Bangladesh's tourism sector sees no progress in 50 years

World's biggest mangrove forest Sundarbans
Syed Jakir Hossain

Bangladesh boasts the world’s longest unbroken sea beach Cox’s Bazar, the world’s biggest mangrove forest and world heritage Sundarbans, Tanguar Haor and many wetlands and rivers and tourist spots of immense natural beauty. Yet the country ranks at the bottom of the world where the tourism sector is concerned. Bangladesh’s tourism sector is stagnant even after 50 years of independence. The country lags behind many South Asian countries in this sector.

Index Mundi ranks the performance of countries in terms of foreign tourists. Bangladesh ranks 141st among 188 countries in the world and 42nd among 46 Asian countries in the index. Six of the eight countries of South Asia has been placed in the ranks where Bangladesh comes as fourth.

The tourism related organisations even fails to retain the local tourists let alone attracting new foreign visitors. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), around 3 million (29,21,520) Bangladeshi tourists went abroad in 2018-19. 60 per cent of them went to India while 8.12 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 4.57 per cent in Malaysia and a substantial number in Thailand, Dubai, Africa, Nepal and Turkey. The Bangladeshi tourists spent a whopping Tk 336.87 billion in foreign countries.

Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) and Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB), under the civil aviation and tourism ministry, works in promoting and developing tourism sector of the country.

Asked about the sorry state of the tourism industry, the state minister for civil aviation and tourism Md Mahbub Ali told Prothom Alo, “We earn in Biman (the state-owned airlines), pay wages and buy aircrafts. Many mistakenly think that we only buy aircraft with the public funds and do not spend anything on Parjatan (the tourism authorities). That’s a wrong conception. In Parjatan too, we pay salary through our earning. We are working on ways to improve things further.”

BTB’s chief executive officer (CEO) Abu Taher Muhammad Jaber told Prothom Alo that the government had to focus on the fundamental necessities till now but now the tourism sector is being brought to focus.

Performance of two organisations

The shipping, inland water transport and tourism ministry was formed in 1972. The civil aviation and tourism ministry was formed in 1986 after three rounds of restructuring.

BPC was launched as National Organisation of Tourism (NOT) on 1 January, 1973. BTB was formed in September 2010 from BPC and the ministry vested it the status of NOT. The work of two organisations has also been fixed. But the sordid state of country’s tourism sector raised eyebrows about the performance and efficiency of these two organisations.

Developing domestic tourism infrastructure for tourism; creating a positive image of tourism at home and abroad; ensuring development and expansion of tourism; expanding the tourism industry through public-private initiatives; management of hotels, restaurants, rest houses, picnic spots, camping sites, theaters, amusement parks etc. for tourists are among the objectives of the BPC.

Fishermen push a boat (locally called sampan) into the sea. The photo was taken recently in the sea beach of Cox`s Bazar
Prothom Alo

Likewise, the BTB has 13 objectives including assistance in formulation and implementation of policy; identifying tourist attractions; facilitating and securing the arrival and stay of tourists in the country; maintaining regular communication between public and private organisations regarding domestic and foreign marketing.

BPC chairman Md Ali Kadar was not found despite several visits to his office to inquire about the function of the organisation. Neither did he respond to calls, text messages and emails.

Manpower idle

The two organisations have adequate manpower. Manpower of BPC including wage-based employees is 850 while BTB employs 29 people, according to information of 2020-21 fiscal. BPC spent Tk 41.7 million and BTB spent Tk 330 million on salaries and wages and other activities that fiscal.

Many officials were found absent during several visits to BPC headquarters in the city’s Agargaon. Many of those who were present were seen sitting idle.

Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh’s (TOAB) former vice president and director of Journey Plus Taufiq Rahman told Prothom Alo that the BPC and BTC have adequate manpower. Although skilled manpower has been created in two organisations by spending money on them, they are not being given any authority. They are to operate as per the direction of the ministry.

Foreign tourists dwindling

According to Mundi Index, over 5.2 million tourists visited Bangladesh from 1995 to 2019. Chile, which ranked 33rd the index, saw over 5.4 million foreign tourist only in 2019. France, which ranks the top of the list, hosted around 120 million foreign tourists in 2020 alone.

