Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had declared 2016 as the ‘Tourism Year’ with the slogan ‘Visit Bangladesh’ while inaugurating a high-profile international conference on Buddhist Heritage and Pilgrimage Circuits at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre (BICC) on October 27, 2015. Following her statement Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) initiated a three-year long plan titled ‘The Visit Bangladesh Year’ campaign. Duration of this announced plan will be continued till 2018. Under this arrangement the government decided to enhance the brand image of Bangladesh abroad, attract more foreign tourists and investment in different sectors of the country. It also aimed at bringing local and international investment to explore the potentials of tourism sector. The target was to attract at least 1 million foreign tourists to Bangladesh in 2016 tourism season. BPC conducted a series of campaign to achieve this target. It prepared a year-long calendar full of events to be observed almost every week. A nice logo with an impressive tagline ‘Life Happens Here’ and representing the two icons of Bangladesh - Royal Bengal Tiger and the beautiful Jamdani Saree - were unveiled. Since then two years have already passed. Now it is time to look back to understand what initiatives BPC took so far and consequently how much success they obtained for the tourism sector in the last two years.
The statistics provided by Bangladesh Bank and Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation show that the country earned USD 116.54 million from the tourism sector during January to April in 2017 which is 223.55 per cent higher than the same period of 2016. Bangladesh made USD 163.21 million from this sector in 2016 calendar year compared to USD 145.74 million in 2015 which was an 11.99 percent lift. Though the sector’s earning has been increasing since PM’s announcement of the ‘Tourism Year’, but the steps BPC has taken to flourish this sector are not enough. Still there is a scarcity of fund and policy level support to make the sector a profitable one permanently. Lack of guidelines has made our tourism industry a backbencher in the world tourism market. If Bangladesh wants to explore its tourism potentials, it has to understand the value of tourism and develop its product. Without offering necessary facilities to the tourists it will not be able to see a sustainable improvement in the sector.
Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, the state owned authority to regulate the tourism sector and ensure facilities for the tourists, has been working to bring more foreign tourists in the country. Unfortunately, they have been struggling for inadequate budget, which have been preventing them to develop infrastructure and run publicity campaign smoothly. Only Tk. 8.38 crore was allotted in 2009-2010 while the amount was Tk. 18.18 crore for 2011-2012 FY. Surprisingly after that a trend of decreasing tourism budget began. Thus the national budget for tourism sector in 2013-2014 fell down to only Tk. 6.83 crore. Despite the government declaration of 2016 as the ‘Tourism Year’, the Ministry of Finance allocated only Tk. 372 crore for the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism for 2015-16 FY. Such a tiny amount of money was never enough to boost both the tourism sector and the aviation industry for a year. Moreover, among this allocated budget maximum portion was spent to develop civil aviation. In 2015-16, less than Tk. 1 billion was spent for facilitating the tourism sector! And this was nothing new at all. Though the government provided Tk. 549 crore for the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism for 2016-17 FY, but as usual most of the money was spent for improving aviation facilities depriving tourism sector. This year (2017-18 FY) a total of Tk. 687 crore has been allocated for the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, but it is for sure that the repetition of discrimination will continue. This is really unfortunate that though the government mentioned time and again about the possibilities of tourism sector, they haven’t provided required funds yet.
Low budget for the tourism has failed to assist the stakeholders related to the sector to overcome the barriers that they face. Still there are numerous beautiful places in Bangladesh where no infrastructure for the tourists is available. And the spots having minimum infrastructure are underdeveloped so far. This is one of the main obstacles which are upsetting the tourism of the country greatly. Basic tourism related infrastructure is a primary requirement for both the local and foreign tourists. The divisional cities and district towns of Bangladesh don’t have adequate number of quality accommodation facilities, decent public transports, safe and developed roads, hygienic foods and an uninterrupted access to electricity. It is clear that until government develops necessary infrastructure for accommodation and communication, private entrepreneurs will not come forward to build five-star standard hotels, motels and amusement parks. Better road, rail, waterway and air connectivity are the basic things to attract tourists so that they can visit their desired destinations without any hassle.
