Eco-tourism: Possibilities, problems and prognosis

Osama Rahman

Photo: Nishorgo Network

Over the past few years, Bangladesh has begun championing eco-tourism, using its treasure trove of greenery as a focal selling point. However, there remains an underlying fear that 'eco-tourism' and 'sustainable tourism' will sometime in the future be reduced to nothing but catchy buzzwords. Environmentalists clamour to point out the adverse effects that tourism has on the ecologically vulnerable areas being promoted to the world, whilst the same areas continue to be victims of over-population and rapid urbanisation at the same time. These problems are further augmented by climate change, increasing carbon emissions and rampant depletion of natural resources. Given the current predicament, sustainable tourism seems to be the only saving grace of nature's gifts to the country once famous for its greenery. Whether this is its saviour or not is a question only time can answer. For now, there are only facts in hand to go by and the examples of countries who have successfully marketed eco-tourism to their advantage, something that Bangladesh can do, although not as easily as may seem. The youth of today, with the help of numerous organisations, are now stepping up to the plate in an effort to save the natural beauty of Bangladesh, on the strength of eco-tourism, which is the most feasible way.

Eco-tourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” It rewards conservation financially whilst empowering the local community. Conservation and eco-tourism are thus directly linked. Given the government's lack of resources, low funding for concerned ministries and major corporate houses' reluctance to support an environmental cause, NGOs -- usually employing the youth -- have taken it upon themselves to conserve the environment. There is a two-fold benefit here. Firstly, the ecological balance of the area in question is preserved. Secondly, as conservation efforts lead to increasing greenery, it yields higher tourism. To illustrate, if tiger and deer protection efforts lead to increased population of both the animals and thus increased chances of sightings of the creature, it would automatically lead to increased visitors. Visitors would spend money and the money could be used to develop the overall infrastructure of the area, help fund conservation efforts and also the local community would benefit from increased trade. Thus, conservation and eco-tourism go hand in hand.

Eco-tourism is a 5 trillion dollar industry, a slice of which can be greatly beneficial for Bangladesh. Not only would it result in a massive injection to the foreign reserves, improve currency valuation and generate a higher income per head, it would also result in much needed creations of numerous jobs. Considering the huge amounts of revenue countries earn from tourism alone, a sector where capital expenditure is significantly low, tourism can transform Bangladesh's economy and push it higher on the development scale. The case for eco-tourism becomes stronger when one considers the largely conservative mindset of the population of whom the majority are Muslims. Other countries attract throngs of visitors, promising them high-tech facilities, numerous bars, loud clubs, festive nightlife and large casinos which are things Bangladesh can't offer. Thus, what Bangladesh can sell is the image of serene green hills, untamed forests and tranquil beaches, along with the feel-good notion of a form of tourism, which is environmentally responsible. To do such, greater emphasis must be given to the sites that are to become the poster-children of the tourism campaign, hence due attention needs to be drawn to their current plight.

The Forest Department of Bangladesh, on its website, states that 17 percent of land in Bangladesh is forested area. This figure differs from independent observations, which consider the actual percentage to be even less than 10. Furthermore, Bangladesh also has the lowest forest-to-population ratio. Whatever forests do remain are in constant threat from various factors. The Bangladesh Wildlife Preservation Act, 1974, is the last hope for many once-great forests. According to the act, there are three types of protected areas: National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Game Reserves. In view of this, the Forest Department has marked smaller areas as 'Eco-Parks' or 'Safari Parks'. These have more to do with awareness than conservation, as people get an opportunity to see what they can protect. In total there are 19 protected sites and 6 other conservation sites in Bangladesh. But these forms of conservation can at times be counter-productive.

The forests are also seen as livelihood for many of the people who reside near the protected areas and are dependent on them for their income. Once they are deprived, these people may resort to illegal forms of logging and poaching, which usually goes unmonitored and adds to the problem. Therefore, whatever tourism is generated, some of the benefit should trickle back to the local community. In case of Lawacherra Forest Reserves, from all the ticket sales, 24 lakh taka made it back to the community in 2011 alone, giving them an incentive to protect the heritage in hopes of more revenue. This project was the brainchild of Nishorgo Network, a group of organisations dedicated to conservation of the environment, who, in association with the Forest Department, initiated such an integrated management system.