In this 25 years period, Bangladesh saw the highest 467,000 foreign tourists in 2008. The second highest foreign visitors was in 2019 numbering 323,000.

Tourism-related officials say that Sundarbans and Cox’s Bazar see the most number of foreign visitors.

Forest conservator of Khulna zone Mihir Kumar Dey told Prothom Alo that only 7,545 foreign tourists visited Sundarbans in three years from 2017-18. Only 1,416 foreigners visited the mangrove forest due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020-21 and 2021-22 fiscal year.

There is no data on how many tourists visit Cox’s Bazar or Saint Martin’s island. Saint Martin’s expert and Save Our Sea’s director SM Atiqur Rahman said the number of foreign tourists have dropped drastically over last 10 years.

Faulty list of tourist spots

BPC has made a list of tourist attractions in the country. They published separate books for each of eight divisions. The books portray the pictures alongside the history of tourist destinations. There are a total of 1,529 tourist destinations in eight divisions in the list.

The list of the BPC is beset with various mistakes. The list includes BPC’s headquarters in Dhaka as aan ‘attractive tourist destination’. But the adjacent buildings such as EC building, ICT Tower and many other important and historic building was not included in the list.

Many museums of Dhaka have been included in the list but Bangladesh Airforce Museum in Agargaon, first of its kind in the country, failed to make it to the list.

BPC’s manager (sales, development and public relations) Md Ziaul Haque Hawlader could not give any reason behind inclusion of BPC building in the list of tourist attractions.

13 bars, motels. lakes, parks remain encroached

The parjatan corporation has a total of 47 establishments including hotels, motels, restaurants, cafeterias and bars. Out of these, 34 units are managed by corporation and the remaining 13 are being operated by private management.

Officials said that during the tenure of different governments, several institutions of the corporation were given to the private sector.

A meeting of National Tourism Council chaired by the prime minister on 28 May 2000 asked to bring back the units run under private management to the jurisdiction of the tourism authorities. After that, the corporation took control of Motel Labani in Cox's Bazar and the tourist bar in Rangamati.

The corporation, however, is yet to get the control of 10 restaurants and bars, one swimming pool, a lake and a park. These include Sakura restaurant and bar in Shahbagh, Ruchita restaurant and bar in Mohakhali, Mary Anderson floating restaurant and bar in Narayanganj, Bhatiari golf club bar and Foy’s Lake in Chattogram.

Negligible employment of women

One of the main objectives of BPC and BTB is to enhance the participation of women in tourism sector to ensure their financial capabilities and empowerment. No headway was made in this end.

This was revealed at a survey report of BBS titled ‘Tourism Satellite Account 2020’.

As per the survey based on 2018-19 fiscal year, a total of 127,078 manpower works in hotels, motels and restaurants in tourist spots. Of them, 113,000 are regular workers and around 14,000 are part-time. Only 8 per cent of the regular workers are women while the percentage is 19 for the part-time workers.

Cox’s Bazar based organisation Bikoshito Nari Network’s president Shamim Akter blamed lack of educational qualification and training and religious factors behind the lower participation of women in the tourism sector.

Master plan not ready yet

The authorities failed to prepare any master plan on how to operate the tourism sector of the country in last fifty years. Neither BPC nor BTB came up with any master plan, resulting in sluggish headway of the tourism sector.

An official of the corporation told Prothom Alo that they cannot launch marketing or promotion due to absence of any master plan. As a result, the works are being done in an unplanned way.

Three meetings in three decades

A Jatiya Parjatan Parishad (National Tourism Council) was set up in 1991 under the leadership of prime minister to coordinate the work of all ministries and departments related to development of tourism sector.

The council is supposed to hold at least two meetings a year but in the last 30 years they could hold only three meetings. The last meeting was held in March 2015.

As per a gazette published in 2019, the prime minister is the president of the council and secretary of civil aviation and tourism ministry is the member secretary.

Three officials of BPC and BTB, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo that the tourism sector is dependent of different ministries and departments. Other ministers don’t pay heed to the tourism minister and they only care about the prime minister’s commands. That’s why the council should hold regular meetings.

TOAB’s former vice president Taufiq Rahman suggested the tourism ministry should be taken under the prime minister’s office.

Many countries in the world follow such practice as many ministries are involved with tourism ministry’s activities, he added.