CONSERVATION AT THE CORE

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Expanding the ecotourism horizon in Bangladesh can spell huge success

Ecotourism is perhaps the most misused word in the tourism industry. The concept is widely misunderstood and is used as a marketing tool to promote tourism. Some of us are destroying nature with our bad habits, in the name of protecting it.

Ecotourism is derived from two words: Ecosystem and Tourism. An ecosystem is a system in which we live in. The system which includes the earth and all living and non-living components. Tourism is the practice of traveling for pleasure. Ecotourism practices the conservation of the places being visited. The International Ecotourism Society defines it as: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

ECOTOURISM AND ITS PROSPECTS IN BANGLADESH
Bangladesh is filled with natural wonders and untouched reserves such as a riverine countryside, winding hills, valleys, verdant forests, the world’s largest mangrove forest, astounding wilderness, and long stretches of sunbaked beaches. Ecotourism in this country is ideal.

Bangladesh has 17 national parks, 20 wildlife sanctuaries, and 10 eco-parks. It also has special biodiversity protected areas such as Ratargul and Altadigh, two botanical gardens and two Safari parks; Bangabandhu Safari Park in Gazipur and another in Cox’s Bazar.

As for forests, Bangladesh has the largest mangrove forest called the Sundarbans in Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira districts, which is a top tourist destination. Apart from this, there are splendid evergreen hill forests in Chittagong and Rangamati districts.

Bangladesh also has the world longest beach, Cox’s Bazar, which is the most popular tourist destination. Other beaches like Patenga, Parki, Kotka, Kuakata, and Teknaf are also popular.
Bangladesh is home to many indigenous communities. There are 45 different indigenous communities spread out across the national territory within the north, north-west and northeast and southeast regions.

There are mainly three hilly districts in Bangladesh which are known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This area is a treasure trove of natural beauty. The vibrant indigenous culture makes this area fascinating. The different communities have their own languages and rituals, which makes it a multi-dimensional and vibrant cultural hub.

Sylhet, Sunamganj, and Habiganj districts are known as the tea capitals of Bangladesh and have an enormous potential for ecotourism. These areas are popular tourist destinations due to their unique beauty.

Saint Martin’s Island, Shah Porir Dwip and Sandwip are some island-based tourist spots. Saint Martin’s is considered a must-see destination among local tourists.

Boga Lake, Foy’s Lake in Chittagong, Niladri lake in Sunamganj, Kaptai lake and Rangamati are very popular tourist destinations in Bangladesh. Apart from this, a large number of lakes and water bodies situated all over the country also have ecotourism potential.

Bangladesh is known as ‘The Land of Rivers’. There are a total of 405 major rivers including 57 trans-boundary rivers. Three of Asia’s largest rivers, the Ganges-Padma, the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, and the Meghna, flow through Bangladesh. The rivers are the most important inland wetlands and its water is one of the greatest resources of Bangladesh. A considerable amount of livelihoods depend on the rivers. This acts as a major influence on our identity, literature, and rituals. Exploring river-based ecotourism means exploring Bangladesh and its culture.

WHAT CAN BE ACHIEVED THROUGH ECOTOURISM?
Apart from environmental conservation, ecotourism has a multiplier effect on an economy. It reduces poverty through the generation of new employment opportunities for the local community. The economic impact refers to the change in income, earning, sales, distribution and other parameters generated from ecotourism.

The revenue generated from tourism expenditure has a direct impact on ecotourism. Tourists are the economic force that can promote the conservation of the natural attractions that initially entice them. The indirect impact of ecotourism refers to the development of central and local businesses such as hotels, operations, agents, local entrepreneurs, marketing, and transport.

HOW ECOTOURISM CAN PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT
Ecotourism can be an effective tool in reducing the negative impact on our natural resources. These resources are at great risk due to mass tourism and climate change.

A World Bank study reveals that the poverty level around the Sundarbans is higher than other parts of Bangladesh, where more than 50% of the population is living under the poverty line. The people who live near the Sundarbans mainly rely on forest products such as honey, golpata, fish, shrimp cultivation, forest wood and forest fuel as their alternative income. The generation of opportunities is extremely low due to the adverse effects of climate change like salinity, frequent natural disasters, sea level rise and more.