Cox’s Bazar sea beach has been presented as the principal attraction of our tourism bouquet. But over the years we couldn’t even set up an international airport in the tourism capital of Bangladesh. There is no railway connection from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar. While it is the situation of our chief tourist spot, the condition of other tourist destinations like Kuakata, Sundarbans, and age-old traditional heritage sites outside the capital is quite understandable.
Our tourism is not only lagging behind due to unimproved communication facilities but also for the shortage of infrastructure regarding accommodation. The country is yet to offer enough number of quality resorts and hotels, equipment for recreational activities to attract the local and foreign tourists, well-trained tourist guide and other entertainment demands such as shopping malls, movie theatres, theme parks, museums etc. Moreover, violation of law, lack of discipline, proper management and community support are also interrupting the development of the sector.
While travelling from one country to another a tourist needs to spend a huge amount of money. Thus he/she expects minimum recreational opportunity to make his/her trip a fun. But we are not ready to meet their expectations. When conservative Middle Eastern Muslim countries and Asian Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have been compromising with their century-long tradition and cultural practice to facilitate the tourists, then being a moderate and liberal Muslim country Bangladesh’s tourism sector seems to be backdated. Our tourism policy makers never think about the mindsets of the tourists and thus fail to develop their products according to the demands of their consumers.
Many men have many minds. People tour countries for different reasons. Our tourism sector is yet to understand that diverse intentions of the foreign tourists. There are a large number of travelers who visit different countries to experience significant religious sites. We have a handsome amount of multi religious spots for such travelers. Paharpur Buddhist Bihar in Naogaon, Mahasthangarh in Bogra, Lalmai, Mainamoti and Shalbon Bihar in Comilla and the Gold Temple in Bandarban, the Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagerhat, Choto Shona Mosque in Chapai Nawabganj, Bagha Mosque in Rajshahi and the mausoleums of Hazrat Shahjalal in Sylhet, the Church of the Holy Rosary in Dhaka and Oxford Mission Church in Barisal and Jor Bangla Temple in Pabna and Kantaji Temple in Dinajpur are some of the great places for pious tourists. Unfortunately we are not focusing on these spots.
There are billions of nature lovers in the world and logically these people have a curious mind to explore nature of different countries. But we have underestimated such travelers and the natural places which we have while branding our tourism. Though often we talk about Sundarbans as it is a UNESCO world heritage site, but the spots like Bisanakandi in Sylhet, Ratargul Swamp Forest in Sylhet, Modhupur National Park in Tangail, Ramsagar National Park in Dinajpur, Satchari National Park in Habiganj, Char Kukri Mukri Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhola, Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary in Chittagong, Pablakhali Wildlife Sanctuary in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Madhabkunda Eco-park in Moulvibazar, Sitakunda Botanical Garden and Eco-park in Chittagong, Kaptai Lake in Rangamati, Tanguar Haor in Sunamganj, Hakaluki Haor in Moulvibazar and Boga Lake at Bandarban never get proper importance. The rivers of riverine Bangladesh, people living on the bank of these rivers, their river based lifestyle and cultural elements are hardly exposed to the tourists.
In the post-Second World War era this industry has rapidly expanded and tourism has become a worldwide phenomenon. This post-war boom has drawn the attention of many developing countries. Tourism as one of the growing industries has enticed many entrepreneurs and governments of various countries to invest in it. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore have promoted their tourism sector and it has eventually contributed a lot to boost their economy. In Bangladesh, the travel and tourism sector’s total contribution to GDP is only 4.1 percent! It ranks 168th among the 184 countries which promote the sector! Bangladesh lags far behind its neighbouring countries like India, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in this regard. Travel and tourism’s total contribution to employment globally is 9.4 percent while it is just 3.6 percent in our country.
Bangladesh is a truly blessed daughter of nature. Hospitality of its people, multiple eye-catching destinations and diversified regional and ethnic languages and cultures make this country a glam state for the tourists around the world. But due to lack of proper planning, funding and policy support, Bangladesh is yet to maximize its tourism potential. The country has taken enough time only to recognize its huge possibility to earn a considerable amount of currency from this prospective sector. It’s not too late, still there is ample chance to bring about innovative and drastic changes in the policy-making and its strategic implementation to develop this sector’s real brand value. This opportunity will work for the country only when our policy makers will mean what they say about tourism.