Monday, January 19, 2009


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!

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