Thursday, April 9, 2009

Life Back at the Computer

The journey home to the United States went smoothly via Dubai. Though it takes over 30 hours on the return, a rest stop at a nice hotel in the Dubai airport, including a spa with jacuzzi and sauna definitely makes this trip more enjoyable!

The team in Bangladesh has now submitted all of the completed data sheets and notes for the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats study in the Sundarbans Reserve Forest, and I am already hard at work preparing the report. The revised Teknaf Peninsula Strategy will also be produced for our team by the end of April.

There is alot to do to create a more sustainable set of circumstances for the management of ecotourism in Bangladesh. Detailed action steps will be provided as an addendum to the revised Teknaf Strategy, as part of my report. With this information, the local team should have the appropriate tools to begin the real work!

For now, I will discontinue the blog as I write up all the results and provide the action plan. This blog will come alive again when action begins. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Traditional Boats of Bangladesh

Our team visited master boat maker, Yves Marr, today. Yves' story is unique. He flew over Bangladesh in an airplane when working for Air France, and decided this watery delta would be the destination for his latest adventure - in a life dedicated to exploring the world by boat. He arrived in 1994 in a boat he had built himself in France. Just when he was in striking territory, a cyclone was slamming the eastern region of the country near Chittagong. So he piloted his boat into the safety of the Sunderbans mangrove system, on the west side of the Bay of Bengal. There he saw for the first time the most remarkable diversity of traditional boats on earth. Yves was dumbstruck but quickly came to learn that traditional boat makers were disappearing and that this unique world heritage was slipping away. Few would have understood the importance of this cultural resource. But Yves did, and as a result he never left Bangladesh. He fell in love with and married a Bengali woman and has since devoted much of his time to preserving traditional boats and the craftsmen who still design them by eye to perfection.

We visited his boat yard today and traveled in the smaller boat he crafted for day trips. Yves successfully launched a beautiful museum exhibition on the traditional boats of Bangladesh in 2005, which was displayed in Dhaka and is now touring Europe. To his immense surprise, Orson Welles did a documentary on sail boats around the world, and a big portion of the documentary was shot in Bangladesh. The film is now part of the exhibition.

His current plan is to create a museum of traditional boats, with a working boatyard on the property with boats under construction by traditional boat makers at all times. We toured the boats that are presently in his inventory including this remarkable shampan - a large ocean cruising boat that he and his team built from scratch based on the memories of boat makers, as the craft has disappeared from use. The name Shampan is derived from the Chinese boat name, sampan. Before European arrival, Dhaka and the delta were influenced by both Arabian and Chinese boatmaking styles. On our visit to the Sundarbans we encountered smaller river going shampans, but the ocean going craft has disappeared.

The opportunity to discuss boat making with such a master made for a great afternoon. He explained his new approach - reproducing traditional styles with fiberglass. He is no longer able to maintain the full size historical craft, as it takes immense amounts of costly labor. Instead, he will create molds of the traditional styles and preserve the heritage in fiberglass. Naval architects are also creating a digital archive of the traditional designs, as the boat builders simply bend the boards to their needs by eye and practice without any written record.

Our hope is to work with Yves on creating a new ocean going replica for cruising along the Teknaf Peninsula.

Today is my last day in country, and our core team traveled to Yves' boat yard for this last mini-field trip. In this picture, Nasim, Zahangir, myself, and Sumaiya gathered for a group shot. We have created a strong camradrie after many days traveling in remote parts of Bangladesh together. We met many people throughout our journeys, like Yves, who strongly support our mission to conserve natural areas and benefit local people through ecotourism.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sundarbans Wildlife

The SWOT team has now completed our survey work of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for tourism in the Sundarbans Reserve of Bangladesh. Two days were spent on local boats, called Joly Boats in areas near the port of Mongla, where local people primarily visit. The small Forest Post of Krimangal is the home of a breeding center of the endangered saltwater crocodile. We observed the feeding of the captive breeders, Romeo and Juliet - so named by their croc manager. Romeo is pictured here. The post suffers from serious over visitation and problems with management of tourism, which we documented.

We moved on to observe the Katka area via a Sunderbans Guide Tours boat, hosted by its owner Hasan Mansur. We were very grateful to him for accompanying our team as we observed the management issues related to this popular point, where many overnight ships visit. Here we were able to observe the Spotted Dear in some abundance. According to an IUCN study there are over 6000 deer in this area, making tasty prey for the resident Bengal Tiger. According to the same study, this is the area of highest density for the tiger populations in the reserve, but they thankfully concentrate on eating the deer, and there are no incidents of man eating in this area.

Men were cutting thatch in this area for roofing for their houses with permits from the Forest Department.














Yesterday, we traveled to Burigoalini by car to visit Kolagachia Forest Post, which has a lovely trail on raised mud paths in the flooded forest, teaming with wildlife even in the hot, mid-day sun. This owl was observed in close quarters, much to our surprise.



The honey collectors were gathering in this area, for their annual,highly dangerous journey into the forests in this Western region of the reserve. On April 1, they race into the forest by boat on inauguration day of the harvest season. Honey collector teams were practicing their racing skills as we passed heading into the reserve. Last year nearly 1500 individuals entered for honey collection, on 191 boats. Over 30 were killed by tigers. This dangerous profession continues to attract the collectors, as the Sundarbans honey is considered to be some of the best in the world. Our team interviewed a Sundarbans honey vendor who was financing the honey collectors and profiting with approximately $8000 in sales from the collection after expenses.

Our data, now completed, will be written up in April and provided to the Forest Department, Department of Environment, and Fisheries and other opinion leaders who are seeking to improve livelihoods for the Sundarbans "stakeholders" who use the forest for a wide variety of livelihoods. As opposed to my notes earlier,there are no communities living within the boundaries of the reserve. All are outside, but it is estimated that nearly 1 million intrepid souls enter the reserve for wood, honey, thatch and other resources supporting as many as 3 million people all dependent on the Sundarbans for their livelihoods. Tourism will be a very small part of the solution and planning program - as the need for investment in tourism planning and management must precede further tourism development throughout this region.

But our data process enabled a team of 9 Bengalis to come to a much greater understanding of how tourism planning and research takes place. This is a genuine investment in the future of tourism planning in Bangladesh, and our team did an outstanding job!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sunderbans Local Community

A team of 10 ecotourism researchers has arrived in the Sunderbans to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis of tourism in the Sunderbans. A group with varying skills and levels has been quickly trained into an outstanding team. Each day data is collected in field locations with different objectives via a survey instrument I devised using World Tourism Organization indicators.

We visited Chadpai yesterday, where we saw hundreds of men and women collecting shrimp larvae for middlemen who purchase the fry for shrimp farmers. The collection is an illegal activity in the Sunderbans Reserve.

All the community members in this region are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, either shrimp fry collection or illegal wood harvest. The team interviewed community members who derive some extra income from tourism: a banana retailer, van driver, pharmacist, and others. The team agrees based on our data that ecotourism is an activity that increases local income and provides a real option for these people who rely totally on illegal resource harvest for their livelihoods. Some had not eaten recently. There has been no training as yet and no effort to bring more formal tourism approaches to this area.

While tourism cannot be the only answer for these disenfranchised people, our team agreed the potential to assist with more tourism income generation was high.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wedding

The bride and groom were in full bloom at the wedding reception of Bristy and Shohag, whom I met on the Teknaf Peninsula. They own the Mermaid Cafe and Ecolodge already a legend and a unique example for this country. I found them via Lonely Planet, and since have stayed at their lodge. We shared many animated conversations since about the importance of ecotourism for Bangladesh. They immediately joined our effort to develop the Teknaf sustainably and introduced me to a wide range of intriguing friends.

