From Cox's Bazar
Where the Waves Crash
Zahidul Naim Zakaria
Cox's Bazar is Bangladesh's main tourist destination. This week's cover story discusses tourism in Bangladesh, its many facets and contributions to the economy, along with concerns of sustainability, with Cox's Bazar at the center.
Tourism, the fifth largest industry of the world, has since the 1990s been a small but rapidly growing sector of the Bangladesh economy. Though foreigners visiting Bangladesh for the sole purpose of tourism is almost non-existent, the domestic tourism sector is quite robust, with Cox's Bazar at the centre of the stage.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTTC) estimates, in 2009, the employment in Bangladesh's tourism industry itself was 950,000 jobs (1.5% of total employment), with the overall employment including indirect beneficiaries such as hotels and tourists facility providers being 2,301,000 jobs (3.2% of total employment). The tourism industry in Bangladesh itself contributed to about 1.7% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 (US$ 1,466.3 million), and with all indirect economic activities included, it contributed to about 4% of GDP in 2009 (US$ 3,473.3 million). Although, it should be remembered that the global tourism industry experienced a decline of 5.5% in revenues in 2008 as it was still trying to recover from the aftershocks of the global economic crisis.
Cox's Bazar was originally known as 'Panowa' and then as 'Palongkee', which means yellow flower. The name as it stands today is derived from Captain Hiram Cox, a naval officer serving in British India in the 18th century. Captain Cox came to Palongkee during a time of ongoing conflict between the Arakan refugees and local Rakhains, who have been at spears and arrows against one another for centuries. Captain Cox was sympathetic towards the people and contributed massively to the rehabilitation of refugees. In his honour, the locals set up a market with the name Cox's Bazar, a name that the entire area eventually took ownership of.
Cox's Bazar's main tourist attraction is its seemingly unending sea beach on which tourists can walk for miles. The main Kalatali beach is the hub of the area its where all the major thirty-odd hotels are located and where bus service providers drop off the tourists. Numerous roads branch out like arteries and connect the main road to the Kalatali and Laboni sea beaches, which are only five to ten minutes away on foot. The Kalatali and Laboni beaches are regular haunts of tourists. Even at midnight you are likely to find tourists standing along the shoreline as the knee-high waves come and go.
About twenty kilometers south to Kalatali lie Himchori, its famous broken hills and waterfall. It's about twenty five minutes away on vehicle. There is a 10 taka entry free which gives access to the hills, waterfalls and an observation post roughly 100ft above sea level that gives an enthralling view of the ocean. The width of the view gives you a glimpse of the visual impression that the earth below is not flat. Climbing the narrow and steep course of stairs that lead up to the observation post is a daunting task and not meant for the elderly and or those with vertigo! The broken hills, in the middle of which is the Himchori waterfall, are awe-inspiring. And although there isn't a lot of ground for trekking, the terrain leading up to a almost spherical cranny creates a perfect spot for taking photographs and sharing a few laughs with other tourists. The entrance to this area houses a small marketplace packed with similar items that one will find at the Kalatali beach and at the local Burmese market shoes, summer wear, fancy hats, random gift items, toys and an array of the wicked Burmese pickle.
|View of the ocean from the Himchori Observation Point
About a ten minute drive away from Himchori lies Inani beach, thirty five kilometers away from Kalatali. With the sea to the west and hill like formations as the backdrop, Inani is currently the ideal sea-bathing spot for tourists. Unlike Kalatali/Laboni beaches there is an entry fee here, and, although negligible, it keeps the beach from being over crowded. Roofless jeeps can be hired for about a thousand takas (for 5-6 hours) during off-peak seasons, whilst during peak seasons this rent can rise and reach as high as eighteen hundred takas.
Costs of accommodation at Cox's Bazar vary wildly between off-peak (March to September) and the peak winter season, with twin-bed rooms that cost around 1500 takas during the winter coming down to around 500 takas during the off-peak season. When asked about the main bottleneck of operating a hotel in Cox's Bazar, hotel operators complain that the lack of electricity supply is the worst nuisance, as it forces them to setup backup generators that add major costs to their energy bills.These generators are not environmentally friendly and they emit unbearble amounts of noise. The gastronomical cost of living in the Cox's Bazar tourist destination makes human resource costs high as well.
In October 2009, the National Tourism Council (NTC) was formed with the Prime Minister of the country herself as its chairperson. The first meeting of the National Tourism Council was held on 31 October 2009 where various ministers were present. The Prime Minister directed authorities to take steps to make all places of natural beauty, as well as religious and historic spots in the country attractive to local and foreign tourists. She ordered infrastructure development at Cox's Bazar, St. Martin and Maheshkhali islands, Kuakata, and other major tourist spots. She also suggested introducing 'Tourist Police' to deal with security concerns in the tourism sector. It is evident from this that the Government of Bangladesh believes that the tourism sector of the country has the potential to make contributions to the national economy that has not been tapped as of yet, and need further attention. But no steps involving implementation of the directives have yet become visible.
|Views of the Inani beach
With wealthy Dhaka dwellers buying off serviced apartments and holiday homes in ongoing construction projects, the local real estate sector at Cox's Bazar is booming. This creates jobs for locales, but alienates them, as they see their land being sold off to richer non-residents. The pace of urbanization is alarming as well with one or two high-rise apartment buildings being built on the sea beach itself! There is a tremendous ecological concern here, as the proximity of human intervention is bound to affect the habitat of various species that survive amidst everyone, even if the crowds fail to see them. Construction efforts that offer better facilities to tourists and vacation-goers are definitely welcome, but not at the cost of the environmental value of the tourist spot itself. A good example of an upcoming tourist facility that has eco-tourism at its core is Panigram resort being built in Jessore - the construction is designed to integrate the resort into the local habitat and not vice versa.
Although there are numerous serious infrastructural concerns that need to be though out regarding Cox's Bazar, there seems to be no doubt that it will remain the prime tourist attraction for Bangladeshis. One can only hope that policies are framed to protect the interests of the posterity, a hope that is often never realized in Bangladesh. But there is immense scope to transform Cox's Bazar into a global tourist destination that not only accommodates an increasing throng of tourists, but does it with sustainability as the centerpiece whilst being 'soft' on the environment. Because the million-dollar sensation that one gets as the waves recede from the shore, with the sands crumbling at the toes are likely to keep calling people back to the beach over and over again.
Photos by Zahidul Naim Zakaria
(R) thedailystar.net 2009