Bangladesh will face a huge transformation when it moves out of the UN-designated least developed country categorisation. This means Bangladesh will become a ‘developing country’ by UN definition. The country will stop receiving the privileges, such as in export markets, that many less developed economies obtain from advanced economies. Similarly, international aid money will diminish. All this combined will undoubtedly impact the lives of average Bangladeshis.

While in transition, Bangladesh’s economy needs new opportunities and to cultivate new sectors. With this in mind, the tourism sector can play a seismic role. Tourism is a silent influencer. It contributes 4.4% to Bangladesh’s economy and creates 3.9% of all jobs. The sector is led by small businesses, which make up 80% of the sector.

The community tourism research imperative

To understand the potential in Bangladesh, pilot research was conducted on tourism, a vulnerable yet promising sector in the country.[1] The idea was to explore solutions for leveraging tourism as a source of economic growth. The research zoomed into community-based tourism in Tangail, a district in central Bangladesh, a day’s drive from the capital Dhaka.

There is a reason why Tangail was selected. Tangail has marketable local products, tourist sites and good infrastructure. Tangail’s cottage industries produce saree (the ethnic women’s clothing of choice) and sweetmeats (the most popular desserts in the country, locally known as mishti). The area also has many zamindar houses, which are historic mansions formerly owned by the colonial-era feudal lords.

Formal tourism is usually costly, less accessible for cost-conscious Bangladeshis.

Data from social media hits say that 90,000 people have visited the feudal mansions since 2017. Visitors in loom saree production cottages are on the rise. It must be noted that all this has happened in a very organic and unplanned way.

Formal tourism is usually costly, less accessible for cost-conscious people. It is a professionalised corporation industry. In other words, it is typically not run by locals. Community-based tourism is different. Its main purpose is to improve the lives and perceptions of a community. It is rooted in respect for cultural differences while also generating an income for the locals.

Local disconnect

The research revealed that the tourism sector value chain was largely disintegrated. The main ingredients that make a destination touristy were not in sync. Sight-seeing spots, food, tour guides, local products and transport were not readily accessible to tourists. For example, tourists are unable to find restaurants or tour guides near popular sightseeing destinations. Similarly, there was no locally available quality transport. In short, there was a delink between tourism and the local community.

This was the common finding from the famous feudal mansion Mohera Zamindar Bari, Pathrail market for loom sarees and sweetmeat sellers of Porabari area. All this acts as a disincentive for tourists, creating an income loss for the local community. There is no policy on the participation or employment of local people in the tourism process.

Food-centric actions

Tourists in Bangladesh’s Tangail region face a food crisis. Although there are many local restaurants in the local market, these are not tourist-friendly. Rural women in Bangladesh typically do not go to restaurants; this is also the case in Tangail. As such, restaurants do not cater to women. This has an adverse effect on tourism. Women tourists particularly do not feel comfortable in restaurants.

In Bangladesh, hygiene is a big challenge for community-based tourism. Local food vendors need to sell tourist-friendly food that is hygienic. Unfortunately, this aspect is missing. Bangladesh’s tourism agency or local governments could adopt job-creating policies on hygiene training in tourist clusters. This process would boost community-level food business.

Restaurants are not of a good standard because they do not have money to invest. Similarly, there are no standard hotels. There are two ways to solve this problem. First, locals with financial resources can invest in these businesses. Second, community tourism-targeted SME loans can be provided via policy actions. A good system will be a shot in the arm for tourism in the community.

Revamping local transport

Most visitors in Tangail are domestic Bangladeshi tourists, from the capital city of Dhaka. These tourists travel via buses or rented cars. There are also some unregulated tour operators providing rented vehicles to tours. But none of these businesses are local. Local transport businesses cater to the everyday needs of the local people. They do not have access to tourist service networks.

Most visitors in Tangail are domestic Bangladeshi tourists, from the capital city of Dhaka.

There is a big market mismatch here because renting a car locally would be cheaper for tourists. Additionally, local drivers can be hired as guides (they just need a little training). This process would save both human resources and money.

