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Opinion: Making Bangladesh picture perfect

Daily Star article, M. Abdul Latif Mondal

SEPTEMBER 27 is observed as World Tourism Day (WTD). The theme of WTD 2009 is “Tourism — Celebrating Diversity,” which focuses on the world’s cultural wealth and the important role sustainable tourism plays in revitalising local traditions and making them flourish as they cross other countries.

A huge variety of local customs co-exist throughout the world, be they languages, religions, architecture, food, politics or natural environment. This diverse environment has allowed the travel and tourism industry “to thrive and become the largest single export industry” and a leading force in the service sector.

Tourism has become a popular global leisure activity. Available record shows that in 2008 there were over 922 million international tourist arrivals, with a growth of 1.9% as compared to 2007. International tourism receipts grew to $944 billion in 2008, corresponding to an increase in real terms of 1. 8%.

The growth in the tourism industry has, however, been suffering from a slowdown since June 2008, due to worldwide recession and outbreak of the H1N1 virus. But the tourism experts are hopeful that the industry would be able to regain its growth rate as soon as the recession is over, which has already started showing a positive trend, and the outbreak of H1N1 is brought down to a tolerable level.

Now, let us see as to how diversity such as rich and varied cultural heritage, archaeology and architecture, religions, festivals and celebrations, natural capital base, etc. can help enrich Bangladesh’s tourism industry.

The culture of Bangladesh has a history. The land, the rivers and the lives of the common people formed a rich heritage with marked differences from neighbouring regions. It has evolved over the centuries, and encompasses the cultural diversity of several social groups of Bangladesh.

The folk and tribal music and dance forms of Bangladesh are of indigenous origin and rooted to the soil of Bangladesh. In relatively modern context, Rabindra sangeet and Nazrul geeti form precious cultural heritage of Bangladesh.

The Muslims celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha and Muharram with great fervour and enthusiasm while Durga Puja, Christmas and Buddha Purnima are celebrated by the Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists respectively with great enthusiasm. Although these are basically religious festivals, they form an integral part of the cultural heritage of Bangladesh.

The first day of the Bangla New Year, Pahela Baishakh, and the Language Martyrs’ Day on February 21st are the greatest celebrations of the people of all walks of life irrespective of religion, caste and creed. They form an integral part of our culture.

Archaeological remains of the 3rd 2nd century B.C. at Mahasthangarh, the 8th century A.D. Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur, Mainamati-Lalmai ridge of the 8th-12th century, are some of the attractions for local and international tourists.

Like any other industry, tourism industry requires capital, both financial and human. Fortunately, Bangladesh’s large and attractive natural resources, such as the world’s longest unbroken sandy beach at Cox’s Bazar, mind-boggling beauty spot of sunrise and sunset at Kuakata, the world’s largest mangrove forests called the Sunderbans (beautiful forests), the scenic beauty of the “Sylhet Valley” with the three largest tea gardens of the world, and dazzling beautiful spots of the hill districts are some of the natural capital base which, if quantified in financial terms, would represent a huge capital base. But, we have not been able to make proper use of the natural capital base to promote and develop the country’s tourism industry.

Available sources suggest that the theme of WTD 2009 will further highlight the importance of tourism and globalisation, the job opportunities that tourism creates in many industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, retail trade, and the important components of tourism businesses such as guide services, shopping, transport, entertainment, accommodation, and photography.

Tourism is vital for many countries, such as the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt, Tanzania, the Gambia, Greece, the Maldives, the Bahamas, Fiji, and the Seychelles, due to the large intake of money for businesses with their goods and services and the opportunity for employment in the service industries associated with tourism.

In spite of her rich cultural heritage and large natural capital base, Bangladesh does not present a pleasant picture of her tourism industry. A visit to the website of Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) shows that international tourist arrivals stood at 207,662 in the year 2005. In the year 2001, when the writer was chairman of the BPC, the number stood at 207, 199. This means an addition of only 463 foreign tourists in four years.

What is unfortunate is that the website does not provide any information about international tourist arrivals in the country after the year 2005. However, a visit to the website of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism shows that from January to August 2007, the foreign tourist arrivals in the country stood at 176,749. No data on international tourist arrivals after August 2007, is available in the website.

Why such a low arrival of international tourists in the country in spite of existence of the aforesaid tourism products? This is generally attributed to:
* Bangladesh’s image problem abroad as a tourist destination,
* Lack of knowledge among the planners and policy makers about the fast growing global tourism industry, and of its role as an important earner of foreign exchange,
* Discontinuity in the policies and programs for tourism promotion with the change of governments,
* Insufficient infrastructural facilities,
* Poor investment from private sector,
* Lack of encouragement to foreign investors to develop tourism in islands such as Saint Martin’s, Sonadia, etc. (especially for the foreign tourists), lack of appropriate steps for promotion of rural based tourism,
* Lack of skilled and professional manpower, and
* Lack of easy availability of visa for regional and international tourists.

If Bangladesh can solve the above problems and constraints to a considerable extent, and the government gives priority to develop infrastructural facilities to a satisfactory level, the country, with its rich cultural heritage and huge natural capital base, may become an important destination for regional and international tourists.

This will enable Bangladesh to get a reasonable share of the big cake provided by the largest and the fastest growing global tourism industry. The observance of WTD 2009 will then be meaningful.

M. Abdul Latif Mondal is a former Secretary to the Government and former Chairman, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation. E-mail: latifm43@gmail.com

Click here to go to the original Daily Star article, published 2009-09-27.

This article is quoted by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

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Posted in Bangladesh, Development.


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