One of the dominant pre-independence tourism selling-points was about Cox's Bazar: "76 miles . . . longest beach in the world." Unfortunately, very much like the Sunderbans being advertised as "the world's largest mangrove forest," we may be building more clichés than reaping their harvests, like consolidating a service industry that can have spread-effects on other parts of the economy, expanding the visitor-base, turning travellers into tourists, and earning precious foreign exchange. True 5-star hotels have begun sprouting and many holiday seasons feature sold-out occupancy rates, on top of which, more Bangladeshis have been visiting the country's interior on a regular basis more frequently than ever before. When all is said and done, though, we are only at the tip of an enormous and underutilised tourism iceberg.
For a start, Cox's Bazar beaches and Sunderbans tigers aside, there are so many more sites available that no traveller (a foreign-aid worker, a diplomat over a weekend, or any transit passenger) can help not to become a tourist for. History-minded visitors have a lot of interest in the Mainamati ruins, or even the World War II cemeteries still managed by the British Embassy in Comilla and Chittagong; further up the Chittagong Hill Tracts, forests, lakes, ravines, and temples offer nature-lovers their full money's worth; Sylhet's tea-estates, still retaining colonial vistas, boasts sites that rival Chittagong Hill Tracts's for serenity, majesty, and memory; Dhaka's Lalbagh Fort, Ahsan Manzil, and adjacently located National War Memorial evoke emotions; and the enormous mileage possible from visiting Rabindranath Tagore's Shelaidah, Vikrampur's and Sonargaon's historical relics, or cruising down the mighty conjunction of two of the world's largest rivers (Brahmaputra, Ganges), and so forth.
Constraints cannot be blamed only on neglect, though the state-run Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation must take its fair share of the blame: unlike many least-developed countries (LDCs) aspiring to coax some cash out of tourism, we do not have a regular, reliable, and recommendable taxi-cab service greeting the potential traveller in the airport, supplying shuttles to hotels and sites, tourist bus-trips within the city or between sites, and so forth.
Even as these are being sporadically cultivated, other problems deter potential tourists significantly. Key among them is Dhaka's traffic-jam: the joy of visiting evaporates in the very first traffic-jam, typically on the very first drive outside the airport. Capping that inconvenience was a hitherto neglect (of the highest proportion) in not building the necessary infrastructure: roads had potholes, in addition to being very risky given the lack of traffic rules, and particularly, the ability to rein-in buses and lorries whose drivers lord over our entire highway system; hotels were far and few in between outside the cities; and every tourist site literally made the tourist the subject more than the site itself, with on-lookers gaping, pan-handlers abounding, and a chronic shortage of staff-members to guide the potential tourist along, especially through a site-museum (very few exist, but Mainamati depicts a prototype).
Perhaps the biggest blow has been the threat of Islamic fundamentalism dangling in the air: even the longest and most beautiful beach in the world, or a tiger-infested adventurous mangrove will not be enough of an incentive for possible tourists to actualise their hopes should this apprehension continue lingering.
Steadfast supervision that escapes politics-as-usual but must receive the priority we usually direct to politicians tops the list of needs: it creates jobs, preserves heritage, invites tourists to spend, in turn helping develop other segments of the economy, and serves as the litmus test to other travellers outside if the country is worth visiting or not, in other words, to mirror the country we wish to portray.
Developments on the ground mirror the dashed hopes discussed instead. Writing for the "International Journal of Management Science and Business Administration," Sanjoy Chandra Roy and Mallika Roy noted (a) the fluctuating treatment of tourism in the national budget; (b) the marginal future growth of the tourism share of the gross domestic product (GDP), and the lack of any commensurate growth of the broader tourism industry; (c) the inexplicable profit the Parjatan Corporation makes for being so hands-off serving as a deterrent to organisational reforms; and (d) the negligible size of foreign tourists against foreign-exchange receipts.
Since 2009, the only period of a higher tourism allocation in the national budget was in the 2011-2 fiscal year: that year stemmed a sharp decline, but was itself followed by another declining phase, so much so that in 2014 tourism was treated less well than in 2009: about Tk 70 million (7.0 crore) as compared to about Tk 85 million (8.5 crore) (for 2011-2, the allocation was over Tk 180 million (18 crore). They determined that the 4.4 per cent GDP allocation to tourism in 2013 would only increase to about 4.7 per cent by 2024, as the 1.3 million people employed in this sector would increase by 4.2 per cent by then. Behind those discouraging figures, how Parjatan profits recovered from a Taka 19.3 million (1.93 crores) negative balance in 2008-9 to a Tk 29.1 million (2.91 crore) profit in 2011-2, indeed, registering increasing profit every year since 2008-9, behooves explanation when the ingredients of growth cannot even be seen on the ground.
Not only Sanjoy Chandra Roy and Mallika Roy urge the government to pay more attention to a resourceful sector, but so too their University of Chittagong colleague, Dr. Jannat Ara Parveen. Her 2013 article in "Scientific Research Journal" elaborates how our tourism industry runs on domestic customers (no wonder, the Parjatan profits): a 15 per cent growth between 2006 and 2010 helped push the total number cross the 5.0-million mark, with 1.5 million visiting Cox's Bazar. Of the meagre contribution to the GDP discussed previously, over 97 per cent stemmed from domestic tourists. While it is important to mobilise our upwardly-mobile population to the attractions of tourism, we cannot expect any game-changing, threshold-crossing spark unless we can similarly mobilise tourists outside the country: that's how the country beyond Parjatan Corporation can benefit.
According to the World Bank's 2015 World Development Indicators, there were 155,000 foreign arrivals in Bangladesh (could be travellers or tourists), which fell to 125,000 the next year before rising to 148,000 in 2013. Yet, the money spent by them was paltry: $80 million in 2007, rising to $130 million in 2013, accounting for 0.5per cent and 0.4 per cent of total exports. Outbound travelling, by contrast, was larger, with 578,000 exiting in 2007, more than doubling to 1,297,000 six years later, and accounting for 2.8 per cent and 3.1 per cent of our total imports, respectively. Dr. Parveen goes on to show Bangladesh's tourism sector is the worst in South Asia in arrivals and receipts.
Our deficiencies are well-known and straightforward. That they keep us from capitalising on secular opportunities is less of a public knowledge. For example, with tourism a growing industry worldwide (in spite of similar secular constraints as ours), Chinese visitors were able to spend over $183 billion, largely on luxury gifts. We could not even get the smallest of a slice of that, indicating how huge the business is, that if we really want to extract more out of it, we might find a RMG contender for the top foreign-exchange slot. With 2016 being the Year of Tourism, we do not have a viable plan in place to extract the maximum possible,
Even amid all the uncertainties, constraints, and inefficiencies, we have many variables in place that help us: our expatriates not only remit increasing amounts annually to make our country a global leader, but when they visit their families/relatives, if we could turn their travel into tourism, we could earn a lot more. Though this is happening in fits and starts, inflating our "foreign visitor" arrivals as a breakthrough event has not yet happened: many less-visited spots would gain currency given the powerful role of nostalgia among expatriates, more hotels would have to be built to accommodate them, and ultimately, the ripple-effects would induce other non-expatriate foreign tourists, creating a snowball we desperately need. Especially with increasing transactions with India and China, we have huge neighbouring markets we must exploit before we become a tourist "basket case."
Tourism was never a major-league industry for us; but why it cannot be given the opportunities available behooves the developmental paradox we face. If independence is to put the people behind the steering-wheel of the country's future, then the neglect visited upon a deserving king-making industry is a national curse. We need to play the game differently.