Some time ago, I posted about what to do in Bangladesh. Of course, that was addressed to diaspora kids (at heart, if not literally). Dhaka Shohor’s adventures made me think about the subject again, with foreigners rather than Deshis in mind. What would I suggest to any foreign friend?
I’ve played host to Desi friends in the past. I had taken them to the historically relevant places in and around Dhaka — Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil, Shaheed Minar and the National Memmorial, Dhaka University and Ramna, Liberation War Museum and Dhanmondi 32. I had taken them to the eateries — Nirob Hotel and New Market, Star and Razzaque. I had even bought them Economist from the footpath.
Had they stayed longer, I’d probably recommend them Sylhet, Chittagong Hills, and the Sunderbans.
And I would try to organise a crossing of the Padma or Jamuna during a full moon.
But what about if I was advising a Firangi friend? Why would any westerner want to go to Bangladesh?
Here is the official version:
But I am not sure if Firangi tourists really care about this stuff. So there is a long beach. Big deal. There is nothing to do in Cox’s Bazaar! There is the Sunderbans, but you can get a better experience in West Bengal — trust me, I’ve been two both sides. Lalbagh Fort or Paharpur or old mosques — India and Pakistan have better preserved, more famous, older ruins. As for the more recent history, Desis (from either India or Pakistan) may have personal attachments, but why would the average westerner care about how brown men killed other brown men and women brutally?
Kristin Boekhoff nails it, and also provides a solution. (Hat tip: Obaidul H).
When I first started talking about my project, most people didn’t get it. They wondered why I wasn’t developing in Cox’s Bazar and couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to put televisions in my rooms. The idea of creating a quiet place by a river where families could go, relax, reflect, and enjoy each other’s company was as foreign as I was. At the time the posters advertising tourism in Bangladesh were covered with photos of the Jamuna
Bridge. Everyone was talking about ‘the world’s longest sea beach’ without realizing that the while the beach in Cox’s Bazar may be the biggest, it is not the prettiest, nor is it attractive to foreigners who would prefer to spend their holidays taking photographs instead of being photographed themselves. I went to meetings with government officials and potential investors and tried to explain that the real draw of Bangladesh to a foreigner isn’t its beach or its few small archaeological sites, but the fact that it is the world’s largest river delta and that the people who have built homes and families on the banks of these byzantine waterways are some of the most naturally hospitable people in the world. In Bangladesh a foreigner can still have an authentic travel experience because the people here are authentic. They still live in mud homes, use water buffalo to plant their fields, and grind spices by hand.
Fortunately, in the past five years more Bangladeshis have realized the potential of the natural beauty of their country and the value of relaxation. As the traffic in Dhaka has gotten worse, the demand for yoga classes, spas, and nature hikes have increased. Several new eco-resorts are under development and many non-profit organizations have been created to protect the country’s natural heritage.
The pastoral countryside will ultimately be a draw for foreign visitors, but Bangladesh’s first tourist market will be the people who already live here, primarily the burgeoning middle-class. These educated people of increasing means are also seeking safe, clean places to take their families. While trips abroad are attractive to them, higher costs, difficulties in obtaining visas, and a desire to give their city-born children a ‘gramer bari’ (‘village home’) experience will make local destinations attractive to them.
Though my target market is affluent travellers, they too will primarily be Bangladeshis and the expatriates who live in Dhaka. I have seen grown Bangladeshi men in business suits strip down to lungis and jump in my river. There is something about returning to the countryside that restores the joy of youth and the excitement of discovery. Complex problems and technological distractions fade away and are replaced by the simple pleasures of evening boat rides, great conversation, and the amazement of spotting a rare butterfly. While the city of Dhaka is harsh and chaotic with the sights, sounds, and smells of a developing industrial city, Bangladesh’s countryside is a tropical haven that even many of the native city-dwellers have forgotten about.
And I suspect that if this idea takes off, we will see many East Asian tourists visiting rice fields that their own countries had no so long ago.
Meanwhile, for my next trip home, it will be the book shops of New Market that will do the trick.