This warm family embraced my team into their celebration, and the evening was full of opporutnities to enjoy this meaningful moment with members of their family. We joined hundreds at the ceremony in Dhaka.



After the bride and groom arrived, they invited friends and family members to join them for photographs, so I was able to sit with Bristy, while friends Bob and Emily took some photos for this blog.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ecotourism Team Maps Trek in Bangladesh

An American Bengali team were the first to map a trek across the remote Teknaf Peninsula. Following local paths, the team was easily able to develop a new ecotourism adventure that will bring excitement to the plan to develop community-based nature tourism to the Teknaf Peninsula

Departing at 7AM, the team viewed wild Asian elephant on the hillside above the trek's starting point. They were distant, but their dusty backs and trunks were clearly evident. These elephant are a remnant population, and highly endangered. Elephants are the most important megafauna remaining on the Teknaf, living in the wild in the central foothills. The elephant is of high conservation importance, as they are considered to be endangered both within their total range in Asia, and in Bangladesh.

Tigers which once roamed wild on the Teknaf, are now without habitat. Experts say it is possible they could repopulate the area, via existing wildlife corridors, if the region were re-forested with native flora and wildlife species.


This beautiful forest was in the eastern Naf Watershed near the entrance to the reserve.


The trek included walks through canyon like areas as the team followed several river beds, making the trek only feasible in the dry season. Higher ground routes will be possible, for trekkers interested in more rigorous adventures.



On arrival at the beach we spent time with the local fishing communities to learn more about their livelihood. We were very surprised to learn that already 25% of the land had been purchased by local speculators interested in developing beach hotels, and we even met some business men looking at land. The area is relatively accessible from the village of Teknaf, and so we learned that a land grab is already underway on the beach side of the peninsula.




The opportunity to cross over a watershed, view elephants, and interact with the unique cultures on the Teknaf's enormous beach is world-class. The 140 plus classes of boats in Bangladesh have already been nominated for UNESCO world heritage status. The team is now working closely with Contic - the French Bengali company that has undertaken a full study of the traditions of boatmaking, with a boatyard in Dhaka where they continue to foster traditional boat crafting. We were able to look at the different style of Bengali boats on the beach this visit with repesentatives from Contic who are helping our team to evaluate tourism potential of the Teknaf.

The trek across the Teknaf was a resounding success. Community members who led the trek had only crossed the peninsula once or twice in their lives. Our team of natural resource, ecotourism, and community specialists will now incorporate the trek into the Teknaf Peninsula Community Based Ecotourism Strategy.

Given this area is highly endangered by rapid land speculation and an impending coastal road, the team is encouraging the development of an Ecotourism Management Plan with government involvement as soon as possible. Further meetings on this topic with high governmental officials are transpiring today.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fardeen Eco Cottage

I am sitting across from Teknaf Game Reserve at the dining table of the Fardeen Eco Cottage with Salahuddin and his brother Ziauddin as the sun sets with family and friends who are helping to expand their Eco-cottage. We plan to take a trek tomorrow across the peninsula led by Salahuddin, who has lived here all his life and presently runs the cottage and has trained as an eco-guide.

A team will be mapping the trek with GPS, as it is the first time it has been scouted for visitors to walk. There are wild elephant in the mountains and nearby. Elephants yesterday came very near Salahuddin's house and destroyed his banana tree. Some folks saw the elephants up in the mountains as well, near where we are hiking. We will be hiking with Forest Guards who do carry rifles just in case! But the idea is to try out the trail which crosses the peninsula and finishes up at the beach.

The distance is very easy, just 3 kilometers. But since the trail is not fully scouted we are giving all morning to the trek and leaving at 6AM. Other members of our team will be driving around to the very tip of the peninsula and coming to pick us up at Noon. We will all go up to see some coastal sites, including a waterfall, and visit some communities and then return to the eco-cottage tomorrow night.

It is an exciting day as Wasama has arrived as well from Contic, a wonderful boat building and tourism company. He is out now scouting boat launching sites, and we are all talking about combining the beautiful traditional boats his company builds for journeys on the Naf River with beach and forest trekking and wildlife watching. The Naf forms the border with Burma and flows south into the Bay of Bengal just east of where we are sitting.

Our team mapped all of the areas with tourism potential on our last visit, and we printed out very large GIS maps for this visit to review all the potential boating and hiking areas with local community members, private sector and government. We are already well underway with the vetting process having met with the private sector and government as well as local community and getting their endorsement to proceed.

The overall plan is to undertake an ecotourism management plan that would be bioregional and we are having meetings both at the local and national level about this. But for the next 2 days we are in the field scoping boating and trekking options. The whole community is very excited and so are we!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Workshop Trains Trainers in Ecotourism

We completed our Ecotourism Planning workshop today in Dhaka. Our group came from throughout the country and left with excitement and motivation to apply their skills. All have roles as enterprise development and site coordinators, each with responsibility for areas in buffer zones around key protected areas. Officials from the Forest and Fisheries Department also took part and there was excellent dialog regarding policy directions.

Our group is standing in front of the Forest Department offices in Dhaka where the workshop took place. I leave for the Teknaf Peninsula in the morning.

Monday, March 16, 2009

AlJazeera

The world of Dhaka has slowed down again with the lights flickering on and off with power outages a common plague to this rapidly growing city. Sitting in my hotel's simple dining room, we often just continue eating with the lights out at dinner time. It must be a time of surging peak power use. No one rushes to get candles. We just eat our food in the dark until the lights return. The management runs out to turn on the generator, but this only powers the television not the lights!

I am watching AlJazeera English a great deal while traveling in Bangladesh. It is by far the most comprehensive source of news, and I rate it more highly than CNN or BBC. The channel gives me a window on the world where people live outside of the major capitals of Europe and Asia. The reporters cover questions of life and death in countries we never hear about,like Malaysia or Laos. Pakistan is a main focus right now, as they fight over questions of justices on their supreme court. Gaza and its life there is a major focus, but there is a great deal of coverage of Israel as well. I just saw an excellent story on the election in El Salvador, where they just voted in the center left opposition party for the first time ever! It is so heartening to see genuine participation in new and legitimate governments who seek to serve the disenfranchised.

My work proceeds in an exciting way, with one day of ecotourism training completed for over 30 participants, all learning about questions of ecotourism planning and management virtually for the first time. I will be visiting two of the teams in the field. We head to the Teknaf on Wednesday and will be reviewing our strategy there, but also doing a field analysis - looking at a new trail, places for developing traditional boat itineraries, and a world class beach trek. Bangladesh was named as one of the top 10 new countries to visit in 2009 by Lonely Planet, and this is putting some wind in our sails!

I look forward to reporting from the Teknaf.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dhaka

Here in Dhaka, the city awakes at 5AM with the call to prayer. I am enraptured by these beautiful, haunting calls that reverberate throughout the city in a minor key that is so mournful. It sounds to me as if they are sung live with different verses and voices every morning on loud speakers throughout the city. It is a truly heart-rending call to the part of human nature that worships some greater power beyond our day to day existence. There is one mosque very close to my new hotel and the call to prayer is quite near.

The birds are very active. Dhaka is a city of rivers and the bird life is up early, singing, fishing, diving and generally calling out their presence before the city is awake.

