Sunderbans-Cox’s Bazar-St Martin’s Island
Sudipto Roy and June Mukherjee January-February 2017
Enchanting Virgin Tracts
Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, can be experienced in a single cruise trip, extending all the way to St Martin’s Island in Cox’s Bazar. India and Bangladesh are considering tourism prospects that are expected to take shape very soon.
While the Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB) is planning an integrated approach, building a sustainable coastal destination out of Cox’s Bazar, this south-eastern tip of Bangladesh with its proximity to Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal on either side has emerged as a destination offering heritage community trails and unseen maritime tourism prospects to international travellers looking to explore lesserknown destinations. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has recently praised the efforts of the government advocating dispersal of tourists to secondary and tertiary destinations. Albeit loads of information available on the Internet, there will only be a few who would know that the world’s longest and arguably the most spectacular natural beach is neither in the Caribbean nor in Australia or even New Zealand. It is the 150-km-long Cox’s Bazar beach, in Bangladesh!
Immersed in infrastructural outlook and with an ardent urge to make Cox’s Bazar more familiar among the quintessential Indian travellers, BTB seems to have figured out the uphill task awaiting them. Discussing the growth opportunities in this fishing port, the CEO of Bangladesh Tourism Board, Akhtaruz Zaman Khan Kabir said, “Bangladesh government is going to establish an exclusive tourist zone with about 1100 acres of land near Cox’s Bazar. The zone will be reserved for exclusive foreign tourists. We are very interested in bringing in foreign investors, and that’s why we are inviting international investors to come to Bangladesh and explore the opportunities.” Targeting the European market along with eastern India, the BTB CEO shared responses to their efforts, saying, “We have already received positive feedback from Japan, China and other countries. We will soon look to European countries as well and hence, we are very hopeful of the ball starting to roll soon.”
The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) staged a unique event in November 2016, hosted by the BTB under the supervision of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, called PATA New Tourism Frontiers Forum (NTFF) 2016 in Cox’s Bazar. The event witnessed a congress of the top minds in the travel sector engaging in insightful discussions on some of the major marketing and managing programmes of lesser-known destinations. “Tourism is one of the most powerful tools for economic growth and social development. The most interesting and unique attractions – including indigenous culture, wildlife and natural landscapes – are often located in areas where access is difficult and poverty levels are high. The challenge is to evolve those assets into attractive, marketable tourism products that maximise social and economic benefits while minimising negative impacts,” said PATA CEO, Dr Mario Hardy.
Cox’s Bazar, an 18-hour road trip from Dhaka is already popular as a weekend getaway, however, taking the destination to the next level where it emerges as one of the coveted destinations for global tourists as well as MICE planners and event organisers still requires a careful and rigorous commitment. Speaking at the NTFF, the secretary general of UNWTO, Taleb Rifai praised the country for organising such an event and said, “This will be a relevant step forward in building a stronger image of Bangladesh as a tourism destination.”
The treasures of Cox’s Bazar
The fascinating mix of an enchanting history, vibrant cultures, natural sand beaches, abundant wildlife and the plethora of flora and fauna found in Bangladesh could be the primary reason to imagine it as the next big thing in the Asian tourism sector. Add to it, Cox’s Bazar’s unique combination of the world’s longest unbroken beach with the unique lifestyle of ethnic minority groups in the neighbouring hills. Nestled in the south of the industrial port of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar have become popular among locals but remains largely virgin for the international travellers, even Indians.
Suddhabrata Deb, the managing director of Living Roots, one of the leading destination management companies tailoring Indian, European and other western travellers experiential travel to Bangladesh, dissects the matter from an outbound perspective. He says, “Bangladesh, especially Sunderbans, has an inhibition-less wilderness. While building the entire area as a MICE hotspot, Sunderbans should be protected to the best of its originality. Of course, Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong have great MICE potential, not only from Indian clients but also from other Asian and European MICE buyers. Chittagong already has an international airport, which can be developed for better flight connectivity with cities other than Kolkata, Bangkok and some airports of Middle East. With lesser cost and travel time involved, there is no reason for this area to not compete with Bangkok or Singapore as a MICE destination choice, provided the infrastructures are in place and suitable leisure value quotients are added.”
On the present status of infrastructure, the BTB CEO said, “A lot of international hotel chains are coming up in Bangladesh with their new or maiden properties. Westin, Grand Hyatt etc. are establishing very good quality, international-standard facilities in Dhaka and Chittagong. Pan Pacific, Sheraton etc. are already there in Bangladesh. Also, there are some very good boutique hotels in top tourist destinations of Bangladesh. But, we have to establish more hotels of international standard to attract more foreign tourists and we are working on that with a positive approach. We have a good convention centre in our capital Dhaka, and we are trying to establish more state-of-theart convention centres in other cities, especially Chittagong, our port city and tourist capital, Cox’s Bazar.”
After the end of the British regime, Cox’s Bazar got a slight makeover with the plantation of a Tamarik forest that stands tall now with waving branches. The dwellers planted the Tamarik trees to protect the town from the tidal waves. However, crossing the line of those trees, when one steps into the vista of the sea in the forefront, it is hard not to gape at the panoramic view of the sky and the sea extending to infinity, making one feel inevitably diminutive. The neat line of beach loungers topped with umbrellas looking out to a blue sea sprinkled with dhows and boats; the shore dotted with shell painters, fruit and beverages vendors, fishermen, a few tourists and the odd horse or two can be a refreshing sight away from the hectic, dusty city life.
The only sound would be the rise and fall of the waves and the distant sound of quad bikes as they would ride back and forth along the crest of the sand. A leisure trip to Cox’s Bazar offers plenty of scope for island hopping. St Martin’s Island, the most famous of these, lies around eight kilometres south of Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula. It is the only coral island in Bangladesh and home to many turtles. A good centre for snorkelling, scuba diving and fishing, the island is accessible by a three hour ferry trip from Teknaf and there are several hotels and guesthouses for a cosy overnight stay.
“The product showcasing of Bangladesh now has to be target specific and experiential. A Bengali tourist may like to visit his or her ancestral home in search of roots anywhere in Bangladesh without bothering about any other tourism aspects, but a European or an Australian tourist must be wooed by something that is rare to experience anywhere else in the world. Bangladesh has to lure western tourists with its undiscovered virginity and at the same time connect with the global Bengali diaspora, especially in India, with its cultural, societal and emotional legacy,” concluded Suddhabrata Deb.