Mangrove and Mud

Amar Sonar Bangla, alright, but where are the tourists?

The thrills Bangladesh Biman Airlines come- on that announces the longest beach in the world, the mangrove forest that is the Sunderban, or the rivers lazing through the swampyland, gives ample sense of what the tourism managers believe are the country's attractions for the Western visitor. And the poster of Parjatan, the national tourism corporation, is properly philosophical when it says, "Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come". Waiting is a part of life.

This is how the Parjatan brochure describes Sunderban: "A cluster of islands with an approximate area of 6000 sq km forming the largest block of littoral forests… Sunderban means beautiful forest and is the natural habitat of the world famous Royal Bengal Tiger, spotted deer, crocodiles, jungle fowl, wild boar, lizards, rhesus monkeys, and an innumerable variety of beautiful birds."

This "beautiful forest" lies in the southern extremities of the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta. It is, indeed, the world's last and largest man- grove swamp, with most of it in Bangladesh and some of it in neighbouring West Bengal. But marketing has been poor, and the 'tourism infrastructure' poorer still. One gets there by flying to Jessore or driving to Khulna, and continuing on a river launch through the canals. Few pick up the courage to get off the boat and into the ban once there, however. Only an indigenous tribe of honey collectors dares walk inside the swampy jungle, offering meagre bribes to the Ban-Bibi, the jungle goddess. It is rarer to find tourists in the Sunderban than the Royal Bengal tiger, which may be seen swimming in one of the thousands of placid creeks  that sustain the mangroves.

For the moment, the Sunderban interests only the naturalists and oil companies. Parjatan has yet to set up infrastructure that can pamper tourists because the tourist flow doesn't justify the investment. It is a bit like the chicken or the egg. To prove that it is not absolutely uncaring about the Sunderban, Parjatan does run a three-storied guesthouse at Hiron point, deep inside the jungle. There are also a couple of forest department bungalows, and boats are available for travelling through the creeks. In parts of the jungle stretching to the sea, trekking through grassy meadows attracts a few hardy types.

"With all the interest in saving the tiger and forests, how come nobody wants to visit Bangladesh?" asks a frustrated tour operator. However, he admits that swamps and mudflats have limited ability to attract tourists.  Those few who just have to see the Sunderban get a better deal across the border in India, for there "you get to see a few other things as well".

Dark and long

So what are some of the other things Bangladesh can offer? Well, there is the longest beach in the world, right? While it is not clear who has gone out with a tape to measure the various stretches of sand around the world, one may be forgiven for accepting the claim that the one which reaches down the eastern coastof Bangladesh at Cox's Bazar is the longest of them all. But fairest? The reason there are no lines of tourists sunning on the beach at Cox's,it is said, is because the sands here are dark complexioned.These are local Bangali sands, and the fair-skinned tourists certainly have shown a preference for Goa, unmindful of the sheer stretch which is the supposed selling point here.

There are other reasons for the beach's lackof popularity. The area is more "Bangla friendly" than touristy. Booze is hard if not impossibleto come by, and there are no casinos about. Till recently, it was home to the Rohingya refugees who lived in camps by the beach, andforeign intelligence agencies did their bit to sustain the local economy. And the other claim to fame — that of being the area where hundreds of thousands have died, hunted down by cyclones—is hardly the stuff to attract visitors bythe droves.

There is no organised night-time entertainment— of any sort—in Cox's Bazar. Bangladeshis are used to a life without entertainment after dark, but for the tourist the fun cannot go down with the sun. Plus, and this is a factor for Parjatan to take good account of — tourists do not like it when the natives stare at ladies soakingin the sun.

Watching the catching

The river cruise out of Dhaka is the excursion of choice for the thousands of development professionals and diplomats who keep Dhaka's real estate market humming. With Dhaka wallowing ever-deeper in pollution and urban chaos, the popularity of the weekend getaway is catching on. Over the years, cruise management has developed as an organised activity,and a number of private operators as well as the state-owned Parjatan offer river trips.

Guide Tours Ltd., in its brochure, offers the following highlights of a river cruise: "Swimming,watching the catching of the famous Hilsa fish and breathing fresh air". The company prudently asks guests to bring their own towels, mosquito repellants, sun-burn lotion, swimming gear, and hard drinks if you need them as "we cannot serve that". Guests will be picked up from Gulshan, Dhaka's poshest suburb, as well as from the two top hotels, the Sonargaon and the Sheraton. The voyagers will be driven to Narayanganj, an hour out of the city to the west, from where the M. V. Abosharwill sail through Shitalakkhya river, enter river Meghna, and anchor overnight. "If the weather is favourable, swimming will be an option before our barbecue dinner is served."

No particular activity is planned for the next day, with the focus remaining on serious unwinding.Swimming, visiting nearby villages, board games and lazing on the boat are suggested.After lunch, the boat will come to the confluence of the Padma (Brahmaputra) and Meghna for anchor. At this point, guests are allowed to watch the sunset, and dinner is served before hitting land for the road-trip back toDhaka

But then this deltaic region was never a tourist spot. Once, its jungles offered some of the best shoots, but the forests are gone and so is the game. This is mudland, and you can only watch so many hazy sunsets, and so many catchings of Hilsa fish. Because this is a floodplain where the marks of ancient civilizations have been washed away, and because Bangladesh is essentially made of silt and mud where there are few surviving ancient architecture, the country has almost no archaeology to grab touristic interest. It is not that there is no history in Bangladesh, it is just that there is so little standing to provide visual accompaniment.

It is not advertised enough, but Buddhism spread from the monastic communities that were rooted in present-day Bangladesh.The northern part of the country was once Pundrabhukti, the last frontier province of imperial India. During the Pala rule in the 9thcentury, it soared as the only Indian kingdom spiritually rooted in Vajrayana Buddhism. ThePalas built some of the grandest Buddhist religious architectures in the world, located at Paharpur and Mahasthangarh. These monasteries are the architectural progenitors of the more famous cousins at Angkor Wat and Bourbadour but while these kingdoms flourishedunder the followers of Buddha, Bengal ceased to be a Buddhist land. The dust of neglects wallowed the terra cotta constructions and the link with the past was lost. They have reappeared today not as heritage sites but as archaeological digs. With no modern packaging techniques announcing "Ancient Buddhist Bengal", the tourists too are absent.

A large part of Bangladesh will disappear in a matter of few years, what with globalwarming. Perhaps the BPC poster should be saying, "Visit Bangladesh before Bangladesh disappears".

"If Bangladesh is such an untouristic country, what were the173,000 foreigners who visited the country in 1999 doing here? Well, according to people who should know, almost 60,000 of the total were Indians, while the second largest number, 20,000, came from the United Kingdom, the bulk of them would-be generation Bangladeshis, arriving from London and bypassing Dhaka altogether and flying straight to Sylhet, theirhometown. More than 12,000 US citizens visited, as did nearly8,000 Japanese and over12,000 Pakistanis.Over 6000 Koreans visited, obviously bound for the Export Processing Zone factories. But what were the plus 5000 Nepalese doing? Mostly, going to medical school.

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