If Robert Frost, the man who wrote “Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the one less travelled by”, was looking for a modern holiday destination, he may have considered a trip to Bangladesh.
There is a sense of status when travelling in Bangladesh, of a high place in the pecking order of intrepid travellers. In a world of cheap airfares and a plethora of resorts, those who dare to travel around Bangladesh are communicating that they shun the world of mass market packaged tourism. They are the rebels of the tourist trail.
The data analysis group Priceonomics, engaged by the World Bank, has studied statistics about numbers of tourists per head of population and found Bangladesh as the “least touristy” destination in the world. By this term, the group says Bangladesh and other countries in the top ten, such as Moldova, Sierra Leone or Papua New Guinea, are destinations where you are least likely to encounter tourists from other country.
It was this long realised trend that sparked a recent slogan for Bangladesh’s tourism industry: “Visit Bangladesh, before the tourists come.” The originator of that slogan, Geeteara Chowdhury, an entrepreneur who also owns a tea plantation in Sylhet, told The Guardian that the line came to her as she lazily walked the serene surrounds of Cox’s Bazaar, the longest beach in the world, to find that there were very few people there. But she also lamented that, unfortunately, tourists are yet to visit the place.
An obvious market to tap is the Bangladeshi diaspora and it is exactly this group being targeted by Yasmin Chowdhury, a British woman of Bangladeshi origin. Having barely taken an interest in the birthplace of her parents, the death of her father a decade ago aroused a wish to reconnect with her heritage, which she did through her organisation, Love-Desh. It aims to help diaspora Bangladeshis travel to their ancestral home.
Interestingly, one of the biggest barriers she faces is the perception of people; but it’s not the perceived notion of natural disasters, poverty or Islamist violence that she’s talking about. The perceptions she has to fight are the childhood experiences of travelling in Bangladesh that her target market have, that of endless visits to relatives, being force fed mountains of food and sweets they didn’t like and encountering unwanted marriage proposals. This has left an association of stifling boredom that detracts them from viewing the country as a tourist destination.
This is a shame, because the behaviour is at odds with a growing interest among the diaspora in reconnecting with their roots. They are more likely to channel this interest through sponsoring a child through an aid organisation or attending a protest about exploited labour in garment factories. They want to feel good about themselves via doing good.
In a world of hollowed out identities, particularly in the post-religious societies of the Western world, a key place for people to identify a sense of authenticity is their feelings. If there is one thing Bangladesh has, it is authenticity – of a rawness of human emotion and experience. I remember my own wife’s evolving reaction when she visited my ancestral village in Jessore from recognising that the stares of locals towards her tall, Caucasian features was not in fact rude, but an expression of their own curiosity, vulnerability and ultimately, affection.
While many Bangladeshis are embarrassed and tired of images of poverty and despair that is so often associated with the nation, an element of this – if channelled towards the urge of many Westerners to do good as part of them acquiring greater meaning in their lives – has the potential to attract travellers.
Mikey Leung, the author of a travel guide for Bangladesh who did aid work in Dhaka with his Australian wife, says target markets of expatriate foreigners living in Dhaka and latter generations of Bangladeshis living in the West are untapped markets. They may travel to Bangladesh in the same way they might consume other products – with a view to communicate their identity to the outside world.
Those who see themselves as rebels shunning modern materialism or wanting to exhibit their sense of moral stature by helping the downtrodden will naturally be attracted to Bangladesh as part of communicating their self image.
During a government funded trip for international journalists in 2011, my colleagues and I were taken to the tea gardens in Sylhet, and the Cox’s Bazaar beach by public sector officials. The foreign journalists were impressed by the natural beauty of the country, but also frustrated by the poor infrastructure, political turmoil- there was a day of hartal during our four day trip – and a lack of understanding of Western needs and comforts. These barriers are likely to improve only with greater numbers of tourists engaging and changing the operators.
Tourism has the potential to modify some of Bangladesh’s greatest challenges – an economy heavily dependent on remittances and garments, poor international perceptions and a greater people to people engagement with a large, wealthy diaspora. But the challenges remain profound.
The writer is a psychiatrist and author based in Australia, and founder of the website bddiaspora.com.