It is a misty city with the transpiration of so much water rising in a slow foggy mist for hours. The sun is emerging above the foggy horizon, an orange ball striped with wisps of fog. Though it is now 6:30AM,this city of millions, in what some consider the most densely populated country in the world, is quiet! The birds rule the roost. Perhaps, the city's leafy northern reaches, where I am staying is quieter - after all I am at a nice hotel facing a small river with walking paths along it. But nonetheless in a megalopolis of this size, there should be a roar of traffic and horns. None.

One of the things Dhaka is famous for is its rickshaws. They crowd every street, and reduce the need for noisy, polluting cars. The country has also made some other extraordinary and surprising strides in environmental management. For example, they have banned plastic bags. Here in Dhaka all petrol and diesel vehicles are being replaced by cleaner, cheaper compressed natural gas vehicles. Fuel stations are apparently multiplying now throughout the country.

While this is a crowded city, with some very polluted water ways and poverty that some might find difficult, it retains a flavor of both the old and new. It is not one the shining new cities of Asia, but it is dignified, with some beautiful monuments, old castles, gardens, leafy streets, and a beautiful university campus. Does it have lots of traffic, certainly, but at this hour, just ten minutes before seven Dhaka is still quiet.

I have my windows open and there is actually a cool breeze, with a little help from my overhead fan. Sunday is a work day here, so the work begins for me today after a safe and uncomplicated journey to get here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day of Departure

Preparations for the 24 hour flight to Bangladesh seemed so much easier this time. The idea of doing an assignment with 3 weeks in country, 5-6 weeks back in the office, and 3 weeks in country again is working out beautifully! I needed only a few new items for the trip, a better bag for carrying my notebook, camera, and binoculars, some new long-sleeve shirts, and toothpaste. I am all packed!

In Bangladesh, I am excited to see all the action on the ground! The draft Teknaf Community-Based Nature Tourism Strategy is now being circulated to our leadership, and we have also sent it to a leading economist whom we collaborate with and the head of the most prominent tour operator, Guide Tours. I have invited both to speak at the workshop which will take place next Monday and Tuesday. Over 36 students are now enrolled and we expect more. I set a cap at 50.

The invitation lists for our stakeholder meetings on the Teknaf Peninsula came yesterday for my review. We are having one public meeting, for high ranking leadership in the tourism community, Forest Department, Department of Environment, and local municipal leaders on March 18, and a community based meeting the following day- with the heads of the Community Management Committee for the Teknaf Game Reserve. Our team will work closely with the high ranking leadership and communities to be sure our strategy is fine tuned to the needs of both groups.

Here at home, my friend Sue and I measured ourselves for some Salwar Kameezes! I bought two of these beautiful outfits in ready to wear stores in Dhaka on the last trip. Both are cotton, very breathable, lovely and so comfortable! So this time, I am going to a seamstress to have one more made for myself and for Sue! We should be real fashion plates this summer for events in Burlington!

I took my dog, Tucker for a long farewell walk this morning, did my workout, downloaded some new music for my ipod and an audiobook for the journey, and was fortunate to do a very engaging interview for a new ecotourism magazine being launched in Canada! The interview was great fun, the writers are both tourism academics with lots of experience in the field. We agreed so much that our field needs to grow and expand. It is my hope that more students and professionals will be trained in every aspect of developing ecotourism destinations in future.

This blog is an important way to get the word out on how important this profession is to countries, like Bangladesh. Will update the blog again from Dhaka!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rallying for Second Trip

All systems are go for a return to Bangladesh on March 12. A country clearance came only over the weekend. This is unusually late to get clearance, but there had been a rebellion in Bangladesh that caused a higher security alert throughout the country. The border guards murdered hundreds of their military superiors and then sought to escape. This was headline news on BBC and even appeared in my hometown newspaper. Fortunately, the new prime minister got control of the situation quickly and many of the perpetrators have been arrested. My colleagues in Dhaka were restricted to the diplomatic part of the city for almost week.

We were fairly certain that my clearance would come through, and the situation is now calm. I am preparing materials for our upcoming field trips and for a workshop.

The agenda is packed. A 2 day workshop is first up for all of the project's enterprise coordinators and for representatives of the Forest Service, Department of Environment and Fisheries.

Next our team heads to the Teknaf Peninsula where the draft strategy for community-based nature tourism will be presented. I have spent the last 4 weeks processing this, writing, reviewing maps, and agonizing over the approach. A field trip to the lower peninsula will allow us to map a promising cross-peninsula trail that will start from the Teknaf Game Reserve's main entrance to the wild, lower beaches on the west coast. A wonderful boating company, Contic, will be evaluating traditional boat journey options as part of our program.

The next week we head to the famed Sundarbans National Park. With a team of students from Bengali universities, we will be performing a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats Assessment of sustainable tourism in the park. The Sunderbans shelters the largest population of Bengal Tigers in the world and it is the world's largest wetland. A World Heritage Reserve it has attracted tourism in both India and Bangaldesh for decades. A variety of boat journeys are available to travel through this enormous mangrove. The reserve is also home for many farmers and settlers who plant their crops in this dangerous area. More local people are killed and eaten by tigers here than anywhere else in the world. Amazing stories of their bravery and efforts to repel the tigers abound. I am sure I will hear more. But I will be traveling on a boat, and it is very doubtful my team will see a tiger.

After these field trips. a return to Dhaka will be on the agenda with some meetings before return home by April 6.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Return home and write-up

The long journey to the U.S. and home is now complete!

Flying via Dubai, the transit through a variety of scenes and worlds is always of interest. From Dhaka to Dubai, I was virtually the only woman on board. All the passengers were Bengali men traveling to work in Dubai. A very quiet crowd with great decorum. The 15 hour flight out of Dubai to Washington,D.C., began at midnight, and we all slept a long time, but conversations started as we awoke. All the passengers in my area of the plane were traveling home from Baghdad. They were not military personnel, but rather private citizens working for contractors in Iraq. Interesting conversations - they all work 7 days a week for a certain period of time (I forget how many weeks) and return home for 3 weeks of R&R. This was a work-a-day crowd involved with such firms as KBR. I believe our new government may now be removing some of these actors from the scene in Iraq and elsewhere.

After a joyous return to my home and a chance to rest only briefly, and a day or two of processing mail and handling accounts, the next phase of work begins. Two reports will be written. The first, a trip report is due next week. It will supply project leaders with a set of comments on how ecotourism can be managed internally with existing programmatic staff in the field and in Dhaka. The second key report will be the draft strategy for the Teknaf Peninsula due in mid-March. Both will be full of in-depth insights, I hope, on the management of sustainable tourism in this challenging set of circumstances.

A second visit to Bangladesh is already programmed for mid-March. This visit will include a training session for local staff, and the presentation of the draft Teknaf Peninsula strategy where we will begin to help local players envision how to zone tourism into front and back country experiences, create more structured opportunities for communities to earn a living from tourism, how to include the private sector, how to create a set of experiences there that will provide a lasting legacy of sustainability - and create a vision of how tourism can become a long-term positive contributor to the this far-flung peninsula on the Bay of Bengal.

There will also be visit by boat in the Sunderbans - a world heritage natural area which is the largest mangrove wetland in the world. A multidisciplinary team will review the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for tourism there using the methodology I provide, working in advance as well as during my visit. Finally, there will be a final set of meetings with a wide variety of decision makers whom we hope to instill with a set of strong policy considerations on how the various departments we work with, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, can coordinate and begin to establish a framework for the legal management of tourism.

Not too much of a challenge!! There is a burden of responsibility and a great sense of excitement that these assignments can help develop a foundation for a more logical and systematic approach to this vital economic development tool in future.

