Thinking Outside the Tourism Box
Adnan Morshed explains the need to inject some creative juices into Bangladesh's tourism industry
Recently, I took a group of American colleagues and students on a study tour of Bangladesh and India. Four days were all we could spend in Bangladesh, so we decided to devote our whole time to exploring only Dhaka and its vicinity. The trip offered me an anthropological look into the state of tourism in Bangladesh.
Our primary goal was to study the architectural heritage of the capital city. But then I felt compelled to do a reality check: how would an architectural tour of Dhaka fare, compared to a tour of Delhi, Agra, and Mumbai? Wouldn't it be tricky to limit ourselves to a rather modest range of buildings, mosques, and other heritage sites in Dhaka, knowing that our next destination is India -- a recognised tourist destination filled with spectacular Buddhist biharas, Hindu temples, Mughal mausolea, colonial monuments, and modernist edifices? The exotic "Incredible India" commercial tag-line the Western media has lately sparked off a renewed flow of tourists into India. Was I not risking my country looking architecturally anorexic in comparison to our neighbour's?
Still unsure, I decided to do something new: to open windows on things that aren't necessarily aesthetically pretty, but that could perhaps offer insights into the country's cultural, social, and economic mind-sets. I suspected that the team's exclusively Western members would appreciate a nuanced picture of the country by seeing a range of sites spanning from the Parliament Building to a brick-field on the periphery of the capital city. We reckoned that experiencing the dingy yet vibrant life of old Dhaka would be as valuable as visiting the Dhaka University's modernist oasis, TSC, designed by the Greek planner Constantin Doxiadis.
Tourism has become the largest industry in the world. Nearly a billion people travelled in 2007 alone, generating 35 per cent of the world's export of services and over 70 per cent for Least Developed Countries. Tourism produced an annual revenue of $733 billion, or two billion a day, in 2006. By 2020, 1.6 billion people are expected to trot the globe.
These are staggering numbers. Are we prepared to tap into this burgeoning industry? We are not. We have to think global. Just gauge Cox's Bazar's tourism barometer against those of Agra, Goa, or Phuket -- it's hardly flattering.
It would be naïve to view a few swanky hotels in Dhaka and a couple of thousand domestic tourists in Cox's Bazar as a tourism success story. I felt convinced that to be competitive in the international tourism market, we must come up with creative ideas to attract the world's peripatetic consumers of the travel industry.
The scope of conventional natural site-based tourism in Bangladesh is limited. Cox's Bazar, Kuakata, and Rangamati are attractive scenic places to visit, perhaps for someone from Dhaka, Dinajpur, or even Kolkata. But let us be rational: why would Paolo from Rome come to Cox's Bazar, or Susan from Florida, or Hitoshi from Tokyo? The longest-beach-in-the-world tag is just not enough to bring global tourists to Cox's Bazar. Without quality hotels, roads, water sports, night entertainment, varied culinary choices, gender sensitivity, and safety, the longest beach hardly appeals.
Besides, where are the advertisements? It would take a microscope to find Cox's Bazar in the world roster of coveted travel spots. Does a tourist family in Spain know anything about Bangladesh beyond her dubious distinction of being the country of natural calamities and chronic poverty? Image matters and, unfortunately, that is the entrenched image of Bangladesh around the world.
But in the age of media, image could always be crafted to suit a particular goal (attracting tourists, for example), provided there is a concerted effort by the people who know how to do it. Alas, there is often no sign of such effort in Bangladesh or her embassies around the world.
Who are our competitors in the tourism industry? Take India for instance. How are we going to compete with the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort? These are monuments enshrined in the world's collective imagination. Tourists from Argentina to New Zealand to Norway come en masse to see these monuments. Consider Nepal -- tourists flock to this tiny kingdom to witness what is virtually synonymous with human aspirations: the Himalayas. Yet, despite the presence of these daunting sites in our sub-continent, we should keep developing Cox's Bazar or Kuakata as world-class tourist venues.
However, that will not be enough in the 21st century. Let us return to the idea of creative thinking. After seeing the Parliament Building -- a major worldwide attraction for architecturally-minded tourists -- we went to Manikganj to see how micro-credit works and hear the gallant stories of rural women entrepreneurs. We participated in a Grameen town hall meeting in which a woman named Rabeya told us how she had invested her meagre first loan to accumulate enough capital to eventually buy a pickup truck.
