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2 Jul, 2014

12 reasons why Bangladesh will be bigger than Myanmar

Dhaka – Although much of the buzz today is about Myanmar coming in from the cold, a country with even bigger future potential is Bangladesh. This editor visited the country between June 18-22 on invitation of the Bangladesh Tourism Board to deliver two lectures on strategies to balance negative media coverage and involve stakeholders in charting new tourism strategies. I was also given an extensive tour of Dhaka city and some of its surrounding areas. Here is a 12-point list of observations on the key drivers of tourism:

1.      At the cusp of change

In the emerging Asian Century, Bangladesh is one of many Asian countries shedding their old skins at a rapid clip. Driven mainly by the need to create jobs for its growing population of young people, Bangladesh is emerging from the backwaters. For Asia-watchers tracking the winds of change across this multi-cultural continent, Bangladesh is the perfect place to study the ups and downs of the Asian Century. This is not a country for travellers expecting luxury, punctuality and 100% service delivery. It is a perfect one for serious travellers who have been-there done-that and now seek a new experience, provided they come with an open mind, plenty of patience and a desire to understand, not judge nor criticise.

Geographically, Bangladesh is as strategically located as Myanmar, at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. Over time, the Asian Highway and increasing airline connectivity will provide the infrastructure connections needed to facilitate movement of people and products between these two populous regions. Once the airports, seaports, roads and highways emerge, the software (management systems, training, visa facilitation, etc) is bound to follow. In 2013 the population was estimated at 163 million. Although about 89% of Bangladeshis are Muslims, it is a multi-cultural country. Women in hijabs are as much in sight as women in Western attire. The call to prayer sounds five times a day. On Fridays, the mosques are jammed solid. At the same time, there is freedom of faith and worship. Public holidays commemorate the holy days of all the faiths.


2.      Demographics

With billions of dollars in funds pouring in from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the downstream ripple-effect is more than apparent. The country’s youthful population is a source of purchasing power, intellectual horsepower and creativity. As of July 2013, 33% of the Bangladeshi population was under 14 and and 18% between 15-24 years. English is extensively spoken. This emerging population is the future of Bangladesh.

In addition, the full power of the extensive Bangladeshi diaspora is waiting to be tapped. Nearly 7 million Bangladeshis live abroad. Although the vast majority are migrant labour in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, other Gulf countries and Malaysia, many other middle- and upper-class Bangladeshis are residents of the United States, UK, Singapore, Australia, Canada and Japan. They are a significant source of money, knowledge and expertise that will play a major role in the country’s future development.

3.      Magnificent Sundarbans mangrove forests

Bangladesh’s most famous natural heritage region is the Sundarbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world (140,000 ha), on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. One of the largest remaining areas of mangroves, with magnificent scenic beauty, it is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, the UNESCO website says. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Royal Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python. Censuses of Royal Bengal Tigers estimate a population of between 400 to 450 individuals, a higher density than any other population of tigers in the world. It is the only mangrove habitat in the world for Panthera tigris tigris species, says UNESCO.

4.      World’s largest number of cycle-rickshaws?

painted and decorated

Of the estimated 400,000 cycle rickshaws nationwide, about 75% are in Dhaka, giving it the distinction of being the “Rickshaw Capital of the World”. The rickshaws are a major source of jobs for hundreds of thousands of people and an inexpensive and most non-polluting form of public transportation. If the drivers were to participate an international bicycle race, I suspect they would give world champions a run for their money, without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. The rickshaws are the only kind of vehicles that can be driven in many of the narrow back-streets and lanes. On weekdays, they are no longer allowed to ply on many major Dhaka streets, due to accidents and traffic. Many rickshaws are decorated with unique art forms, similar to the Manila jeepneys and Karachi buses. For the locals, they are just a “part of the scenery.” For visitors, they certainly make you think, especially when you see them going right against the traffic or transporting huge loads. However, like in many other Asian cities where they were once popular, I suspect their days are numbered.

5.      Jamdani fabrics

Jamdani fabrics are to Bangladesh what batik is to Malaysia/Indonesia and silk to Thailand. Women will be astounded by the amazing designs of the sheer cotton fabric, traditionally woven on a handloom by craftspeople. According to UNESCO, the word Jamdani itself means a vase of flowers (Jam – flower, dani – that which holds). Its weavers are considered to be among the best in South Asia. Says the UNESCO website, “Jamdani is a time-consuming and labour-intensive form of weaving because of the richness of its motifs, which are created directly on the loom using the discontinuous weft technique. Weaving is thriving today due to the fabric’s popularity for making saris, the principal dress of Bengali women at home and abroad. A few master weavers are recognized as bearers of the traditional Jamdani motifs and weaving techniques, and transmit the knowledge and skills to disciples.”

