WE ‘gloriously' occupied the 125th position among 136 nations of the world in the Tourism Competitive Index 2017 – we have been ranked the worst place to visit in South Asia. India, on the other hand, placed 40 on the list. Even Pakistan, a country noted for violence, social tensions, and intolerance against the West, stands one step ahead of Bangladesh, a matter of shame and concern for us. We Bangladeshis – a self-applauding nation – now have to acknowledge some of our fundamental problems when dealing with foreign visitors. We need to tackle these challenges as soon as possible if we are to enjoy the economic and financial benefits from the tourism sector, which could be a hugely prospective source of income for the country 20 years from now.
Even without reading Rabindranath, Nazrul, Dwijendra Lal or Jibonananda, we know how beautiful our country is. Boating in the Kaptai lake of Rangamati could be one of the exhilarating experiences for anyone in the world. We possess the longest sandy beach in the world, Cox' Bazaar, as well as the largest mangrove in the world, the Sundarbans. Our list of natural wonders in non-exhaustive. Bangladesh has hills, rivers, beaches, forests, and a great tradition of cultural diversity – attributes that should be attractive enough to draw world travellers.
We are actively seeking foreign direct investments (FDIs) yet we can hardly manage slightly over 2 billion dollars, which is one percent of GDP. Tourism already provides for 2.4 percent of our GDP. We can easily turn this to 5 percent, which is still a rather conservative estimate as globally, on average tourism accounts for a higher percentage of countries' GDP. The travel and tourism sector provides over 10 percent of global GDP and ensures 10 percent of world employment. Given our natural treasures and the prospective goldmine of tourism, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, we can reach the global average in 20 years. Reaching half of the global average – 5 percent of our GDP in 10 years – is very feasible. However, the main challenge is to revitalise relevant institutions and correct the bureaucratic mindset if we are to improve tourism in our country.
The government's failure to understand how tourism can be improved lies in the post-independence socialist manner of intervention in tourism. It is a constantly evolving, innovative business where currently, the government's capacity to remain at the cutting edge seems entirely impossible. A nation does not hire bureaucrats, whose main task is to administer the country with the rules and regulations crafted by lawmakers at the Parliament, to cause impediments in potentially profitable sectors like tourism. In the post-independence vacuum, we erroneously pushed the bureaucrats to run mills, factories, and even the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC). Expectedly, the nation spawned a series of failures, as in the case of flop movies where the director seizes the role of the hero in the film. In Southeast Asia, which saw the highest growth in tourism in the last 30 years, the governments mainly provided the mega infrastructure and security. The rest was left to private enterprises that championed a thriving hospitality industry.
Much to our surprise, the government formed a new body to promote tourism, the Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB), in 2010 – at a time when the private sector should be encouraged and the government's role should be scaled down to justice, security, environment, and mega infrastructure only. Even after existing six years on life-support, the BTB could not hire officials separately. Some employees from BPC and the civil aviation joined this team. They have no data on category-based tourists, nor do they have instant cooperation from other agencies, but they have a big slogan of hope: Bangladesh will be one of the main attractive tourist places of the world! But we do not know when that is supposed to happen.
The government need not maintain so many authorities in the name of promoting tourism. They should be consolidated and should be merged with appropriate institutions like the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA).
Economists find a positive association between the growth of tourism and FDIs. Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam would never have enjoyed that high level of foreign investments had they not actively helped private enterprises accelerate tourism. In the last two years, Vietnam progressed eight steps up in the tourism index to occupy the 67th position, enabling the economy to draw huge foreign investments in the same time frame. The relationship between tourism and investment is symbiotic and synergic: they feed each other to spur economic growth.
Why did Bangladesh do worse than Pakistan? Under different components of the index, Bangladesh outperformed Pakistan in the counts of safety and security, ground transportation, and natural resources. But in the counts of 'tourist service infrastructure,' India ranks 110, Pakistan 125, and Bangladesh 133, which is the worst in the world index if we ignore Congo, Burundi, and Sierra Leon. And that is the main point as to why our tourism does not flourish.
Dhaka's airport, which recently has been labelled as Asia's ninth worst, is the first point of distress for tourists. Although it failed to be tourist-friendly, it succeeded in being the best mosquito-friendly airport in the world. Bathrooms have an unbearable stench and there are no paper towels there probably to ensure environmental justice? After washing their hands, people are forced to aggressively shake their hands – an exercise that helps blood circulation and muscle building. Passengers avoid any transit in Dhaka to minimise their sufferings. Recently, one comment in the airport quality survey reported the presence of stray cats in Dhaka's airport, indicative of our soft hearts and love for biodiversity. Waiting for the luggage develops the mental faculty of tourists through patience and prayer. The time has come to build a new international airport with a grand view and all modern facilities to boost tourism. Of course, the service staff should be prompt and cordial as they are in the airport of smiles, Bangkok. Tourists fly in search of warmth and recreation – the same way the Siberian birds fly to Jahangirnagar University lakes.
As a resident, I do not believe Dhaka is one of the worst liveable cities in the world, although the index claims as such. But when it comes to traffic, I believe the notoriety is well deserved. A Patalrail (underground train) is no alternative to rescue a dysfunctional Dhaka. The metro rail on the surface (if ever built) will work like a palliative paracetamol for a patient with an appendix pain. Making the entire Chittagong Hill Tracts more tourist-friendly with all amenities is imperative. Creating tourism zones in the style of economic zones will further boost the industry, stimulating economic growth in a Rupashee Bangladesh.
The writer is visiting fellow at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) and guest faculty at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) at Dhaka University.