This blog will become inactive for a time, until mid-March. On the eve of my return to Bangladesh, the blog will begin anew and the second trip will be covered in full.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Culture Clash

Yesterday our team traveled down the western coast of the Teknaf peninsula. There was no road past the Forest Station at Inani, thus our vehicles traveled on the enormous hard sand beach. Known as the largest unbroken beach in the world, it is vast, wide and populated with thousands of fishermen who are living a life that appears to be unchanged for centuries.

We were all moved in our own way, we had a group of biologists who were fascinated by the fish being netted, plopped on the beach and divided among villagers. Others were in awe of the traditional boats each unique in color and form, flying flags like an armada of medieval design. The beach itself was so vast, it was difficult to capture, but its scale and scope all convinced us that indeed it must be unique in all the world.

We had scientists, entrepreneurs, foresters, conservation biologists, and community members from the forest lands all converging, asking ourselves can we responsibly develop this beach and give the local community in the forest land and the fisherman a fair shake where there might not be an avalanche of development following the ecotourism project we decide to develop.

Ultimately, my plan will be presented with GIS maps showing the peninsula as it presently stands today. The map will show all of the types of protected land, of which there are numerous categories, the remaining forest patches, existing paths in the forest, the areas where existing tourism development lies now, much of which is not permitted, and where we propose creating a new ecological tourism zone with trails and ecologically built shelters with community trained and operated facilities and services.


When we were traveling this beach, we all knew, we knew that this beach is the world class resource that could bring tourists from around the world. But can we do it responsibly?







This morning, we passed through Cox's Bazar again. This tourism boom town does not augur well for our ability to manage growth. Every weekend buses come bursting with visitors all pouring out on the landscape. There is no zoning, master plan, or required Environmental Impact Statements. Small eco-establishments such as the Mermaid Restaurant are being forced out for the construction of roads and million dollar hotels.


The grandest of ecological plans are crushed in the wake of this tsunami of hotel development. It will move down the coast, and we have sought to see how to encourage more planning, but our words are little in the face of this emerging culture clash.




The traditional peoples living on the beach are continuing to live on as they have for generations without knowledge. We are on the front line and it is our job to help buffer the blow of this emerging confrontation between boom tourism and vast, world heritage class beach and its peoples.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Waste

We visited St. Martin's island for the last 2 days, which is 12 kilometers off the tip of the Teknaf Peninsula in the Bay of Bengal. We traveled down the Naf River, which forms the border with Burma and landed after a 3 hours ride. This is Bangladesh's one coral island. There is little or no tourism management.

Four boats a day carrying some 320 passengers or more visit the island, mostly with day visitors. St.Martin's was not a tourism destination until recently, and it is experiencing a sudden boom.

We met with Oceanic Diving, as I prefer to get my information on the status of coral reefs from divers who have spent their lives on the reef day after day. The owner, pictured above, is a professional diver who has been diving in St. Martin's since 1987. He runs his commercial tourist dive operations at a loss on the island, because he wants to educate Bengalis about the importance of preserving their one and only coral reef.

There is no waste management on the island, and according to my sources, all of the waste left behind by visitors is dumped into the ocean. This leads to an untold amount of waste landing on their precious coral reef.

Oceanic Diving had just completed a reef clean up activity, where they invited divers to come for free from throughout Bangladesh if they would take bags underwater and pick up waste off the reef. They had some 20 divers come and were successful in collecting bags and bags of waste.

Bangladesh is still a poor country, but its population density, and inexperience with tourism has created rapidly growing pressures on its most popular destinations, and there is little or no expertise here on the management of tourism. Sometimes the odds almost seem too high to save destinations like St. Martins. Oceanic Divers said they have no natural allies on the island who are helping with their efforts to preserve the reef.

This is not entirely true as there is a very active community-based conservation guard program which has arrested all sea turtle egg harvesting on the island, a significant accomplishment. But the rapacious harvest of mollucks, shells and coral continues with little controls, apparently guided by middle men who pay the poor islanders to collect the beautiful underwater shells for souvenirs that can be seen throughout the peninsula. Local people are terribly poor, and receiving no benefits from tourism. Our project can certainly begin the process of linking the islanders to the tourism supply chain via training.

One area we will work on is guide training. On a visit to a small coral island yesterday, I met a young man who was the most natural guide I have met in a while. He showed me the trees, flowers, fruits, and all of the various sea life that had washed ashore. It is my hope he will be the future of tourism on St. Martins.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Traveling on the Teknaf Peninsula


Via an early flight from Dhaka to Cox's Bazar, I arrived on the Teknaf Peninsula on the morning of February 1. The project has a local cluster office here, with a brand new team, so I was treated to a meeting of our young, and high enthusiastic Bengali team, a quick round around on Cox's Bazar's vast beach and then a larger gathering of about 30 tour operators, hoteliers and representatives of the Forestry Department, which works hand in glove with our project on the ground.

The challenges in Cox's Bazar are not dissimilar to any quickly growing beach destination, and here Bangladesh even Environmental Impact Statements are not required. With the growing prosperity here in the country, the new middle class is coming to enjoy the beautiful and expansive beach in bigger and bigger numbers, about 300,000 every weekend. The hoteliers are seeing little being done to handle the increasing impacts. The discussion was fruitful, comments extremely well taken, and the need to undertake a planning program evident. The last master plan here, was done in 1991, and that was never implemented.

After a quick lunch, the team moved down to coast to see a potential community project at Bora Chora. This was previously running, with thousands coming every weekend. Already developed, there was a set of short trails with a waterfall and a good viewpoint next to a local village. The project was shut down by the forest department, as it is on forest in-holding land and a private concessionaire had only made arrangements with the village. Our project could easily fix the problem, and facilitate this to become a community-managed tourism project. The potential was obvious, and the villagers fully ready. Our brand new ecotourism coordinator for this cluster, had already worked on this for the Department of Environment, but made no headway as the Forest Department was not involved. We have already spoken with our leadership about this project, and we are optimistic the village should receive permission to manage this project with facilitation via our local cluster office.

This was a quick win! And the revenue could be excellent. If some 150,000 people visit, taking account of the off season, and the entry charge is 10-15 taka, which would be the equivalent of 20 cents -, the initial income potential would be $30,000 or so for the village, and this does not include the many linked enterprises that would be made possible. Here linking microenterprise funds to a project is so easy, as it is the home of Grameen Bank the famous microenterprise bank that founded small scale loans to villagers. So the concept of providing microloans is generally already in the plan. Here they have assisted the village with microloans already via UNDP and can immediately link the tourism project to a wide variety of other small scale businesses, such as weaving, handicrafts, and small shops - all community run. A picture of the Bora Chora viewpoint is above.

I stayed at the lovely Mermaid Eco-resort where the owners have a wonderful feel for local architecture and the arts. We discussed how local entrepreneurs can help build a more sustainable and profitable set of enterprises all the way down the peninsula, before I had to run. We will meet again later this week.

Yesterday, the whole team including senior leadership visited the Teknaf Game Reserve. First stop Kudum Cave, where unfortunately there are growing security issues raised by armed local gangs, who coordinate by cell phone, and stop minibuses on the road, shaking folks down for cameras, cell phones, and money. Local police were on the scene, but this is the first sign I have seen of security risks being brought about by tourism, probably because the road is quite remote, and the number of tourists few, and the ease of escape into the forests. However, this did not bode well for the cave as a tourism site for the time being.