6.      For tea connoisseurs

For tea connoisseurs, Bangladesh offers a chance to try something different from the famous Darjeeling and Sri Lankan blends. The Bangladesh tea industry dates back to the colonial days of 1840 when a pioneer tea garden was established on the hills in Chittagong. This was followed by the first commercial tea garden in 1857 at Mulnichera in Sylhet. According to the Bangladesh.com website, the area around Sylhet is a traditional tea growing area. The picturesque Surma Valley is covered with terraces of tea gardens and lush forests. Srimangal is known as the tea capital of Bangladesh. The area has over 150 tea gardens including three of the largest in the world. Of the nearly 300,000 workers on the tea estates, more than 75% are women. A new five-star resort has opened in the area, the Grand Sultan Tea Resort & Golf. For ecotourists and nature lovers, another new property is the DuSai Hotel & Spa, just beside the largest concentration of tea gardens in Moulvibazar, about 200 km north-east of Dhaka.

Bangladesh exports tea worldwide. One of the more prominent brands is KK Tea, which claims to be the first organic tea substantially produced in Bangladesh, and the first to be certified by international certifying authorities. KK Tea also claims to be the only single-estate premium blend tea available to Bangladeshi consumers.

7.      Islamic tourism

Islamic tourism has great potential. Muslim visitors have no problems finding halal food and mosques. Local people are all familiar with Islamic culture and traditions. Of the many Islamic sites and monuments nationwide, the most prominent is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat. According to UNESCO, this ancient city is located at the meeting-point of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Formerly known as Khalifatabad, it was founded in the 15th century. Says the UNESCO website, The magnificent city, which extended for 50 km2, contains some of the most significant buildings of the initial period of the development of Muslim architecture of Bengal. They include 360 mosques, public buildings, mausoleums, bridges, roads, water tanks and other public buildings constructed from baked brick.”

It adds, “The quality of the infrastructures – the supply and evacuation of water, the cisterns and reservoirs, the roads and bridges – all reveal a perfect mastery of the techniques of planning and a will towards spatial organization. One of the largest mosques, Shait-Gumbad, represents the flavour of the traditional orthodox mosque plan and it is the only example of its kind in the whole of Bengal.”

Another must-see spot is the city of Rajshahi on the border with India. It boasts a unique collection of Muslim mosques and tombs, such as Kismat Madia Mosque, Jami Mosque, Bagha Mosque, Bagdhani Mosque, and tombs of Hazrat Shah Makhdum and Hazrat Shah Sultan. The Black stone statue collection in Varendra Museum is said to be the largest in the world, all the products of Bengal artisans.

8.      Buddhist Tourism

Bangladesh also has great potential to be an important spot on the Buddhist circuit. The country’s second UNESCO World Heritage site is the ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur, dating back to the period of Mahayana Buddhism in Bengal from the 7th century. According to UNESCO, Somapura Mahavira, or the Great Monastery, was a renowned intellectual centre until the 12th century. “Its layout perfectly adapted to its religious function, this monastery-city represents a unique artistic achievement. With its simple, harmonious lines and its profusion of carved decoration, it influenced Buddhist architecture as far away as Cambodia.”

Located to the north-west of Bangladesh in the district of Naogaon, the heart-land of ancient “Varendra”, the extensive ruins of the Buddhist monastic complex are considered to be the most spectacular and important pre-Islamic monument in Bangladesh. Paharpur is the second largest single Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas. Says UNESCO, “Epigraphic records testify that the cultural and religious life of this great Vihara, were closely linked with the contemporary Buddhist centres of fame and history at Bodhgaya and Nalanda, many Buddhist treatises were completed at Paharpur, a centre where the Vajrayana trend of Mahayana Buddhism was practiced.” It adds, “The striking architectural form introduced at Paharpur on a grand scale for the first time in Asia, profoundly influenced the subsequent construction of temples of Pagan in Myanmar and Loro-Jongrang and Chandi Sewer temples in central Java.”

A small site-museum built in 1956-57 houses objects recovered from the area, such as terracotta plaques, images of different gods and goddesses, pottery, coins, inscriptions, ornamental bricks, and other minor clay objects.

