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The undiscovered paradise

Article - November 13, 2012
Huge on beauty and cultural heritage but small on tourism, Bangladesh is one of the world's most fascinating, exotic and pristine destinations.

Despite being able to boast lush tropical jungles, abundant wildlife, pristine beaches, fascinating culture and welcoming and hospitable people – to date Bangladesh has remained one of the Asia’s best-kept secrets.

However, that is all about to change as the large country that lies north of the Bay of Bengal and that spans over 55,600 square miles gears up to promote its vast array of unspoiled natural and cultural highlights. With the development of a new wave of eco lodges and high-end luxury resorts, Bangladesh is on target to become a top tourist destination particularly with travelers seeking relaxation and adventure well off the beaten track.

Water is an element that has carved the land and molded the culture of the Bengal people for millennia with 360 miles of coastline, countless clear water lakes, cascading waterfalls and over 800 serpentine rivers – some of which are home to numerous fish species including the rare fresh water dolphin.

One of Bangladesh’s most famous attractions is the Sundarbans, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designated in November 2001. The largest mangrove forest in the world it, is located at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers between India and Bangladesh. Voted one of the seven natural wonders of Asia, its forest and waterways are one of the most biologically productive of all natural ecosystems and support a wide range of fauna including a number of species threatened with extinction such as the single largest population of Bengal tigers in the world. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researchers also reported in early 2009 that nearly 6,000 rare Irrawaddy dolphins – marine mammals that are closely related to orcas, had been discovered living in freshwater regions of the Sundarbans and the adjacent waters of the Bay of Bengal. 

Bangladesh is a tourism spot. It is so green. Yet It is not just the nature that makes it so beautiful – it is also the people.

Faruk Khan, Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism

For travelers seeking beach paradise, Cox’s Bazar offers 75 miles of golden sand coastline, making it the longest uninterrupted swathe of beach in the world. Also nominated one of the seven natural wonders of Asia, its turquoise waters are home to numerous sea animals including the mighty blue whale; and here visitors can see towering cliffs, colorful pagodas, Buddhist temples, enjoy excellent seafood and even surf the coast’s world class breakers.

There are also the jungle-clad hills, ravines and bamboo covered cliffs of the Chittagong Hill tracts, home to the people of the Adivasis tribes and ancient Buddhist monasteries. This is the setting for the stunning Lake Kaptai fringed by evergreen forests; and is the zone of Bangladesh’s peaks including Tahjindong, at 4,632 feet, the highest mountain in the country.

Bangladesh has been a major tea producer for hundreds of years and this has forged the development of thousands of hectares of tea plantations that drape the rolling hills of the Sylhet region. Srimangal is known as the tea capital of Bangladesh and the slopes of the picturesque Surma Valley are crisscrossed with the terraces of tea gardens set amongst lush green tropical forests. The area has over 150 tea gardens including three of the largest tea gardens in the world both in area and production, spread over 40,000 acres of verdant Bangladeshi countryside.

A visit to the tea plantation in Sylhet is unforgettable. The gardens are relics from the days of the British Raj and tea plantation managers still live in the colonial white timber bungalows that stand on beautifully maintained lawns. Life in the plantations has changed little over the past two centuries and the tea gardens make a delightful stop over for visitors who can enjoy the tranquil surroundings while sipping freshly picked tea.

But natural wonders are not all that Bangladesh has going for it. Tourists are beginning to catch onto Bengal culturalal wealth too, such as the eighth century Somapuri Vihara monastery at Paharpur. Formerly the biggest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalaya it covers some 11 hectares. It is among the best known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

The country also claims another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Lost Mosque City of Bagerhat. Founded in the 15th century by the Turkish warrior, general Ulugh Khan Jahan, the city has been listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 15 lost cities of the world. It includes more than 50 Islamic monuments and the renowned Sixty Pillar Mosque constructed with 60 pillars and 77 domes; as well as the UNESCO protected mausoleum of Khan Jahan.

As recently as 2004 scientists discovered an ancient citadel in northern Narsingdi, 30 miles northeast of the county’s capital Dhaka. At 2,450 years old it is one of the oldest monuments in the region and is thought to have formed the eastern limit of ancient Mauryan Empire.

Fortunately, recent governments have acted with foresight to protect Bangladesh’s natural and cultural heritage; and the country is party to key global environmental treaties on biodiversity, climate change, endangered species and hazardous waste. In 2002 Bangladesh took the bold step to ban the use, production and marketing of polyethylene shopping bags; and has also put in place strict controls to curb vehicular
air pollution.

In addition, the country has put in place reforms to conserve its wetlands, generate green electricity and keep its rivers pollution free. The government has also set up 602,137 acres of national park and protected zones which make up 2% of the country’s total area. This includes eight national parks, five conservation sites, seven wildlife sanctuaries and one game reserve.

It is hard to understand why such a natural paradise which is also so rich in world-class archeological sites has been overlooked by the global tourist industry but Faruk Kahn, Bangladesh’s Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism, provides an explanation. He believes that tourists have been slow to catch onto Bangladesh because of misconceptions about the country as a flood zone as it is often only catapulted into the world’s media attention in times of disaster. He says: “When you talk about floods, it is not the same as it is in Brazil. We have three kinds of floods – low, medium and high. Bangladesh must have a medium flood every year in order to replenish the topsoil for our fertile land. We have floods, but they are part of the monsoon cycle and key to our agriculture. They are very much not flash floods that come and destroy everything in Indonesia and Brazil.”

Mr. Kahn believes that there is a huge opportunity for the sustainable development of the tourism industry given the country’s natural and cultural treasures, its stable economy and burgeoning home grown middle class. The country has seen growth of more than 6% a year over the last decade.

The Minister explains that the combination of a stable economy in a country that still has huge room for development means that now is an excellent time for investors to take a stake in Bangladesh’s potentially lucrative tourist industry. He says: “If we want to attract tourists from different parts of the world, we have to develop communications infrastructure and accommodation and transport infrastructure, as well as entertainment. I think there is scope to develop this industry in my country, and if investors invest in this sector in Bangladesh, it will be profitable, and the country will develop. The sector will flourish and people will be able to discover at last the wealth of unspoiled natural and cultural heritage that Bangladesh has to offer.”