It is not uncommon for people here to lament over the highly constrained growth of tourism in the country. Their main complaint is that Bangladesh fails to draw attention of foreign tourists at a time when its neighbours India and Nepal are earning quite a handsome amount of foreign exchange from tourism. The focus has been directed afresh to this issue at a recently held seminar arranged by the Dhaka Travel Mart. The country stands at 125th position out of 136 countries, according to a report compiled by the World Economic Forum.
A comparison with Nepal in terms of tourism development goes overwhelmingly in favour of that mountainous and land-locked country. A vast country, India also enjoys an advantage over this country by miles. But this small country is not without tourist attractions. To say that the country has the world's longest sea beach in Cox's Bazar and the largest unique mangrove in the shape of the Sunderbans is to underestimate its natural sights which are amazingly special in their own rights. All the districts of the Hill Tracts have so much charm that a visit to any such place will not appease the enduring seduction. Then Sylhet's natural beauty with tea gardens, primeval forests, waterfalls and wetlands can be an envy of many who are not endowed with such natural bounties.
In terms of historical relics, temples and places of worship, Bangladesh surely lags behind its neighbours. But the few this nation boasts are of enormous values. The discovery of Wari-Boteswar relic site has drawn fresh attention of archaeologists and historians alike to the country's past.
When so much is to offer to tourists -particularly to those from abroad, it is only natural that those with an eye for business and money will not feel pleased by the thin stream of visitors to the enchanting sights. Their argument that Nepal with a similar geographic size as Bangladesh's has a share of 5.4 per cent in its gross domestic product (GDP), employing as much as 4.0 per cent of the labour force surely scores a point. What, however, they forget is that Nepal has a population of only 30 million whereas Bangladesh is overcrowded with a population size more than five times higher at 160 million.
When aggressive encroachment of forests and other land areas by humans is continuing unabated, extensive development of tourism aimed at foreigners is a prescription for disaster. Development of tourism depends proportionate to the value added to infrastructure. Tour operators use vehicles and other facilities so mindlessly that any tourist location with susceptibility to extra pressure such as the Saint Martin's Island or Monpura may one day reduce to patches of landmass worth nothing. Already the corals of the St. Martin's have started dying. One wonders if the presence of tourists has already proved too much for its sustainability. Similarly Jaflong has been ravaged so much that it presents a sad look with the ugly stone quarries proving both a killer to the spot and an eyesore to anyone looking for the once nice and soothing sight of the river and its surroundings. All the charms and wonder of the Madhabkunda waterfall have vanished as well. All because of the lack of any regulation of visitors there!
Foreign tourists need space. And space is in short supply in this country. Inviting them in a large number calls for creation of appropriate infrastructure for smooth and comfortable travel and above all security. The country's roads are awfully inadequate for the purpose. Also the places, where space is not a problem such as the wetlands or hailhaor (Halaluki, Tanguar Haor and Baikka Beel), offer their best views and rich avian arrivals only seasonally. The approach roads are hardly negotiable round the year and there is hardly any decent accommodation nearby or even at a considerable distance. The most important factor is security. There is no guarantee that visitors -no matter foreign or local - will spend time without being concerned about security in such places. Along with these sights, the Kaptai Lake and the Sunderbans pose no problem for space. But the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation does not have any arrangement for guided tour there. Only a few private tour companies operate there on their own. There is no arrangement for an overnight stay there except for the vessels used for the journey to the mangrove.
So it is clear that the scope for expansion of tourism for foreigners in the country is not unlimited. Better it would be if it is selectively developed with a sharp eye on the country's ecology and environment.
That the country's domestic tourism by now has grown quite remarkably should not escape notice. It is a sign of stronger economy as well as of change of mentality. A large segment of the middle class people is ready to spend on a pleasure trip to a tourist destination. However, the first generation of tourists have to learn many things before they know how to respect relations between man and Nature and the sanctity of any place of natural attraction. Given the looming threat from global warming, it is incumbent on policymakers to plan for regulated and eco-friendly tourism if the intention is not to kill the goose for the golden eggs all at once.