After lunch in a government guest house, which overlooks the Teknaf River facing East to the hills of Burma, we visiting the Teknaf Game park and traveled the shortest trail with their eco-guides. Here only 10,000 visitors a year are coming, and the guides are not getting enough work or experience. They were charming, motivated, and like sponges wanting to learn so badly. We had a wonderful time, with translation, talking about the spirit of guiding, how to manage different types of groups, and what to do if the group does not see elephants.

Elephants are the main attraction, but the average group will only see them once a week or so, so I advised the guides to sit their groups down in the rest stop and tell them stories about the times they have seen the elephants, describe the behavior of elephant families, talk about the elephant babies for the children to be involved, and create a wonderful story about the elephants' lives in the parks.

Overall, there is much to be considered here, as the deforestation is severe. The once mighty forests, and the diversity of wildlife is largely gone. I am advised the tigers have been gone for more than 20 years. It is difficult to sell the beauty of nature in a park that is so heavily impacted. Our meeting with the community reinforced this.

The terrible deforestation is partly caused by the refugees coming from Burma. The Rohinga, who have been in international news of late as they have sought to travel via Thailand to Malaysia, are a Muslim minority without rights in Myanmar, who travel across the Naf river to live here on the Peninsula. There are 50,000 in camps, and about 200,000 living in villages. There are some 1 million people living here on the Teknaf, most of whom do not have any other fuel besides wood. Efforts by the UN agencies have been effective here, to help the refugees find decent living standards, and to help provide more efficient wood stoves, and more. But the reality of population pressures on the reserve are real. Tourism can help local people achieve alternative income, and there is no question a market for tourism could be attracted down the coast. But the right balance of natural attraction with sufficient activity, security, and appeal to local tourists has to be struck!

We are still studying and today travel to St. Martin's island, a small spit of sand and coral that is under increasing tourism pressure.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Translations

video

Translations are usually done informally with team members while in the field. Ecotourism consultants don't travel with official translators. That would be too formal and stiff. But someone in our project generally speaks both languages well enough to provide the necessary translation.

In the attached video, I am gathering information about the Baika Beel, or hoar, where the local community is managing a preserved wetland and offering boat rides on the hoar.

Every field circumstance offers the opportunity to gather information, that might never come out in more formal meetings. As a result, it is a good idea to perform interviews even out in boats or hikes, or other active situations.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hill Tribes


Most of Bangladesh is a massive delta with the huge Padma and Meghna Rivers flowing out of the hills of India to the Bay of Bengal. As a result, the Bengali culture is a delta culture, with rice planting and fishing at the core of their livelihoods. But on the periphery of the country are hills, that lie at the borders of India and Myanmar (Burma). There are wide variety of ethnic hills tribes living in these border zones. The Chittagong Hill Tract is the most famous of these regions, and these groups have sought autonomy and even independence from the delta for generations.

With Bangladesh awakening to the potential of tourism, the hill tribes are suddenly a hot commodity. This has both many dangers and much opportunity.

Last week, before my illness we visited with two hill groups, the Tripuri and the Khasci. In our visit to a pivotal Khasci village on the main tourism route in the hill areas bordering Assam,India - we had the opportunity to sit down with their head man. This village has had historic access to the forest reserves in the region to collect the Betel leaf and nut. The Betel nut is consumed by a large variety of Bengalis, as a mild narcotic/stimulant that is chewed and spit out. The marks of red Betel juice can be seen on walls throughout the country. Here in this tranquil Khasci village, we met women who were packaging the leaves and offering us the opportunity to taste the nut. One of our project leaders said to me, "taste the nut right at its source! It is a once in a lifetime experience!" So I did. You wrap a piece of the red nut in a little leaf package, add lime powder, and pop it in your mouth. It is bitter! But stimulating! Immediately, I was reminded of chewing coca leaves. I spit it out quickly, but I could feel the effects for about an hour afterwards.

We headed up to the village head man's home, and he was there to receive us. I asked a range of questions relating to their receptivity to tourists, their consent to have tourism in their village, and the issues that might relate to how they manage tourism in future. It can never be assumed that ethnic, indigenous groups want tourism. There must be a clear, and informed consent process. This is frequently overlooked, when there is a rush to develop new tourism areas, and my concerns are running high in Bangladesh that extreme caution is required.

The headman was clear that the groups visiting his village were too large, up to 100 at a time. They had had problems with folks entering their homes, and most importantly interrupting their work. There is a lack of permission for visitation, and the village had worked with our project to introduce a gate to close the village from unwanted tourism. But he was also very eager to let it be known that they see tourism as economically beneficial and do not want to eliminate it. There was discussion of how a cultural heritage center, that is not in the village that could provide them with a place to present information would solve the problem. We were all enthusiastic about this. He mentioned that tourism provides a new and different type of employment, especially for youth and women.

The next day we visited a Tripuri village. They were not in the main tourism region, but very close. Our project had been working with the women to market their remarkable hand loomed cloth to a hotel shop in the Radisson in Dhaka, via an organization called Folk Bangladesh. This had been very successful. The women were very pleased with the income, and were thrilled to receive us and wanted to encourage more tourism. They had already formed a cultural team that was reviving traditional song and dance. They had not had many visits, and therefore had not seen the negative impacts. But it was agreed a cultural center where they could perform their songs and dance would be ideal, and also a permanent center to display their cloth. Their key challenges were the lack of electrification, and the need for more education.

All our interviews indicated that the hill groups were not receiving equal access to education. Apparently the young girls suffer when going to school- as they are not Muslim, and at times are harassed. This made parents fearful of sending their girls to school.

It was inspiring to see the Tripuri girls so engaged in dialogue. As we sat with them, they were front and center on this project, and quite young women were leading the charge for more opportunity.




The classic double edge sword of tourism development can be easily observed in these cases.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Call to Prayer

One of the most distinctive parts of staying in an Islamic country is the call to prayer. AT 5:45 AM, I woke to the ethereal call from a mosque that can be seen across the flowering mango trees from my window. I am out of the hospital.

I will stay in a very nice hotel now until Sunday, when I finally depart for the Teknaf Peninsula. Departing from the hospital was sad, and there was a deep sense of gratefulness and many smiles and farewells when I departed. This morning I awoke feeling healthy, and rested for the first time since I arrived!

There is much to report from the previous week. The evening of Obama's inauguration, I was ill and retired before it was carried live, in our little guest house in Srimongal on Al Jazeera English. These are my notes from the following morning.


January 21 09 Srimongal, Bangladesh 5:45 AM

The call to prayer is ringing across the rice fields.
It is now a new day and a new age is dawning.
Obama is president.
The world has felt the illness of what America can be,
the wrongs it can do, the Nero of America's empire
is now gone. Salaam Alikuum, Salaam Alikuum

Voices of Muslim praise to the gods are the first sounds I hear
Their sad, minor loneliness grabs my heart and I remember
we are all one.
It is the voice of reconciliation, awe, fear and longing.
Three men are singing from the two corners of my simple bed
as if in harmony, calling, calling, reminding, reminding
We are here but for the grace of the patterns of the universe

Life is transforming.
We are building on the sails of a destroyed burdened earth,
skies heavy with the carbon of our excrement.
Here in this massive delta, there is rice planting.
The early rice plants stick their shoots above the watery floodshed
demanding nourishment from the cool Bangla wintery sun.
The men push water from field to field, encasing it, securing it
demanding its nourishment. 120 million people are fed.
But the flow of the natural, renewable, life giving waters is blocked and the system is dead.
Stagnant, dirty, muddy waters sickens the once vital delta,
and the factories of brick belch unscrubbed black smoke.
80% of Bangalis are poor, but the system of of polluted water
and growing factories feeds them, if only rice and vegetables. This is life.
Textile and leather dyes now flow untreated, and the waters near Dhaka
look sad and vile. People live in shanties on this water,
scrounging their lives from its toxic mud.

