The Financial Express

Tourism boom not at the cost of environment

Tourism boom not at the cost of environment

The recent increase in tourists visiting and discovering newer spots bears signs of better days for domestic tourism. Even a couple of decades ago, tour operators were heard lamenting the stagnant state of tourism in the country. Thanks to the regular lengthy reports by the electronic media from many beautiful sites, the sector appears to have undergone a rejuvenation of sorts. Apart from the frequently visited locations, these media outlets took the viewers to sites less visited and mostly unheard-of. The continued increase in tourism in the country also brings into wider focus the issue of maintaining ecological balance and promoting biodiversity. These are two global imperatives in the context of different types of tourism activities. In accordance with these environment-related prerequisites, the concept of eco-tourism is turning out to be a feature characterising the tourism industry around the world.

Bangladesh is a small country. It may not have the numerous tourism marvels like found in many countries. Yet blissfully, this South Asian country has shares of almost all the gifts of nature. Except deserts and oases, it can boast of its rivers, deep forests and hills, massive water bodies, sea beaches and islands and lots of other manifestations of nature. This very fact calls for awareness of environmental health on the part of the increasing number of tourists.

The trend of going to nature-blessed places has been picking up for quite some time. Photo features in the print media and live telecasts continue to woo prospective tourists. Thanks to the rise in people seeking breaks from monotony and their earning now more than before, the country's domestic tourism has in the recent times witnessed a new breed of tourists. They comprise the middle class, educated and mostly based in large cities. Starting with Cox's Bazar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), they eventually fan out to the remote and lesser known spots. While the general masses continue to litter and pollute an otherwise idyllic site, a considerable number of the new-generation environmentally aware tourists prompt eco-tour operators to hope for a new chapter in the country's tourism. But benighted as we are in many respects, large volumes of tourism potential go to the waste. This is painful. 

Unlike in many other regional countries, Bangladeshi tourists do not wait for the onset of a particular season for going out. It also applies to the country's new breed of tourists. They do not normally wait for special holidays or a suitable weather. The most remarkable aspect of Bangladesh tourism is its fledgling trend. Tourism in the country today owes a lot to the middle-class tourists. The sudden spurt in the number of these and other tourists has begun prompting unsavoury realities. They comprise frenzied rush to certain irresistible spots, ignorance about the need for keeping the sites clean so that the future visitors can tour the areas comfortably. A distressing trend sharply distinguishes these burgeoning numbers of tourists. It is their complete apathy towards enhancing the tour sites' ecological soundness. The oldest of the country's tourist attractions --- Cox's Bazar, has lately begun demonstrating a dingy, as well as ugly, look. The whole environment presents a polluted ambience. The marine blue Bay of Bengal with its long sandy beach has been relegated to a humdrum place on the list of the country's attractions. After short strolls along the beach interspersed with dives into onrushing waves, the average tourists go for shopping. Open-air or makeshift stall-based markets selling trinkets, showpieces etc attract many. Given the stifling crowd getting thicker against the backdrop of high-rise hotels on the edge of the beach, the aesthetically disposed tourists are compelled to leave the scene. On being disillusioned with Cox's Bazar, lots of them head for Kuakata, the country's other long beach in Patuakhali district. The scene there is not encouraging either.

The chief problem with this spot is its haphazardly built infrastructure. Compared to Cox's Bazar, it's being developed in a crude manner. It's only recently that residential hotels began to come up in Kuakata. Nonetheless, tourists have lately begun swarming on the beach. Litters are found scattered everywhere.  Due to the absence of hills and forests, nature-loving tourists lose interest in the place soon after they arrive here.

Like countries with non-archaeological sites around the world, Bangladesh, too, has lately attached importance to the maintenance of ecological balance at spots rich with the gifts of nature. But challenges lie ahead. For example, reckless and noisy visits to the once-sylvan green hills at the CHT have largely robbed it of its ecological treasure --- and also of its biodiversity. At the same time, tour operators began a desperate search for newer spots. It ended with the discovery of the St Martin's Island on the Bay, 38 kilometres south of Teknaf under Cox's Bazar district. But before it emerged as a bustling tourist spot, the island remained almost inaccessible. It took many years before St Martin's occupied a major place on the list of tourist spots.  In the late 1980s, small groups of daredevil youths would be seen embarking on hazardous trips across the sea to reach the tiny island. The island was mostly inhabited by fishing communities and small farmers. There were no hotels, boarding-houses and even rundown restaurants. For people used to comfortable sleeping facilities, it was a challenging task to visit a place with no arrangement of passing the night. Before setting out for the island on mostly improvised trawlers, the desperate people thus would have to make sure that they will return to Teknaf before sunset. Owing to the perilous journey by sea for 2/3 hours and lack of facilities to pass the night, even many hardened adventure-tourists thought twice before starting for the charming coral island. It took nearly two decades before a couple of small ships started ferrying tourists between Teknaf and St Martin's. In the interregnum, a number of ferry ships had to quit business due to dearth of enough tourists even during the peak season of tour --- winter.

The more than one thousand-year-old island's scenario has changed stunningly in the last 15 years. In describing the site's present condition, orthodox environmentalists place it among the world's most biodiversity-rich tourist spots now on the verge virtual extinction. These days, around 10 to 12 thousand domestic tourists arrive in St Martn's aboard 6/8 ships daily --- especially during winter. Most of them belong to the middle and upper-middle classes. Compared to the time when even the most hardy youths dared not pass the night on the island due to lack of arrangements, there are now more than 100 well furnished hotels/motels on the small island. Too many fun-loving tourists romping throughout the spot give the solitude-loving people a feeling of being stifled.

Once filled with coral reefs and submerged pieces of rock along the beaches, the island had long been native to bushes of 'Keya', different types of small and tall coconut trees, and wild plants and weeds. Besides the unbearable jostling, shouts and yells, almost the whole island reeks of discarded food refuse, and garbage. Few of the tourists visiting the island have any idea that the government in 1999 declared the St Martin's an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA). It meant all activities harming the area's water, earth, air and wildlife would be considered unlawful. According to the latest study, the island is home to 68 kinds of corals. Besides, there are numerous types of crabs, moss, snails, turtles, clam and cowries. St Martin's Island is rich with more than 100 species of birds. Five types of dolphin have added to the island's wide biodiversity.

Extinction stalks the whole gamut of these flora and fauna.

That mere pressure of frenzied tourists will cause a biodiversity-rich island to become bereft of its thousand-year-old organic resources speaks of extreme nonchalance. A section of environmental experts have already come up with bleak predictions: St Martin's Island will be doomed for good if the frenetic crowd cannot be reined in. The relevant ministry is concerned too. It has decided to fix a certain time of the year when a specific number of people can visit the island. Moreover, a ban will be slapped on overnight stay on the island. Environmental activists feel there should not be any foot-dragging in the implementation of these critical decisions. Increase in domestic tourism at the expense of ecological balance leads to sheer inanities.


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