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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Selling Bangladesh to the rest of the world

Update : 14 Jun 2015, 06:27 PM

I find that 2016 has been declared “tourism year” with expectations of 1 million visitors from overseas nations. We also discover that in a bid to make Bangladesh attractive to globe-trotters, a master plan has been asked for via an international tender.

Bluntly speaking, we are way behind the tourism race, which, in a way, can work in our favour because many Asian destinations are already established tourism spots, and Bangladesh may prove to pull those looking for countries that have not been done to death by foreign holiday-makers.

In that sense, our selling line should be: “Explore the country which is still not spoiled.”

I do have reservations about seeking international ideas for a master plan to make Bangladesh visible in the tourism map because, for such an operation, we have plenty of creative minds here in the country.

Wonder what extraordinary strategy someone from abroad will come up with, having no real contact with the socio-political realities/caprices of Bangladesh? Perhaps many will agree that any creative local organisation would have been better placed to chalk out a realistic way forward.

Reportedly, getting 1 million tourists is the target. Coming down to Earth, despite having pristine lakes, captivating hills, and breathtaking fountains in the hill tracts, the Sundarbans, and stunning historical ruins dating back to ancient periods, packaging Bangladesh as a tourist destination faces huge challenges because our South Asian neighbours have already placed themselves firmly on the tourist map.

Like I said earlier, the approach to take would be to present our country as a place which has not been widely exposed to the world. Therefore, the tag-line must have the appeal of the exotic and the unexplored.

But then, how safe can tourists feel roaming around the country? One has to say they would feel safer than many other Asian destinations because, in Bangladesh, there is an inherent trait to look at a foreigner with respect.

On the other hand, when in other countries people of a different skin-colour can move about freely without attracting attention, here in Bangladesh, especially in the rural areas, the common tendency is to stare at somebody who looks different. While intentions are not hostile, many foreigners feel such piercing gazes to be intrusive.

Expecting a million tourists is way too much because we still have to create a reliable tourism infrastructure. Sadly, a process to make Bangladesh a place to relax and unwind, which began in the mid-70s with a joint Biman Bangladesh Airline and Tourism Board campaign, fizzled out by the 80s.

This is indeed painful since, at that time, most Asian tourism destinations like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore were not even on the top Asian tourism list. I can still recall a 1970s Biman Bangladesh Airline tourism poster, showcasing Paharpur Buddhist ruins, the Cox’s Bazar sea beach, and the Sundarbans.

Truth is, we failed to capitalise on the early lead, losing steam somewhere in between, which allowed others to occupy the empty space. It is indeed our misfortune that after so many years, we are now asking for an outline for tourism.

A decade ago, a foreigner visiting Bangladesh remarked that the hill areas are so appealing that they could easily be turned into spots like Chiang Mai in Thailand. The issue here is how we can blend a practical tourism plan with a prevalent conservative social outlook. If Bangladesh has to be a spot like Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal, or Bhutan, she has to make certain compromises.

Tourism in a developing country can never flourish unless it provides the usual entertainments -- bars, nightclubs, and casinos. Yes, there are downsides for having such amenities, but can anyone show me a well-publicised Asian tourist spot which does not offer these facilities? Tourism triumph cannot be attained without a few necessary vices.

Of course, in recent times, Islamic tourism has seen a surge where people living according to Shariah law can enjoy natural beauty, culture, and heritage without the presence of the three utilities mentioned above. However, this sort of tourism is still niche, with only developed Arabian nations proving to be the preferred choices. I am doubtful any Muslim living in a first-world country would want to come to Bangladesh for Islamic tourism.

For us, the Malaysian model is the best option -- a tolerant society which allows refuge for both the religiously-minded and the liberal. The Maldives has followed the Malaysian formula with sparkling results. In the capital, Male, where most residents are local, no alcohol is sold or offered, while in the resort islands, the collection of fine wine can amaze any oenophile. According to Travel Advisor 2015, Gili Lankanfushi in Maldives, a string of water villas, has been named the best hotel in the world.

In Malaysia, every hotel room has an arrow indicating to the Qibla, whereas almost every other street café serves beer and other alcoholic drinks. As for gambling, there is the Genting Highlands -- a mountain-top setting which can be accessed both by car and a rope-way, featuring a stunning natural view.

Genting is a two-way crowd puller -- for those who want to play the dice and those who want to experience what is said to be the longest cable car ride across a mountainous terrain.

Needless to say, this pulls both gamblers and non-gamblers.

Last year, on December 30, I met an Australian couple who had come to Bangladesh to attend a wedding. Living in one of the top five star hotels, they were shocked to find that one bottle of Johnnie Walker was Tk18,000. Not knowing the city well, they spent the time almost without drinks.

Don’t think they will want to come back as tourists to Bangladesh.

I am not saying we should flood the country with booze. Only follow the model of other successful tourist destinations for specific spots like Cox’s Bazar, Kuakata, and the hill tracts.

Lastly, the idea to float an international tender asking for ideas seems like a way to waste money -- marketing our country should be our forte, certainly not the task of others.

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