It is the dry season. I am told the whole system comes green,
but with the monsoon rains also come the floods.
I will not see the whole cycle. But today we will see patches of forests
tea gardens and hill tribe groups who live a life that tilts towards renewal.

It is a new day in this flat patch of earth.
6AM and the call to worship is done.
The crickets sing a soft refrain.
This gauzy, netted bed a shelter.
This dawn a new age.

Well, I am no poet. But there are times when prosaic field notes cannot express all of the things an ecotourism consultant observes. I had traveled out through the delta that day, observed the rice planting and brick factories, we had gone to a restored wetland and observed how by removing the many levies and blockages to what is called a hoar, the natural flows of water bring an outburst of life with fisheries now restored, and fisherman showing off proudly their catch.



In these notes are recorded what I learned about the Bengali delta, the cycle of rice planting, factories and their pollutants, of course my own feeling about the inauguration which all of us on the planet felt as a moment of renewal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hospital

There are times when things just don't go as well as we would hope. An ecotourism consultant's life has its challenges. Arriving in country after flying across the globe is hard on the body, and the 11 hour time difference is rough to adjust to. On arrival generally you are given an hour or so to get unpacked and showered, and then it is right to work. Now if you are feeling well, and all systems are go that is not a problem. But in my case, I had a very suspicious cold, cough and occaisional fever by the time I arrived in Bangladesh. I got some rest my first two nights, and appeared to be on the mend with some over the counter medications.

We went to the field for 3 days, and it was just a terrific set of experiences in the two upland reserves in the North - we took a hike and saw Hoolock gibbons - which are a very rare gibbon that lives only here in Bangladesh. We visited 2 different ethnic, hill tribe villages both of which are taking part in our project and discussed issues related to tourism management. We met with a team of ecoguides who were trained over the last 5 years and had very strategic and helpful comments how to improve tourism management, and we toured a restored wetland that has gone from being a dead ecosystem to a vibrant refuge with over 10000 waterfowl and migratory birds. The local community manages the wetland reserve, and the project has installed an observation tower.

But on the last day of our first field trip, I started to have a fever again. By the time we arrived in Dhaka we had to head straight to the hospital. The doctor had x-rays done on the spot and announced I have pneumonia.

I have been in the hospital now for one day. I am receiving good care and my USAID and IRG team are watching out for my every need. The care seems good. But I am way laid now in hospital for several days.

I pride myself in my ability to adjust to different time zones, foods, and cultures with ease. But this time, the pneumonia bug put this ecotourism consultant out of commission.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Expatriates

My first full day of meetings was underscored by the importance of expatriates in the Bangladesh economy. In my excellent small hotel, I am amusing myself by observing the clientele in the dining room. Last night, at dinner while eating a Bengali steamed fish, spicy, and wrapped in banana leaves, I overhead some Bengali business men discussing textiles with some clients from Asia. Textiles are an important export industry here.

This evening, I enjoyed an excellent Bengali Biryani, with chicken and raisins. I heard two men chatting about Colombo, and the war in Sri Lanka - one British and one Canadian. I started to engage the Canadian fellow after the British gentleman departed, and he was full of venom about the U.S. and all of our paranoia and how Bush had ruined our standing in the world. He didn't care much for his own prime minister either, and blasted their policies on the Alberta tar sands. I just ate my Biryani and urged him on, to entertain me. He was a veteran international consultant working presently for the World Bank.

My hotel seems to be largely populated by visitors from Asia, the UK, and North America, here for international trade or development. It is pleasant to be in an atmosphere, where you are all temporarily thrown together and can talk about world affairs and share perspectives from across the globe. I like the fact that the hotel offers a full fledged DVD library with a DVD player in the room. This is a clear indicator of a strong expatriate client base, as folks like me generally have to work or entertain ourselves in the evenings.

Today we met with the head of the Tour Operator Association, who is the GM of one of the most prominent tour operators here, Guide Tours. He explained that the expatriate market is probably the best market for nature tourism in the country. The domestic market is very large in the South, as they all like to take the weekend at the beach, at Cox's Bazar, which is just north of the Teknaf Peninsula - the focus of my work. But, the Bengalis have not yet acquired a taste for ecotourism. There are presently over 1 million visitors to Cox's Bazar, and just 10000 to the Teknaf Peninsula reserve. But, the youth market is coming on strong. There are scouts and adventure tours for young people, and apparently there is a growing interest nationally in birdwatching.

We had a fascinating meeting with all of my project's Bengali organizational partners this morning - NGOs, academics, and specialists in management of the project in our target zones. A research and communications firm is part of the team. This project has sought over the last 4 years to convey to Bengalis why they should seek to conserve natural resources. A recent survey, by our partner firm, revealed that the local concept of nature and nature conservation is simply to "plant a tree." The concept of preserving nature is painfully limited to replanting it, as so many forest reserves have been damaged and illegally logged.

It may be some time before the domestic populations begin to be interested in ecotourism, but the expatriate market is often a ready set of clients for more innovative tourism programs in countries that do not have a large international client base. As the concepts of sustainability begin to evolve and take off, the younger tourists quickly begin to adopt what has been originally designed for expatriates. This is an interesting but helpful way to move the sustainability agenda forward via tourism!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Arrived without a hitch

After a journey halfway across the globe, I arrived in Dhaka on Monday morning, just an hour behind schedule. The airport was modern and well managed, but the baggage claim was jam packed with hand wrapped bags in all manner of jute, and even blankets wrapped with twine. I don't think I have ever seen a crowd that thick around baggage claim. The whole belt must have had 10 people deep for its entire length. I managed to secure my bag with amazing speed, which was truly fortunate as I had acquired a fever and fairly bad cough during my journey, and was feeling quite poorly.

Once through emigration I was greeted with efficiency on the part of my team, with a schedule they have drafted and revised at least 5 times, a cell phone with charger, and a phone list for our entire team. We went over my journey for the first 3 days, hour by hour! Our main goal is to see the most well organized parks in the north that already have eco-cottages, previously organized by the project, community organizers interested in tourism, and many different officials from an alphabet soup of agencies who supervise the areas we will visit.

Project leadership discussed the big picture with me, and we discussed how to balance the needs of protected areas - which want to see revenue from tourism and remain in control, and private business which will likely not want to be hampered by government. We discussed the importance of my visits not simply providing plans, but leaving a legacy, and this quickly became a theme.

So we are off and running, if only I could feel better. Hopefully, I will get out and take some pictures tomorrow. I was impressed by Dhaka's shady lanes and cannot wait to explore, but right now I just have to recover from the long journey and illness I have acquired.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day of Departure

I am hitting the road. This is a photo of me waiting for a bus in the Dominican Republic just about a year ago, to set the mood. I will be posting more photos once I arrive in Bangladesh.

A US Air flight landed in the Hudson river today. Not exactly encouraging. Canadian geese flew into both engines. The evening news was full of eyewitnesses and survivors telling their harrowing tales and footage of the fuselage sinking into the icy waters. Fortunately, all the passengers were safe.

