-By Raquib Siddiqi
Tourism in Bangladesh is having a rudderless existence. The government has failed not only to build a workable tourism infrastructure but also to provide proper guidance to private sector which in recent years has come up in a big way in tourism development.The private sector deserve all the credit for whatever development that tourism in Bangladesh has made thus far. In the absence track record, the private sector has also become responsible for unplanned development of infrastructure and unrestricted misuse of resources in the form of ‘free for all’ type of tour operation. The situation is posing great threat to the ecosystem of most of the attractive eco-tourism spots of the country.
The issue of damages being done to the natural attractions in Bangladesh by the tourism industry is not a case of killing “the goose that lays the golden egg” as the saying goes. It is indeed a case of killing the goose before that laid the golden egg, because this far, Bangladesh has failed to attract international tourists in sizable number.
Tourism can be considered as one of the most remarkable socio-economic phenomena of the twentyfirst century. From an activity “enjoyed by only a small group of relatively well-off people” during the first half of the last century, it gradually became a mass phenomenon during the post-World War II period, particularly from the 1970s onwards. It now reaches an increasingly larger number of people throughout the world and can be considered a vital dimension of global integration.
While tourism provides considerable economic benefits for many countries, regions and communities, its rapid expansion can also be responsible for adverse environmental, as well as socio-cultural, impacts.
Natural resource depletion and environmental degradation associated with tourism activities pose severe problems to many tourism-rich regions. The fact that most tourists chose to maintain their relatively high patterns of consumption (and waste generation) when they reach their destinations can be a particularly serious problem for developing countries and regions without the appropriate means for protecting their natural resources and local ecosystems from the pressures of mass tourism.
The two main areas of environmental impact of tourism are: pressure on natural resources and damage to ecosystems. Furthermore, it is now widely recognized not only that uncontrolled tourism expansion is likely to lead to environmental degradation, but also that environmental degradation, in turn, poses a serious threat to tourism activities.
In Bangladesh the attractive landscape sites such as sandy beaches of Cox’s Bazar and Kuakata, mangrove forest of the Sunderbans, St.Martin Coral Island and coastal island of Sonadia are characterized by species-rich ecosystems. In these and in many others like Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet areas, the country has eco-tourism gold mines. These attractions are yet to be properly developed for exploitation, yet damages to ecosystem in some of these are becoming noticeable.
It may be noted that an ecosystem is a geographic area including all the living organisms (people, plants, animals, and microorganisms), their physical surroundings (such as soil, water, and air), and the natural cycles that sustain them. The ecosystems most threatened with degradation are ecologically fragile areas such as alpine regions, rain forests, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass beds. The threats to and pressures on these ecosystems are often severe because such places are very attractive to both tourists and developers.
The quality of the environment, both natural and man-made, is essential to tourism. However, tourism’s relationship with the environment is complex. It involves many activities that can have adverse environmental effects. Many of these impacts are linked to the construction of general infrastructure such as roads and airports, and tourism facilities, including resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses and marinas. The negative impacts of tourism development can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends.
Negative impacts from tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope the use within the acceptable limits of change. Uncontrolled conventional tourism poses threats to many natural areas around the world. It can put enormous pressure on an area and lead to impacts such as soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and biodiversity of forest.
Solid waste and littering
In areas with high concentrations of tourist activities and appealing natural attractions, waste disposal is a serious problem and improper disposal can be a major despoiler of the natural environment – rivers, scenic areas, and roadsides. Solid waste and littering can degrade the physical appearance of the water and shoreline and cause the death of marine animals.
Construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution. Wastewater has polluted seas and lakes surrounding tourist attractions, damaging the flora and fauna. Sewage runoff causes serious damage to coral reefs because it stimulates the growth of algae, which cover the filter-feeding corals, hindering their ability to survive. Changes in salinity and siltation can have wide-ranging impacts on coastal environments. And sewage pollution can threaten the health of humans and animals.
Physical impacts are caused not only by tourism-related land clearing and construction, but by continuing tourist activities and long-term changes in local economies and ecology.
The development of tourism facilities such as accommodation, water supplies, restaurants and recreation facilities can involve sand mining, beach and sand dune erosion, soil erosion and extensive paving. In addition, road and airport construction can lead to land degradation and loss of wildlife habitats and deterioration of scenery.