Cost-sensitive tourists from Dhaka take buses to Tangail because the fares are low. But it is difficult for them to get around once they reach Tangail. Local three-wheelers like rickshaws and auto-rickshaws (known as CNGs) are more affordable than cars. Unfortunately, they are not well linked with the tourist channels. They could easily provide packaged day tours to the local market, a few sight-seeing spots and a village. This strategy would also generate money for the low-income groups.

Tourist-friendly local haat-bazaars

‘Haat bazaars,’ shortened as ‘haats,’ are weekly village markets in rural Bangladesh. Local haats are quite foreign even to Bangladeshis living in cities. Bangladesh’s second largest haat, Kortia Haat, is in Tangail (next to Mohera feudal mansion). Here, various locally produced products, including loom saree, are sold. Buyers from across Bangladesh come here to purchase products at low prices.

In the case of Tangail, haats could become a part of the tour itinerary. But the haats need to be upgraded. If the haats in these tourist spots are equipped with basic facilities (like restrooms), people would go there with enthusiasm. This strategy could be applied across Bangladesh.

Study tours and homestay programmes

In Bangladesh, traditionally sarees are a cottage industry product, with handlooms used by professionals at community level. The art of weaving sarees is slowly dying because of new technologies. But this heritage has its own charm. Tangail is a hotspot for this. To immortalise this saree-weaving process, the weavers need to be linked with the modern urban fashion industry.

Student visits to grassroots weaving communities, such as Tangail in Bangladesh, could enrich the global discourse on fast fashion.

There are many universities, including in Bangladesh, that have fashion design/tech programmes. A collaboration could be forged between these institutes and the weavers, whereby students can carry out field trips to places like Tangail. They can experience homestays in the community to learn saree-making. This is a win-win collaboration for the fashion institutes and the communities. The biggest advantage will be the mass dissemination of saree-making knowledge to young people. The weaving process will also gain academic recognition, which will make it visible in the fashion industry. Student visits to grassroots weaving communities, such as Tangail in Bangladesh, could enrich the global discourse on fast fashion.

Conclusion

The findings from the Tangail community tourism industry are a case in point for the tourism sector across Bangladesh. Both the potential and the lessons are pertinent. The Tangail case shows that the local population does not participate in tourist activities in general. There is no coordination with other stakeholders, including tour operators. Nonetheless, tourists are going to the attraction spot, which represents a business opportunity.

Policy research is needed to foster innovative initiatives like community-based tourism across the country. Bangladeshi policymakers need to realise that such initiatives create good jobs at the grassroots.

Developing community tourism will need stakeholder coordination. Bangladesh’s go-to regulatory agencies for this will be the Tourism Corporation and the Archaeology Department (both housed under the tourism ministry). Additionally, local government bodies and traditional product manufacturers are direct stakeholders. Community-level products (such as sarees and sweetmeats in Tangail) will be a major attraction for any tourist. Here, the local government of the specific tourist area can play a facilitating role.

Bangladesh needs to think holistically about developing community tourism. Issues such as business efficiency and environmental sustainability will be at the core of any community tourism strategy.

 

[1]  This writeup is repurposed from a qualitative study in 2021. The research was funded by Accelerator lab and UNDP. It involved in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with key stakeholders from Bangladesh’s tourism sector: government officials, academics, entrepreneurs and tourists. The aim was to explore economic activities for the local community and experiences of tourists.

 

Cover: A weaver is creating an intricate design on a traditional tant saree, Tangail, Bangladesh, June 2018 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Ranjan Saha Partha is a professor at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. He is an academic. He was a consultant at UNDP, HEKS/EPER, the World Bank, JICA, BRAC, BLAST, Christian Aid, Fugro Germany Land GmbH and UGC Bangladesh. He was a visiting professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Japan. He specialises in rural society, tourism and youth employment. He pursued his doctoral studies in anthropology at Hiroshima University, Japan.