Also awaiting heritage listing are the Lalmai-Mainamati Group of monuments in the Comilla region. According to UNESCO, some fifty archaeological sites have been identified on an area of elevated land 18 km long and 4.5 km wide, representing a major religious and political centre from which Buddhism was spread to South East Asia.

9.      Cricket competition

For the first time, Bangladesh became the center of attention of the cricketing world when the ICC World Twenty20 competition was held from 16 March to 6 April 2014. A total of 62 tournament matches (35 men’s and 27 women’s) were played across Chittagong, Dhaka and Sylhet. Bangladesh made its maiden appearance at the women’s event. The logo for the ICC World Twenty20 2014 was inspired by the unique painted rickshaws. As always, the most watched match was that between India and Pakistan. In the final, Sri Lanka beat India. The event gave the country a much needed morale boost and proved that it had what it takes to hold such sporting events. Clearly, more will follow, giving Bangladesh considerable global TV exposure.

10.  Two World War cemeteries

One hears a lot about the World War cemeteries and memorials of Turkey and Thailand, but Bangladesh is the only Asian country to have two World War cemeteries: the Maynamati War Cemetery Comilla and Chittagong Commonwealth War Cemetery.

Over 700 casualties of the 1939-45 war are commemorated in the Maynamati Cemetery, located some 7 kilometres from the centre of Comilla, which is on the railway line linking Dhaka to Chittagong. It also can be reached by the Dhaka – Chittagong highway. According to the listing on Wikipedia, during the war, a large military camp was established at Maynamati, including several ordnance depots and a number of military hospitals, both British and Indian. Graves from isolated places in the surrounding country, and some from as far afield as Burma, were moved into the cemetery. Amidst the indigenous flowering and evergreen trees, on a terrace, stands the Cross of Sacrifice, and on the other side a shelter looks over the Muslim graves.

The Chittagong Commonwealth War Cemetery was also established after World War II and contains 755 graves, according to the Wikipedia listing. Set up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, this cemetery was originally created by the British Army, with about 400 burials. Since then, graves have since been transferred from the Lushai Hills (Assam) and other isolated sites, and from Chittagong Civil Cemetery. It is located 22 kilometers north of the airport.

Both cemeteries are good places to hold some war memorial events similar to those in Europe, Australia and Turkey.

11.  The Grameen bank

Bangladesh attained very positive global prominence when the micro-credit finance institution Grameen Bank and its founder Prof Mohammed Yunus, jointly won a Nobel Peace prize in 2006. According to the official announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the prize was awarded “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.”

Said the committee, “Muhammad Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries. Loans to poor people without any financial security had appeared to be an impossible idea. From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus has, first and foremost through Grameen Bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty. Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development.”

Grameen Bank’s positive impact has been documented in many independent studies by the World Bank, the International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI) and the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). Prof Yunus is a smart and erudite public speaker who would make a great keynote presenter at travel industry conferences around the world.

12.  Product upgrade

Major tourism product upgrades are under way. National carrier Bangladesh Biman has phased out its entire fleet of old DC-10 workhorses and replaced them with a new fleet of five Boeing 777 ERs. Two 737-800s and four new 787-8s are scheduled to be delivered in November/December 2015 and 2019-2020. The Bangladesh In the city, the Ruposhi Bangla hotel, formerly the Sheraton, will be refurbished and reopened as an Inter-Con. Many other smart, independently-owned boutique hotels are coming up. Other new products are emerging upcountry. The main Banglabandhu convention and exhibition centre in Dhaka is bound to get a much-needed overhaul. That will give a huge impetus to the MICE sector and trigger a system-wide ripple-effect of advances in everything from new hotels to events management companies and suppliers of goods and services to the MICE industry.


Like elsewhere in Asia, change never comes easy. Old habits die hard. Those who profit from the status quo resist losing power and influence. There will be social, political, cultural and economic tensions as the forces of changes push and pull in all directions. Eventually, however, those at the bottom rung of the ladder will find ways to overcome the challenges in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Travel & tourism has enormous potential to be an important part of the solution and contribute to positive change.

Further info:


http://tourismboard.gov.bd/ Contact: Mr Akhtaruz Zaman Khan Kabir, CEO

Recommended tour operators:

http://www.journeyplus.com/ Contact: Mr Taufiq Rahman, Chief Executive.

http://www.galaxyholidays.com.bd/ Contact: Mr Syed Ghulam Qadir, Managing Director.