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.

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