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


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.