In a nutshell, Rabeya is now the rural equivalent of a corporate CEO. Her one-truck transportation company carries agricultural produce from the village to town. Rabeya's narrative resonated with the rags-to-riches story, the backbone of the American Dream! Being first-time visitors to Asia, the members of my team were stunned. They appeared to have discovered a new Bangladesh, one that is resilient and relentlessly entrepreneurial even in the face of abject poverty. The Grameen experience promised nothing less than a marketable tourism opportunity.
I have noticed lately, as I travelled around the world, a fledgling image of Bangladesh as the "birthplace" of micro-credit. Coalesce this image with a well-advertised tourism model, and there will be tourists, plenty of them.
The modern tourist loves to be educated about things that are inspirational. The Grameen Bank, Brac, Asha, and other micro-credit agencies can team up with the tourism industry to create a chain of "exhibitable" micro-credit centres, and even launch a global advertisement program. If the appreciative responses of my own team were any indication at all, a new generation of tourists will come here to dig deeper beneath the "Lonely Planet" version of Bangladesh.
On our way back from Manikganj, we swung by a brick-field, a fascinating and common industry along the Dhaka-Aricha road. The team learned from local workers how bricks are made with indigenous technologies. Women comprised half the work-force there, an unexpected gender condition that disrupted the Western stereotype of oriental women as passive sideliners. I sensed another tourism opportunity.
The next day, the team embarked on an architectural journey from the Curzon Hall to the Art College -- from the early twentieth-century colonial politics of the British Raj to a modern moment in then East Pakistan. We then went to see Shankhari Bazar in the heart of Old Dhaka, a labyrinthine urban enclave that not only makes visual its hybrid history but also reveals how humanity can adapt to extreme urbanity. The living conditions are inhumane, but there is a lot to learn from the way Shankhari Bazar's Hindu community arranges their domestic life and the musical instrument cottage industry in these oppressive linear houses. Organised and informative tours of this area would surely bring foreign tourists and their pocket-books, which would in turn improve the economic health of the area. I remember once paying $80 for a tour of Rio de Janeiro's infamous favelas, one of the largest urban slums in the world.
There are other opportunities for attracting tourists. How about organised tours of ready-made garment factories? In the West, a growing number of people can make a spontaneous connection between Bangladesh and ready-made garments. If John the American is wearing a crisp shirt made here in Bangladesh, he would pay $20 for a tour of apparel factories here, provided those factories are advertised as a locus of the country's economy. The factory must also then maintain strict safety standards and invest the money from tourism in its workers to improve their living conditions, which would in turn enhance their productivity.
How about guided tours of factories where rickshaws are made? Such tours can feed the Western appetite for oriental chariots. How about visiting shrimp hatcheries along the coastal belt? Al Gore's crusading documentary An Inconvenient Truth mentions Bangladesh as a battle-ground of climate change. Who knows, eco-tourists concerned with global warming may want to come to coastal Bangladesh to build their case against environmental violence.
In other words, we have to stretch the definition of tourism, deliver new models, make them educational, and offer insights into the country's culture, economic strengths, and shifting gender issues, among other possibilities. The educational tour can be neatly complemented by a relaxing eco-tour of the Sundarbans or the canals of Barisal.
I see a huge benefit in developing degree programs in tourism across government and private universities in Bangladesh. Irrelevant and trendy MBA programs could be morphed into tourism management degrees. The modern tourist no longer just sees, but listens too. There will soon be a robust need for tourist guides and training centres where future guides will become conversant in key languages of the tourism industry, such as English, Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and Chinese.
The future belongs to people who can generate creative ideas. Google began as a simple idea and so did eBay, Amazon, and Grameen. The knowledge revolution that defines our present world suggests that ideas will be the most valuable commodity in the future.
As Richard Florida argues in his successful book The Rise of the Creative Class, in the 21st century, creative ideas will be the primary catalyst of economic growth. Are we thinking in these terms about tourism in Bangladesh?
As our plane took off from Mumbai on our way back to Washington, I solemnly asked my team members: which city was the most enlightening among Dhaka, Delhi, Chandigarh, Agra, Udaipur, and Mumbai? In Indian cities we mostly followed the touristy trail. Dhaka, they said in unison! I gazed down on the fleeting Mumbai landscape below, feeling gratified that my improvised tourism model worked and envisioning a time when plane-loads of tourists would descend into Bangladesh.
Dr. Adnan Morshed is Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.