My flight is to Washington tomorrow evening and overnight to Dubai tomorrow night. My strategy for reducing the trip's carbon footprint is to travel via the Middle East instead of Europe. It is much more direct and eco-friendly, and easier on the traveler too. I booked an airport hotel in Dubai. My helpful travel agent explained you can obtain a temporary entry visa to exit the airport, which is reportedly very fast, hop a cab and get some horizontal time, before re-boarding. I board my non-stop to Bangladesh at 3:45 AM. It takes two days to fly, departing on the 16th and arriving on the 18th.

Am still putting all my electronics in a bag. It seems more and more electronics are necessary every year. The electricity is 220, so a converter is required, and European round plugs. I have every plug known to man and all the necessary wires in little cloth bags, and two sets of rechargable batteries with a charger. I carry my ipod loaded with new music, podcasts, and audio books, my Skype headphones, and my laptop computer is about to go into a roller backpack!

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Time Disappearing

The last week before departure is always a blur of preparations and taking care of final details. I picked up my new eyeglasses today, Ambien for sleeping through jet lag, and a new notebook and pens for all my notes.

I heard from my supervisor today in Washington. He wanted to make sure I had received everything I need. He let me know that Bangladesh is completely and totally "dry." There is no beer or wine or any spirits available even in hotels designed for foreigners. He mentioned that there is one Duty Free shop right before the immigration desk if I want to have a little supply of my own, for private use while traveling! Interesting detail. He lived in Bangladesh for 5 years, and he said when he forgot to mention this to other consultants, they were a bit peeved! I appreciated his thoughtfulness.

I received some exciting and interesting maps of my project area. There has been initial zoning work done, some early trail design, and work on interpretation centers. Apparently, some Indian consultants have already been to the site to help develop interpretation of the parks.

I was sent statistics on the visitor numbers for the parks for 2007 and 2008 along with how much each visitor paid for entry fee and other goods, such as T shirts and hats. This is outstanding information, and vital to understanding how tourism is impacting the region and its potential for benefiting the parks.

I have also received word that I can meet with a gentleman from a local university who is writing his masters thesis on tourism in Lawachara National Park. I will be visiting this park my first week to learn more about how tourism is being managed in Bangladesh's parks, before proceeding to the Teknaf Peninsula where I will review the strategy for the entire region.

My visa arrived today for 6 months, multiple visits. That is always a very important moment.

I am rushing to complete work with partners on many other projects before departure. I may now write again only after I begin my journey! Time is disappearing as my flight is only 48 hours from now.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mind and Body Preparation

It is Friday afternoon, and I have one week until departure. On weekends, I turn to questions of physical preparation, mental strength, focus and acuity before a trip that will be this long and possibly demanding.

The good news is, I am going in the dry season. The humidity should not be very difficult, and there will be little rain. The mosquitos should not be in swarms! I will be doing a fair amount of hiking, but given the country is flat as a pancake, the physical demands should be quite light.

But, the mental demands are very great on these assignments.

I am very dependent on taking excellent notes. While, I have tried recording with a small recorder, it is too time consuming later. Rather, I must work like a "reporter." I have a notebook that can fit easily in a bag that is rugged and waterproof. I use simple pen and paper, and I am very fast at outlining what is being said while I speak with each person. I take photos with a camera that is light, but very good quality, with an excellent telephoto lens. I want to be able to capture the people, their geography, the wildlife, birds, and the architecture that is typical of the place.

I have to be very quick to notice how my hosts perceive things, and what their attitudes and viewpoints are. The cultural differences are vast, and I must immediately understand how their culture background gives them a different way of perceiving the world.

To prepare, I read about the history of the country, and its religion and culture. I try to understand past wars and conflicts. Where there are many ethnic differences, I work to begin to understand how majority cultures interact with minorities.

There is alot more to say, but it is Friday! My focus is on Mind Body preparation. I try to stay physically fit. I work out regularly. I do yoga to keep limber and to keep all of my mental and physical systems working optimally. I rely on my good health and the ability to resist disease, But, I like to eat foods in an adventurous way, in fact I must eat local foods. This puts me more at risk. I find doing mind body work in advance helps me to be acute, healthy and ready.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

How to Dress

Modesty is always a good policy for women when traveling! I am amazed nowadays when I see the attire of young women on university campuses. Tight fitting, labels in provocative places, belly buttons showing, low cut garb. Everyone knows about this now in Western countries, and it may be fine when young people are among their peers, but what really curls my hair is to see women traveling with provocative attire when they are overseas.

I have had some pretty uncomfortable feelings myself over the years trying to avoid too much attention. It can be tough just trying to swim in a pool. In Cairo, I went down to the pool at a major hotel, and was scandalized to see all of the men sitting around the pool in traditional Saudi garb watching the women go swimming in their typical western bikinis or bathing suits. It was clear we were there for their enjoyment, and they did not hide it! They simply ordered drinks and enjoyed the show.

I am heading to a beach area in Bangladesh, and I am advised not to even think about wearing a bathing suit! Because I do not have too much experience in Muslim countries, this will be a first.

I wrote my supervisor, with the firm International Resources Group, who are managing my project. I asked him to fill me in on appropriate attire. I had read that loose long sleeve shirts and pants are the best choice, but what about for meetings in the city? He informed me that Western women are treated differently, but that clearly modesty is the best policy! I asked if I could buy a few salwar kameezes (dress like tunics over baggy trousers) on arrival, and was given a quick go ahead to go shopping. That will be nice. I find the cottons and rayon clothing of India and Bangladesh are so comfortable in the hot weather, and I have always wanted to wear these tunics with trousers.

Women friends of mine working with me in India told me that they were thrilled to adopt the salwar kameezes for every day wear, rather than the saris. Saris are so beautiful, but I have actually gone hiking with women in saris, and I can frankly say they are not designed for active women!

I will also need a dupatta, or long scarf to cover my head. I will hope to have some pictures taken of me in my new outfits after arrival. I loved the way women like Benazir Bhutto wore here clothing and her dupatta was always such an important part of her modestly beautiful attire. She was such a beautiful woman, and her attire made her that much more a local woman to admire. How sad she is gone.

On the more practical side, I bought a brand new pair of trousers at Outdoor Exchange in Burlington, that are zip offs. They should be good against mosquitos and with all the pockets you could dream of for days in the field.

I think I am ready with the clothing I need, and that is an important consideration for any traveler.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Biodiversity and tourism

I made comments on my proposed schedule yesterday for the team in Bangladesh. A GIS/GPS specialist will be traveling with me as we are going into areas where there is no tourism at all presently. As we travel into these forest reserves, we will be scoping out options for a wide variety of nature attractions and mapping the sites we feel have the most potential.

In this preparatory period, I am still doing my reading. I need to know what the scientists are saying about the biodiversity at the site, and then match that up with what can be of interest to travelers. It is highly important that I work with conservation scientists to understand what areas need to be left entirely alone. Preferably there will be a conservation zoning scheme already in place, but I have not heard that there is any zoning at my site.

As I learned yesterday, many of the reserves in Bangladesh are very new. Frequently, I am working in a situation where a variety of donors are involved, and I need to know precisely what each donor has done, and their plans for each site if at all possible. This can get extremely complicated at times. But, lately, as I have been working in countries with little tourism, and incipient conservation planning, I can make a greater impact and work directly with the other pioneers working on site. That is really fun.

I learned today that my area has a Coastal and Wetland Biodiversity management Project (CWBMP) managed by the United National Development Project - Global Environmental Fund, implemented by the Bangladesh Department of Environment. I have their print out with pictures in front of me. They are establishing an innovative system for management of ecologically critical areas in Bangladesh. They should be very interesting partners to meet and work with.

