuaded by locals in the marina.

“Even when we brought the boat from Dhaka to Cox's, people were like 'it's impossible to do this with these engines,' 'people have already tried this and it hasn't worked' because apparently Cox's Bazar has special wind conditions and the waves are higher than anywhere else,” explains Muqtada. “We were lucky to find our boat driver, the only Bangladeshi, and a Cox's Bazar local, with eight years international boat experience.”

Another aspect the duo has had to face and change is local ignorance about the activities themselves. “If you go to Cox's Bazar now and ask the tomtom (electronic rickshaw) driver what is going on in our area, they'll say 'they're flying a huge umbrella' so that's what locals think we're doing and that people can hop on to these umbrellas. People had no idea what it was, no concept of a parachute and what it can do.”

Landsailing can reach speeds of up to 30km/h.

Despite admitting how little they knew about the field they ventured into, the FunFest creators are not taking any risks with visitors' safety. “We know if there will be one accident, it'll be a serious one so we follow the international parasailing standard and taught our staff how to check out equipment from ropes to engines every day, sometimes twice. It's not measures that are expected of us at all. It's measures that are being done internationally and we want to keep that standard for our activities as well,” says Muqtada. His business partner Chowdhury adds, “Yesterday I had to send around 30 people away, because the winds were too strong to go parasailing.” Muqtada sums up: “If the wind is too high, we do not risk it, if the water is too bumpy, we do not risk it. We don't just want to make money; we want to keep people safe.”

Adventure activities in Cox's Bazar are the newest and upcoming examples of change in Cox's Bazar. Something that has been around for longer but is equally new among domestic travellers is the eco-tourism ventures that currently exist in the country. Sixteen miles outside the sea side town, along the Marine Drive towards Teknaf, is Mermaid Eco-Resort, which has been open since 2009 and can accommodate about 70 people at a time in simple but prettily decorated bungalows.

“This concept of eco-tourism is very new to our country but foreign tourists are familiar with this and they really like it,” says Marketing and Sales Executive Raxy Dominic Gomes, whose company began with a small cafe with a capacity of only six to seven people. “When we started [the eco-resort], our guests were 90 percent foreigners but as we've continued, more domestic tourists are coming, loving our concept and supporting us.”

The creators of Mermaid Eco-Resort, a married couple team, chose Pechar Deep, a small fishing village as their eco-resort's home and since the beginning have been socially responsible towards the people and the environment. “When we started building the resort, we hired their boys to work for us, and at that time, they couldn't speak English, and not even very good Bengali. Most of them hadn't been from there to Cox's Bazar city,” explains Gomes. “These kids are now young men who can speak English and serve to a world-class standard. Before they would take their salary by giving their fingerprint, now they can sign their name and write as well – we consider this part of our success.” When asked if the Eco-resort feared losing these well-trained staff, who are friendly and helpful young men in blue uniform, Gomes explains, “The work environment and management are nice and they have come to love us and made us their home so they don't want to leave their home. They have stayed with us for a long time and many of these boys grew up with us so they consider us their family.”

Cox's Bazar's ocean view and beach attract up to 15,000 visitors a day.

Mermaid Eco-resort's bungalows are simply decorated
and serenely peaceful.

The eco-resort also follows a 10km-radius purchase policy as much as possible, promising the food from their restaurant's kitchen is from fresh organic produce and made from scratch. “The wives of local fishermen would not do anything when their husbands were out at work and we have encouraged them and given them training to grow organic foods so we now buy from them.” However, the eco-resort does not visibly employ any women and Gomes says this is because the concept of women working is sensitive among locals who are not as used to the idea as people in the cities. “We certainly don't discriminate but we have to consider the local people and when we have ideas, we have to introduce them at a pace these people can appreciate and understand. That's why we carefully avoided this but we do have a plan to work on this.”

Unfortunately these international standard ventures, unique to Cox's Bazar, are not enough to cater to the estimated 15,000 domestic visitors flocking to the sea side resort town every day. Those within the tourism industry are calling for greater collaborative efforts to improve the level and quality of tourism in the south-eastern beach destination.

“The city is cleaner than it was but we need to work together as a community,” says Mermaid's Marketing and Sales Executive. “This is a business area where Mermaid alone is nothing. Working together in a team is more powerful so if we could sit together and work out what's best for our Cox's Bazar, it'll be better for us and for the country.”

Gomes echoes the sentiments of visitors the Star spoke with on the main beach, “People don't want to sit in their hotel or resort all day, and they want something different and fun so if we can introduce or increase more activities, it'll be more viable to improving tourism.” Entrepreneur Tadib Muqtada believes Kolatoli area is so built up already it might be too late to change, but if there is more of a structured growth in areas outside the city, past Himchori and Inani beaches, that will ensure ethical, ecological and exciting ventures that can boost the industry.

Nurul Islam, who is also Cox's Bazar representative within Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, agrees with the need to do more and says the government is fully onboard to realise plans. “People in our country are thinking of tourism more and want to travel more. One of our problems is computer and internet facilities and hopefully within a few months we will have introduced these across the beach area for people and businesses to use.”

Islam also admits however there are big problems to contend with, “We do have some negatives, such as a cleaning and drainage problem, and recently our government, the tourism minister and secretary are taking them seriously and finding steps to address these. We are also trying our best to prepare a master plan to build and update our drainage system and have an ETP [Effluent Treatment Plant] at the end of this drainage system. We are also taking steps to clean up our old city and beach area. We have already introduced rescue measures on the beach areas and an ambulance. In Laboni beach, there are 26 lifeguards presently and the Bangladesh Navy is giving training to seven more.”

“There are 84 tourist police patrolling during the night and this number was not so high a short while ago. We have increased the number to ensure the security of people on the beach and we're monitoring private companies working in the area. We do have to introduce more security, we're trying to introduce closed-circuit cameras and establish a control tower in the beach area.” Islam also says that the building of illegal structures has been dealt with and action is being taken to ensure they are stopped and prevented in future.

Whether all the government's plans are enough to drive international tourists into the arms of Bangladesh is yet to be seen. The government intends to tender for an international airport in Cox's Bazar to allow tourists to come to the beach destination directly and industry sources claim there are plans to develop a restricted tourist zone in the Teknaf area to cater for the needs of foreign tourists, which are different to those of domestic visitors. Casinos, bars and restricted beaches for foreigners to sunbathe without a crowd of ogling locals are some of the suggested plans.

“I understand the government has passed an order about establishing a restricted tourist area in Teknaf with 1,200 acres of land. There are a lot of people interested to invest but it's a question of getting permission,” explains Islam, adding, “Privatisation is very important and if the private sector can introduce a lot of facilities for tourism, the public sector will also benefit.”

Everyone seems to agree that if Cox's Bazar can realise its plans to build an international airport, increase and improve the number of hotels and transport links, secure the beach and surrounding areas and offer world-class attractions, there is no reason why it can't be an international beach destination.

Discussions within the tourism industry and among tourists suggest that there are still some issues to be considered. Issues that cannot be solved by building or improving infrastructure but by changing people's ideas about what they want and expect from their domestic beach paradise getaway. Everyone is on board for change and new things to do, but the concept of becoming the next Bali or Phuket may not only be hard to make happen, but also to find support.

For more information about the featured alternative tourism in Cox's Bazar visit www.funfestbd.com and mermaidecoresort.com


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