As tourists, both foreigners and locals are interested in visiting the Sundarbans throughout the year. In this context, by involving the local community, ecotourism can play a vital role in creating alternative income-generating activities. On the other hand, mass tourism can have a negative impact on the local environment and community, which can cause additional burdens and risks.

INCORPORATING ECOTOURISM AS A CROSS-CUTTING ISSUE
Making ecotourism a cross-cutting issue has an enormous significance. Mass tourism has an adverse impact on the local environment and ecology. Saint Martin’s Island is a good example. The island attracts tourists from all parts of the world with its world-class corals, rare species of turtles, serene blue waters with rich coral biodiversity, and rare flora and fauna, However, uncontrolled and unplanned tourism is costing the island its natural setting. Several corporate houses are managing tourism businesses on the island without involving the local community. As a result, locals rarely benefit from tourism.

Other natural threats include ocean warming and rising levels of carbon dioxide; global warming increases the temperature in the sea and harms zooxanthellae algae, on which hard corals depend; loss of habitat and sanctuary for marine life dependent on the island’s ecosystem. The scarcity of drinkable water for local people and fresh water for ecosystem survival are also alarming threats.
To protect the island and its biodiversity, the government must encourage ecotourism development immediately. Waste management is a grave concern of the island. A population boom poses a great threat to the depletion of biodiversity there. On the other hand, unscrupulous anchorage of tourist’s vessels damages the coral. Hence, the protection of the island and the development of ecotourism may not be successful without a comprehensive ecotourism development plan by involving the local community in this process.

CHALLENGES AND THE WAY FORWARD

RESEARCH AND KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
As Bangladesh has an immense potential for ecotourism, extensive research is needed to create a sustainable policy and implementation strategy. This will also help to identify the new ecotourism destinations with appropriate management guidelines for diverse destinations.

CAPACITY BUILDING AND SKILL DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE
This initiative is essential for government and implementing agencies and stakeholders. This will help reduce the knowledge gap among tourism practitioners and relevant stakeholders to concretize ecotourism ethics and practice, as well as create a wider network among ecotourism activists.
For further development of ecotourism in Bangladesh, well-trained, multilingual guides with skills in natural and cultural history, environmental interpretation, ethical principles, and effective communication are essential. The country also needs ecotourism projects to help educate members of the surrounding community and school children of the host community.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF TOUR OPERATORS
Designing and operating an eco-friendly tour, without compromising the conservation of local ecology and environment should be the key principles of tour operators. Prior to departure, tour operators should supply travelers with reading materials about their destinations, as well as a code of conduct for both the traveler and the industry itself. The Ecotourism Societies guidelines state that this information helps prepare the tourist “to learn about the places and peoples visited” and “to minimize the negative impacts while visiting sensitive environments and cultures”.

ROLE OF RESPECTIVE LINE AGENCIES AND MINISTRY
The Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) and other government, semi-government and non-government agencies have developed various facilities in many of the potential tourism areas. The Government of Bangladesh formulated a National Tourism Policy in February 1992.
Until now the ecotourism concept has not been properly reflected in the current national tourism development programs. The tourism development issue has been overlooked in the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) prepared in 2009. However, the National Tourism Policy framed in 2010 emphasized ecotourism development as well as the preservation and conservation of natural and cultural products.

CONCLUSION
The concept of ecotourism is now a common issue for developed countries, whereas it is still a new arena for the tourism industry in Bangladesh. There are a number of factors that affect ecotourism in Bangladesh such as natural disasters, uncontrolled population pressure, inadequate physical infrastructural support, the absence of appropriate information, lack of proper guidelines for tourists and more. Nevertheless, Bangladesh is a gold mine for unparalleled bio-diversified natural habitats, wildlife, and ancient heritage and we can make the best use of all these with the proliferation of eco-tourism.

*THE WRITER is the Founder & CEO of gipsytour.com, the ecotourism explorer

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