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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cox's Bazar and tourism

Cox's Bazar: A wonder of the world? Photo: Mohammad Islam/ Drik News

BY popular choice, Cox's Bazar has recently been ranked as one of the 'New Seven Wonders of the World'. A favourite spot for many in Bangladesh, this fishing port with its adjoining and unbroken 125 km of natural, gentle, sloping sandy beach, has once again emerged as an important potential tourist destination.

Located 150 km south of Chittagong, in south eastern Bangladesh, Cox's Bazar derived its name from Captain Hiram Cox, an officer of the British East India Company who was appointed as the Superintendent of that outpost after Warren Hastings became the Governor General of Bengal. A compassionate soul, Cox successfully mediated in the century long conflict between Arakan refugees and local Rakhains. He also made significant progress in the rehabilitation of refugees in the area. Unfortunately, he passed away prematurely in 1799 before he could complete his task. Nevertheless, the local population decided to honour this civil servant's memory by building a small market near the beach and naming it after him -- Cox's Bazaar (Cox's Market).

My only visit to this beautiful destination had been in January 1971. I failed to revisit the scene subsequently, either due to shortage of time or conflicting engagements. Consequently, when I received an invitation recently to attend an important meeting being held there, I decided to take up the opportunity. I did so with some trepidation.

I wanted to savour the sea but also wanted to find out whether necessary tourist facilities had evolved over the last four decades in and around this stunning location. I wanted to ascertain why Cox's Bazar was lagging behind as a major international tourist destination. The important question was whether this was just due to lack of publicity or was it due to absence of necessary associated factors related to international tourism. I received my answers on both accounts.

I travelled to that scenic town by bus from Chittagong. It took about three and half hours to complete the distance. There was also the possibility of flying into Cox's Bazar from Dhaka and Chittagong but I went by bus to find out whether road conditions were difficult and whether access was hampering tourism into that region. I must admit that the meandering road was relatively narrow, but the surface conditions were quite good. The bus in which I travelled was also quite comfortable.

This time round, it was clear that this coastal city (with a population of slightly over 52,000) was emerging as a tourist spot. It reminded me of what Pataya, Thailand was in 1982. It was apparent that the service sector and tourism (3 lakh visitors in 2008) had become the major source of the local economy. I met several young entrepreneurs who were involved in arranging domestic transportation for visitors to take them to nearby religious centres -- of interest of the Buddhist community -- or to other scenic spots like Aggmeda Khyang, a large Buddhist monastery, or to Ramu (with its many temples, khyangs and pagodas containing delicate wood carvings and images of Buddha in gold, bronze and other metals inlaid with precious stones).

I also came across weavers who were plying their trade in open workshops and craftsmen making handmade cigars in their pagoda like houses. There was also small market where sea products made out of pearls, oyster and snail shells were available. Similarly, there was evidence of small-scale agriculture, marine and inland fishing and salt production along the coast. There was also the all-pervading smell of drying fish and 'shutki' (not necessarily always welcome to international visitors).

The adjoining regions near the beach were filled with hotels, guest houses, and motels. There was also evidence that the real estate industry was busy not only in building apartment blocks but also in trying to sell the western idea of time-sharing ownership contracts. This was interesting.

I joined the other participants of the meeting in their courtesy trips to several spectacular sights near Cox's Bazar. This included spending time in -- Laboni Beach, the main beach of Cox's Bazar and closest to the town; Himchhari, located about 18 km south of Cox's Bazar along the sea beach and the Enani Beach located 35 km south of Cox's Bazar within Ukhia Thana. It may be mentioned here that this last spot was particularly welcomed because of it being a white sandy beach and also being shark and jelly fish free (ideal for sea bathing). Visiting Himchhari and Enani were particularly a pleasure because of the improved road network. They were mostly inaccessible in January 1971. Here was infrastructure building at work.

Some hotel tourist operators also took the opportunity of our presence to remind us of our proximity to other nearby probable touristic destinations near the Cox's Bazar coast. They drew our attention to the charms of Maheshkhali island, its mangrove forests, its temples and pagodas; to the beauty of Sonadia island, its coastal lagoon, its migratory bird population and its beds of window pane oysters; to Teknaf (the southernmost part of mainland Bangladesh) and its facility of river cruises along the Naf river and also of eco-trips to St. Martin's island, home to several endangered species of turtles and coral reefs.

The visit indicated that there was immense potential for tourism. It also clarified some of the obstacles that were affecting growth of international interest in this sector in this region.

I consider that the following points need to be addressed with greater seriousness if we are to achieve the promise of this destination.

I felt that there is need for arranging greater security for visitors, particularly women and children. Concerted efforts must be undertaken to free the different spots near the beach from the pestering beggars. That is required to help improve the image. The municipal authorities also need to give sufficient attention towards sanitation and drainage (overflowing sewage) and destroying the breeding zones of mosquitoes. In addition, most of the town looks run down and could do with a coat of fresh paint. That would brighten up the atmosphere. The pitiable street lighting also does not inspire confidence for a walk in the evening along the coast-line with one's family.

There is also practically very little to do after the sun sets -- where visitors can enjoy their evenings either listening to music or having a decent meal in clean surroundings, overlooking the sea. In addition, there is the question of having clean public toilets near the beach and sufficient changing rooms so that bathers and visitors can take a shower with normal water and then wear dry clothes after a swim in the sea. This could be made sustainable by making them available on payment basis.

Lastly, there is need for the domestic tour operators to ensure that there is an increase not only in the frequency of flights and passenger capacity into Cox's Bazar per day from different points within Bangladesh (to facilitate domestic tourism) but also from neighbouring points like Kolkata, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. This might need improving the existing runway to handle bigger aircraft. This will then enable international tourists to take a break in that town on their way to Kathmandu or back to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

The above improvements will need investment and additional resources. However, that expenditure could be met through public-private partnership. Capacity building within the tourism sector would also provide additional employment opportunities in the services sector.

All these factors juxtapose together and affect demand and listing among international tourist operators. I can only hope that these will be addressed suitably by our responsible authorities.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador and can be reached at

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