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.