Eco-tourism: Opportunity for environment conservation and regional cooperation
Mohiuddin Babar

Eco-tourism could be boon for the region to alleviate poverty to a greater scale while at the same time, allow it to uncover its real resources-- the geographic splendours of rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, forests, animal reserves and sea beaches.

More importantly, development of eco-tourism shall strike a balance between conservation of environment and economic and social development.

Global tourism galore is likely to witness a shift from the traditional inquisitiveness of the tourists in watching the Taj Mahal in India, Pyramids in Egypt, Great Wall in China, Leaning Tower in Italy, Eiffel Tower in France, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and several other monuments of great historic significance. While certainly tourists will keep on flocking around these breath-taking spots, declaration of the current year by WTO as the Eco-Tourism Year shall instill a new wave of interest among them to seek new destinations.

After a short lull following the September 11 episode in the USA, global tourist movement has been on the ascending track again. The tourist flow maintained its healthy magnitude in the Asian region though the Afghanistan war and tension between India and Pakistan had enough potentials to scrap it down significantly. In the South Asian region particularly, tourism industry is ever vibrant and growing steadily. Besides the traditional destinations like Nepal, Thailand, China, India, Singapore and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have registered an increase in tourist inflow recently.

With the WTO declaration of 2002 as the Eco-Tourism Year, it is expected that tourist flow into the south and south east Asian region shall gear up significantly. Besides having vast unexplored natural settings all across this region, massive infrastructure development in many countries is bound to prop up the inflow of tourists mainly from the North America and Europe. They would like to be ensured of such basic facilities like smooth accessibility, sufficient and standard accommodation and above all, peaceful socio-political atmosphere.

The entire expanse of south and south east Asian region is full of geographic diversities. Edged by the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean on one side and covered by long stretches of mountainous ranges and thick forests on the other, this region holds scintillating natural spectacles. It also has pristine lakes, quiet valleys and wide stretches of reserves with rare species.

It is absolutely undeniable that tourism is the single largest productive sector in today's world. It is a sector that is closely related to aviation, hotel industry, domestic transport facilities, food industry, and even to small manufacturing like production of handicrafts. As a whole, it employs, directly or indirectly, about 11 per cent of the world's total workforce. Furthermore, besides being a key stimulator of national economies in many countries, tourism has been the major foreign exchange earner for many.

Eco-tourism may be a new paradigm but it has enormous potential to invigorate new dynamism in the sector. It merits special significance in the backdrop of growing concern about environment which digs deep into several human activities that have harmed the ecological balance of our planet. Through eco-tourism, no doubt, a substantial contribution can be made in not only supplementing the efforts to safeguard ecological treasures but intensify massive small scale infrastructure and industrial development leading to the creation of widespread employment opportunities. This will also invigorate sustainable development.

For Bangladesh, it should be a matter of great opportunity to develop its tourism sector which unfortunately has been at low ebb and could not be any significant contributory factor for our national development so far.

Bangladesh is blessed with a topographical structure which has several characteristics to be tapped for substantial economic benefits. It has the sea front, largest mangrove forest, hills and lakes, etc. Many other countries do have similar natural treasures and many have brought those to their socio economic benefits. In our case, unfortunately, we could not exploit these for our good.

While the theme of eco-tourism is bound to nourish competitiveness among many countries, Bangladesh should seize the opportunity to make a massive projection of its eco-treasures, particularly the Sundarbans and the quiet valleys in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. At the same time, there must be pragmatic efforts to complete certain basic infrastructures at the shortest possible time to enable the tourists be assured of such primary needs. For example, accessibility to the Sundarbans still depends on riverine vessels. While many tourists would like to have a riverine trip, appropriate vessels have not been in sight. Only a couple of small scale private enterprises are currently engaged in such endeavours. This could be stimulated by encouraging more private enterprises to come to this sector whence competitiveness shall bring in great improvement in the standard of services which have been witnessed in the case of long haul road transports in the country over the last few years.

Along with this, a small air strip should be built in the periphery of the Sundarbans, suitably at Satkhira or Mongla, to facilitate air link with Dhaka and Chittagong. Moreover, this air strip could be used for encouraging aerial tours over the Sundarbans, much like the one done in Nepal to have such trips over the Himalayas.

In the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the opportunities are limitless. It only needs a pragmatic approach to develop certain infrastructure facilities. In today's world of market economy, a wise step could be to allow foreign investment in developing such infrastructure. Malaysia has implemented a mammoth development in its tourism industry, particularly in developing her ample eco-tourism spots which were in decaying or uncared stages only few years back. Today, the country is not only having a huge earning from these but that the projects have enabled the preservation of many endangered forest and woodlands.

While most of the countries in the region have many similarities in geographic structures, there are many contrasts too. These could be exploited through a web of cooperation for regional tourism and its development. While there are placid hills and mountains in Bhutan, Nepal and India, there are the forests and long stretch of sea-beaches in Bangladesh. For any nature-wandering tourist from Europe or North America or even Japan and Australia, a visit to all these through a single package deal could bring in boon.

With their foreign exchange earnings normally pegged to foreign aid and small scale exportables, countries in the region could do better under an umbrella of cooperation for tourism development. While they could develop the needed infrastructure either themselves or through joint ventures or through international assistance, on the part of making promotions they could achieve better results in making concerted efforts.

Despite having enough potentials, south Asian region has failed to make any limelight in global tourism. Most of the countries are reeling with acute poverty precipitated with unabated unemployment, low rate of literacy, poor infrastructure development and so forth. However, the region is rich in nature treasures and interestingly, these are widely diversified. In the interest of eco-tourism, these hold the key for excellent rewards provided proper harnessing is done. It could be boon for the region to alleviate poverty to a greater scale while at the same time, allow it to uncover its real resources the geographic splendours of rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, forests, animal reserves and sea beaches. More importantly, development of eco-tourism shall strike a balance between conservation of environment and economic and social development.


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 1, 2002


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