Apart from the forests, there are also hills, water bodies and beaches that can be used to attract visitors. However, here too environmental concerns come into play. Nirjan Chowdhury, a 3rd year student of Environmental Management, North South University, outlines possible pitfalls that need to be avoided. “Before we turn Inani Beach into another Patenga, the authorities need to step up. Tourism isn't one off, it must have a repeat purchase value,” he said. “The government, along with different private businesses, can work to minimise the adverse effects of tourism,” Nirjan continued, highlighting littering as a major problem. “If what you have to offer is a dirty beach full of dirty water, then you cannot expect people to return and you will not benefit from word of mouth advertising,” he concluded. Thus, before undertaking eco-tourism on a massive scale, improvement of facilities is a must. Toilets, dustbins, designated areas for particular activities and enforcement of law and order are a must.

Apart from CSR programmes and NGOs, the next generation are taking matters into their own hands in other ways. The Environmental Club of North South University promoted an event to clean up a stretch of beach in Cox's Bazar understanding the need for the new generation to lead the way. Jahangirnagar University and Independent University, Bangladesh are playing a crucial part in conservation of the environment as well. Numerous schools such as Adroit School, Green Herald and Maple Leaf have also created environmental groups, whose sole purpose is to spread the message of the need to protect the environment. “Playing a part, no matter how small, to support a good cause is rewarding,” Alhan Arsal, a member of Planeteers, Adroit School's green club, said. “Our small effort in raising funds for organisations that help the environment make us feel like we are doing something worthwhile for our future.” Echoing his thoughts, eco-tourism also sells on the notion of having a good time while also contributing positively to your surrounding. This contribution leads to nurturing more greenery and eventually leading to even more jobs for future generations. The growing number of young people taking an interest in the gifts from nature is indeed a reason for optimism.

The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a partnership of four conservation organisations -- BirdLife International, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society -- is a programme tailored to develop young future conservationists who are exposed to the problems plaguing the environment and who then formulate policies to meet the problems. CPL's programme in Bangladesh has helped create numerous young conservationists who take it upon themselves to meet their first goal of protecting endangered dolphins while they also spend their spare time acting as guides for tourists who wish to explore Sundarban.

“When we visit some place, I think we are more careful about leaving carbon footprints than our predecessors,” Ganzil Ahmed, 25, an avid traveller explained. “We don't go hunting, we don't toss rubbish in the sea and we are more aware,” he said. Sumon Sayem, a graduate from National Hotel & Tourism Training Institute, lays blame on lack of education and awareness when it comes to Bangladesh's failure to capture the eco-tourism market. “Loud noises, disturbing the atmosphere of a serene place, littering and even harassing the wild life is what happens here. Lack of education and awareness makes us behave this way and this kind of behaviour really deters people from enjoying the moment,” Sayem observed. He also pointed out crime as another reason why tourists don't view Bangladesh as an ideal destination.

Without an incentive, no work is ever carried out. Fortunately, Bangladesh has every incentive to preserve its environment; from numerous job opportunities to a much needed flow of foreign exchange. Just as so many other countries have risen from the depths of poverty to the brink of economic super-power on the strength of tourism, Bangladesh has all the tools at its disposal to do exactly the same. The longest stretch of unbroken sea beach, longest mangrove tract, the Royal Bengal Tiger, rich native traditions, spectacular hills and water bodies attracting hundreds of different species of birds… Bangladesh can easily become a sanctuary of wilderness and greenery. As the next generation steadily rises to meet the challenge of applying a fresh new layer of eco-tourism tinted paint to Bangladesh's international image, it seems there is still a chance. A collective group of young and exuberant messiahs have arrived and eco-tourism seems to be the gold-laden prophecy for the future.

Osama Rahman is Sub-editor, Star Lifestyle.