BANGLADESH – a land of beautiful national parks, unspoiled white sand beaches, and thick mangrove forests that house the elusive Bengal tiger – is often overlooked by visitors traveling in South Asia, owing to a lack of tourism development and marketing.
On top of that, the country is reeling from its status as an unsafe destination following last year’s terrorist attack in the capital of Dhaka, claimed to be the worst attack in the nation’s history.
“We lost about 90 per cent of inbound business after the terrorist attack,” said Taufiq Rahman, chief executive at Journey Plus, a destination management company based in Dhaka.
“Our overseas associates stopped communicating with us. A company that we were working with since 2002 removed Bangladesh from its website and brochures. Travel advisories issued by markets like Japan, the UK and Germany added to the woes,” he added.
Bangladesh is not the first country to suffer poor numbers following a terror attack. Europe, which saw several terror attacks last year, took time to bounce back. In Brussels, for example, armed military service members lined the streets and large hotels lowered their rates.
However, unlike much of Europe, Bangladesh had been dealing with a bad rep prior to the attacks. Frequent flooding, cyclones, political strife, and petty crime often dominate news reports about Bangladesh while limited resources offer the country to shout from the rooftops their many tourist attractions.
Plus, a lack of luxury operators and first-world infrastructure has long alienated luxury and business travelers. Dhaka, however, is stepping up its game and welcoming large hotel groups like Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, and Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.
But development moves at a much slower pace in areas outside of Dhaka. Said Syed Qadir, managing director at travel agency Wonder Ways, said, “The government of Bangladesh has been trying to promote tourism but there is no long-term planning.
“Bangladesh is also not ready as a destination in infrastructure. Majority of the hotels that are opening are in Dhaka while the other destinations lack accommodation options.”
International and five-star hotels are apprehensive about setting up outside of Dhaka because of a price-sensitive local market and a lack of demand. For instance, hotels in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s longest beach, is struggling to make ends meet despite a decent flow of leisure tourists.
A lack of environmental enforcement and regulation can also be attributed to Bangladesh’s slowly dissipating natural landscapes.
According to The Daily Star, “the natural forest of Jaflong is disappearing rapidly due to dumping of stone illegally excavated from the Dawki and Sari rivers by a group of profit mongering traders”.
To curb stone dumping in forests, local administration authorities have clamped down on stone-crushing equipment but punishment is inconsistent due to lack of manpower and rife corruption among high-level decision makers.
The hill station of Jaflong is home to lush tea plantations, rainforest, subtropical mountains and the Khasia ethnic group, a Mongolite indigenous group with a matriarchal social system.
The Daily Star report also highlighted other issues that invariably affect Bangladesh’s prospects as a tourism destination including conspicuous construction structures on a beach,
However, it’s not doom and gloom for Bangladesh. Things are taking a positive turn as tourism operators began to pick up business late last year, tapping visitors beyond the domestic market that they’re used to.
Awareness of sustainable and community-based tourism is underway as are designated tourist zones to promote tourist infrastructure such as hotels and restaurants. Plans to build such a tourist zone in Cox’s Bazar are already on the table, and a comprehensive master plan will be ready by year end.
The government is also showing interest by hosting the recent PATA New Tourism Frontiers Forum and will host the 2016 the UNWTO Joint Commission Meeting in May.
During the PATA event, chief executive officer Mario Hardy said, “Bangladesh has potential but there is work to be done in infrastructure.
“The first step is to create confidence among locals that they have something to offer and at the same time the government has to put in money to make the destination ready to welcome more tourists. It is not going to happen overnight and will need a series of activities to make it possible.”
Bangladesh also made history by receiving its first ever port of call by an international cruise line this week. The Silver Discoverer expedition ship visited Maheshkhali Island, which lies close to Cox’s Bazar.
The cruise ship’s arrival was received with much fanfare including a fleet of motorized rickshaws and a group of local school children performing a traditional song and dance.
The ship’s 95 passengers visited attractions including Hiron Point, Charaputia, Harbaria, Kokilmon, and the famous Sundarbans mangrove forest.
If Bangladesh continues to score more such little victories, big (tourism) success is surely on the horizon for the modest land.