With each step forward it is an experience of rejuvenating the connection with nature, that is the underlying philosophy of the enchanting resort Mermaid in the Cox's Bazar.
Anisul Haque Chowdhury Shohag, managing director of Mermaid, started his business with a firm conviction to serve people. As an enthusiastic traveller himself, Shohag believes that his utmost achievement from his travelling experiences is all the knowledge he has gained. He sees travelling as a powerful vehicle to instil wisdom in people.
The Bangladesh government has declared 2016 as tourism year with the aim of attracting tourists from across the globe and ultimately boosting the country's tourism industry. We talked to Anisul Haque Chowdhury Shohag to know more about Mermaid, tourism in Cox's Bazar and in Bangladesh.
How do you connect tourism with hospitality?
When someone goes to visit some place, the entire journey relies on reciprocity. Visitors together with local people exchange many things.
Visitors need a place to stay, they need food, and often need a guide for touring the area. The entire process is facilitated through supporting guests with service and hospitality. That is the only way to bring success in tourism.
Tourism is basically selling hospitality, the beauty of the country with warm welcome and good service.
How much do you think we have achieved in tourism?
We have achieved what we deserve. No less, no more. How many countries are there in the world? Instead of visiting the same place again and again people want to discover new places.
Despite being one of the promising industries, tourism in Bangladesh fails to grasp the opportunities due to several social and political problems that persist. For me the bright side of it is, since the country is still in a progressing state, we have a chance use that to our advantage. If you look at international tourist destinations you will see that a lot of those have lost their appeal because of rapid urbanisation.
Do you think there is proper planning for the tourism industry by the right authorities?
No. But plans always have a way of unfolding in the manner that wasn't intended.
The beach in Cox's Bazar is 120km in length. One or two kilometres of it may be on the verge of serious damage, even destruction.
We cannot change what already happened but we can do a lot better in the remaining areas if we learn from past errors. This devastation occurred due to lack of proper guideline and lack of experience. If we learn from that then I think our entrepreneurs, old and new, will be able to build better facilities that truly fulfil the needs of travellers.
Travellers expect a certain standard at the tourist facilities. Our job is to fulfil all the basic expectations and then provide a fresh and unique experience.
But, my observation says people usually do not acknowledge a problem until it becomes a major one. However, I think people are aware of the past mistakes now and are more serious about setting up everything with proper government guidance.
Previously there was hardly any formal authority to impose a check and balance, particularly regarding unplanned building. But the process of establishing an active and efficient authority is now ongoing. For the first time, tourism has been included in the national budget.
Considering the massive boom of unplanned hotels in Kalatoli, Cox's Bazar, what significance is the architecture and environment of the hotels and resorts?
Many hotels with 150 rooms do not have proper planning about even simple room arrangements. This is certainly true for most of the hotels in Kalatoli. Such unplanned growth is one of the main drawbacks that we face as an industry.
Most of the hotels around the country don't pay attention to the aesthetic and endurance aspect of architecture. The main problem with that is, after a certain period of time, these structures gradually lose efficiency and an acceptable appearance.
If you look at the successful tourism countries, they have put immense emphasis on building aesthetically pleasing structures. These are comfortable for living, without compromising on natural beauty and are also easy to maintain.
Why not apply this idea in our country too? We need to focus on architecture that is connected to nature, with an emphasis on aesthetics and endurance.
At Mermaid Beach Resort and Mermaid Eco-Resort, our only purpose is to provide the guests with a fresh experience. We have done everything with proper planning – from working tables to villa front courtyard – everything was built with specific attention to the visitor's comfort.
What sort of changes can be brought by the government?
From my experience, I think, 97 percent of our tourists are domestic. Each day we receive no more than 10 foreign tourists. There are many international tourists who are interested in visiting Bangladesh but refrain from doing do due to uncertainty about services, lack of infrastructure support, current economical state of the country and, most importantly, the absence of a unique tourism branding.
The biggest publicity mechanism is building an appropriate brand image. Unfortunately, we don't have that. There are plenty of examples of successful tourism formats in neighbouring countries. One such instance is Sri Lanka, where the government targets important places in Europe and America to create a brand image of the country. This is the way to reach huge numbers of people.
What can be done to build the image of Bangladesh and make it attractive to tourists?
Before anything else, we need to decide on what type of tourism we want to practice in Bangladesh. Then our government and other affiliated people can look into successful countries that are similar to our geographical location and atmospheric condition in tourism.
Bangladesh has innumerable beautiful places, but I think we need to narrow down the focus to avoid confusion. Prioritizing the places is important. Initially, we need to brand the places that already have popularity and proper infrastructure.
We can start by targeting those in our neighbouring countries, for instance, West Bengal, Nepal, Bhutan, etc. If we really want success then people from these places should know about our country's tourist attractions.
The government has recently taken many initiatives, but since we are currently at the primary level, we have yet to see how they turn out. Gradually we will get answers and I hope there is still scope to grow.
What type of tourism is in practice here? Do you think we are heading in the right direction?
Unfortunately, we are currently losing tourists due to the long-term continued practise of low-end tourism. One of the main problems we have is an incoherent standard for hotel ranking. Due to the Hotels and Restaurants Ordinance, many hotels are claiming to be five or seven stars. The Ordinance allows any establishment with 200 rooms to become eligible to be ranked as a 5 star establishment.
On the other hand, there are hotels and restaurants of great quality that cannot get the 5 star rank because of the limitation in the rules governing the ranking system. We want to introduce high-end tourism in Bangladesh but there is hardly any strong policy to support it.
I'm not saying the entire market should be based on high-end services, but there should be a balance.
Do we have enough human resources? Please share your views.
Tourism has its own vocabulary and terms. And if we want to keep up with others we need to understand those. The problem is, there aren't enough institutions dedicated to hospitality or tourism. The institutions that exist only train a minute number of students each year compared to the number of tourist we get, which is a million per year. So, there is a severe lack of quality human resources. I hope government will consider this matter with seriousness so that we can prepare ourselves for the future.
We can actually create a market for a number of tourism related products. This would be also a great way to mak self-reliant communities in the areas.
An important element in any tourism market is food? What's the situation in Bangladesh?
The types of foods that we generally grow here are delicious owing to naturally fertile soil and cultivation process. Instead of employing chemical fertilisers, a good amount of farmers still holds their faith in the organic process. Also, we are blessed with a diverse variety of local vegetables.
Travellers tend to want to explore things that are exclusive to the place they are visiting. However, since the majority of tourists in our country are domestic, they wish to try out new flavours when it comes to food. Due to this, most menus in hotels and restaurants comprise of a variety of international cuisines, but, also incorporating a bit of a local twist. In a way, this is a promotion of our foods and taste in the international platform.
Having said that, providing hygienic, delicious foods to guest is of the utmost important. At Mermaid, we always follow a rule: we get all our ingredients from within a 10km radius and we get organically produced food. Food is a great way to building trust and brand image.
From my experience, I think focusing heavily on local food should be a strategy only after attaining a well established position globally.