Their website explains that Bangladesh has both inland freshwater and tidal salt-water wetlands. The majority of the 120 million people living in Bangladesh are dependent on the country's wetland systems, through fishing and agriculture. My study area, the Teknaf Peninsula has one of the longest sandy beach ecosystems in the world (80 km) with 81 migratory birds species recorded, as well as 4 species of threatened sea turtles.

I also have St Martin's Island in my study area, which is apparently a unique coral-algal community with no parallel in the world. And I have Sonadia Island as well, which is a mangrove island which supports many waterbirds and sea turtles.

It will take a bit more time to investigate how well an average visitor will be able to appreciate any of these wondrous biological assets. Frequently, biologists - who are almost always there long before me - assume that biodiversity in and of itself is a tourism asset. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this is not the case. My job is to put these assets through a variety of evaluations. I love birdwatching, and so I can appreciate what a bird watcher will come to see. It is not always what the biologists think. I love scuba diving, but a coral algal community with no parallel in the world might not be the best place to allow diving - if this unique ecosystem could be easily damaged. These are just some of my considerations!

I love the opportunity to confer with the biologists and protected area managers, after all I was trained as a wildlife biologist myself! But I then have to begin to "train" them to see the tourism economy in a whole new way!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gathering more information

Yesterday, I received my copy of the Lonely Planet Bangladesh. Copyright 2008! Quite exciting to have an updated guide book with recent details on travel there. It states, tourism in Bangladesh is so little established that there are currently very few "eco' options in the classic sense of environmentally sustainable hotels and restaurants.

Now this is the kind of challenge I seem to thrive on!

There are many promising signs about the political landscape. Elections were just held. Good friends of mine dropped by their latest Economist, which reports that after 2 years of army-backed caretaking, Bangladesh has returned to democratic rule, with a 70% turnout and an overwhelming majority for the winning Awami League. So huge is the opposing party's defeat, that protests will hardly be credible.

The Economist reports, asked what they wanted from the new government, most voters - of whom some 45% live on less than a dollar a day - had one simple answer: cheaper food. In this one respect, the government may be in luck. There was a good rice harvest and lower fuel prices are also helping.

What is fascinating about this work, is how the image of a country can be so entirely different from reality. What I have been told is that the government has woken up to its huge natural wealth, and though they face extraordinarily difficult environmental problems, they are expanding and beefing up parks and reserves and implementing environmental laws that other countries could learn from.

For example, they banned petrol and diesel vehicles in Dhaka and have banned plastic bags nationally.

The IPAC project that I will be working for has already undertaken ecotourism development in the Lowacherra and Satchari National Parks. Lowachera is a wild and mysterious patch of semi-tropical rain forest. Satchari is a superb patch of tropical rain forest with higher biodiversity. IPAC launched the concept of eco-cottages at both sites. My first week I will visit these areas to learn how the project has worked for local villagers and for the forest department. There will be time to learn about the management of the cottages, and also to discuss how the effort to tame elephants has worked.

According to my colleagues, elephants had never been tamed for tourism in Bangladesh before. Until now they had been used strictly as beasts of burden and for labor. Apparently it can take quite some time to retrain an elephant to carry a tourist! I will need to learn the feasibility of retraining elephants for tourism as part of my assignment, the time it takes, the talent, and which mahoots can even take this kind of project on!

Each new point of information becomes an exciting gold mine of opportunity. I must learn about every aspect of the culture, the natural resources, and begin to understand what special elements will appeal to tourists.

But, we are not necessarily talking about foreign tourists. In fact, increasingly my job is to develop tourism for middle class visitors - from the same country. This will likely be our approach in Bangladesh - and this makes the challenge of understanding what local people enjoy particularly important, while at the same time creating a development standard that will meet international sustainability goals. The process of working to create a set of consensus built, local goals in concert with international standards is often phase one.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Day of Preparations

The New Year kicks in and I am off and running with preparations for travel to Bangladesh. My hosts, the Integrated Protected Area Co-Management Project (IPAC), supported by USAID, have sent my formal letter of introduction to the Embassy of Bangladesh explaining that I will be working to develop a community-based nature tourism strategy.

I will be visiting the country twice in three months. The first visit is for 3 weeks in January and February. I return to my office in the United States for writing the draft strategy. I return in March/April to meet with a wide variety of stakeholders to review the draft. I finalize all the strategy paperwork by the end of April.

I prepared all of my Visa application paperwork and photos to send off via Federal Express to a visa expediter today. I should have my Visa in 7 days, so we have all the paperwork processed with a few days to spare. This is normal.

You can imagine the size of my passport. I got a double stitched passport years back now, so that all of the visas I need can fit into it. But when I arrive at each new destination they have to page through alot of visas. They look at me, look at all the pages, but there never seems to be much fuss. I heard someone describe the American travel experience as being part of "empire," just last night. We are not questioned, at least I must say I am almost never questioned. I am embarrassed by this, knowing how many others are questioned so heavily wherever they travel. But of course, I have all of the right paperwork and I am very careful.
I am going for very specific reasons, that are very carefully detailed.

And of course, I go in peace, hoping to bring prosperity to other parts of the world via the sustainable development of natural resources. I believe in this mission, it truly does bring prosperity to rural areas especially, places without options - places that are not likely to receive benefits from other development strategies.

Tomorrow, I will begin to work out scheduling and details for my visit.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Countdown for Departure

Preparing for an ecotourism assignment begins with studying the country you have been assigned to. I am heading to Bangladesh for the very first time on January 16, 2009 - a
country most everyone I know associates with poverty, overpopulation, and regular flooding. I see the eyebrows twitching, the question marks in my friend's and colleagues' eyes. I hear their thoughts, Bangladesh for an ecotourism assignment?? Yes, yes, yes - there is no need to worry. Every time I am assigned to a country that no one associates with tourism, I find the most magnificent gems - places that tourists may some day see, but are mostly undiscovered. This is a privilege, an honor to go before the tourists arrive, and I relish it.

How do I prepare? There are many components. Of course, there is the country clearance, the shots, and other health considerations. This time I had to take a live Typhoid virus, to prevent Typhoid. Of course, there is the Malarone to prevent malaria. I am still without a visa, as my country clearance has been held up by the Christmas holidays, even though I am visiting a Muslim country. I just bought my ticket on New Years eve day, as I could not take the risk to wait any longer for my clearance. The usual delays, I don't really worry.

But the most important ritual for me is going to the university library. I went before Christmas. The students were in every corner readying themselves for final exams before the holidays. I was blissfully searching the catalogues and stacks for background and finding myself fascinated - intrigued, excited.

I have been reading the books I selected that day at home over the holidays. I could not help but start with Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, scholar, and philosopher. He is one of the most revered men in Bangladesh. I must admit I did not know his work. So as the sun set over my beloved mountains here in Vermont, I read Tagore yesterday evening for the first time, and sought to enter in to his life-long journey to bridge East and West.

I found a poem, which I will excerpt for my first post.

A Travelers Wishes

Traveler, must you go?
The night is still and the darkness swoons upon the forest
The lamps are bright in our balcony, the flowers
all fresh, and the youthful eyes still awake.
Is the time for your parting come?
Traveler must you go?

Did we ever try to hold you back it was but with our eyes.
Traveler we are helpless to keep you.

What quenchless fire glows in your eyes?
What restless fever runs in your blood?
What call from the dark urges you?
What awful incantation have you read among the
stars in the sky, that with a sealed secret message
the night entered your heart, silent and strange?

O traveler, what sleepless spirit has touched you from
the heart of midnight?

Excerpt (with edits) from Tagore, The Mystic Poets, The Gardener