Overbuilding and extensive paving of shorelines can result in destruction of habitats and disruption of land-sea connections (such as sea-turtle nesting spots). Coral reefs are especially fragile marine ecosystems and are suffering worldwide from reef-based tourism developments. Evidence suggests a variety of impacts to coral result from shoreline development, increased sediments in the water, trampling by tourists and divers, ship groundings, pollution from sewage, overfishing, and fishing with poisons and explosives that destroy coral habitat.
Recent reports about unplanned infra-structural development and abusive behavior of tour operators and visitors in Cox;s Bazar, St.Martin Island, the Sundarbans and Kuakata are matter of alarm and great concern. Most of the negative impact of unplanned development and unrestricted tour operation are becoming visible in some of these areas specially in Cox’s Bazar, St.Martin Island and The Sunderbans.
In 2009, about one million tourists visited Cox’s Bazar, About 2,00,000 visited St. Martin Island and over 1,00,000 visited The Sunderbans.
Cox’s Bazar, the main tourist spot of the country is occupied by a rapidly growing number of hotels, restaurants, and tourism facilities. The abuse in Cox’s Bazar has gone past beyond tolerable limit, yet the authorities concerned prefer to remain just unconcerned silent spectators.
Deforestation has occurred on a large scale on the Teknaf Peninsula close to Cox’s Bazar, with forest extraction an important occupation for many of the illegal settlers. Most residents are dependent on wood for fuel, which is obtained primarily without permit, creating an on-going and growing cycle of destruction that can only be abated if other sources of energy become available.
Erosion is also an increasing concern due to hill cutting from higher ground areas to fill low marshland areas for farming or development. Reports from tour operators, guest houses, and hotels in Cox’s Bazar indicate this problem is aggravated by the coastal building boom, where land fill is required for the construction of hotels and a new Marine Drive.
Population growth is part of the picture. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees migrated to the peninsula from Myanmar in the 1970s and 1990s, causing large-scale conversion of forest to agricultural land. Populations have grown by 3 per cent per year, and settlements continue to have an adverse impact on flora and fauna.
Conversion of mangrove for shrimp aquaculture in the tidal floodplains is extensive. These farms, together with deforestation, because increased vulnerability to storm surges and heavy rains, both of which affect sea beaches and create increasing siltation along the coastline.
In Cox’s Bazar, the hotel boom is transpiring without a city sewage system or adequate drainage areas for septic systems. Hoteliers, tour operators, and residents agree these deficiencies are threatening the sanitation of the sea beaches.
On St. Martin’s Island, tourism is having an increasingly negative impact: (1) Tourism is polluting the water and causing erosion on the island. (2) Shells and corals are being collected and coral habitat is decreasing. (3) Lights on beach from tourism development is hampering sea turtle nesting. (4) There is no solid waste management. (5) The rare coral reef is threatened by uncontrolled anchoring and large-scale waste dumping. (6) Tourism vessels are spilling oil. And (7) Hotels are using up the island’s limited groundwater, causing severe problems for the islanders
The visitation numbers show a very high number of domestic tourists to the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. Of the total number of visitors to the Sundarbans Reserve Forest, foreign visitors make up less than 2 per cent of this total. The number of visitors under professional tour operators are significantly low compared to the total.
Management of tourism in the Sundarbans Reserve Forest is therefore largely a matter of managing visitors from Bangladesh. But there is no management. Boat loads picnic parties on privately arranged tours form the bulk of the total visitors. With loud microphone songs and unmanaged activities inside the forest, they have become agents of damage to the ecosystems.
However little is being done to manage these visitors who have distinct needs, there are no economic benefits flowing to the reserve as a result of this growth in domestic interest, and social/ community benefits are very small indeed. If this were not problematic enough, environmental damage is increasing rapidly. The situation therefore should be considered a warning signal, given that the tourism industry is presently causing increasing negative impacts to the Sunderbans.
Ecologically Critical Areas
The Department of Environment declared Sonadia Island, St. Martin’s Island and the Western coastal zone of the Teknaf Peninsula as Ecologically Critical Areas in 1999.
Actions to protect the ecological systems are yet to come. There is urgent need to conduct awareness programmes, baseline surveys, regenerate mangroves, and create zoning regimens for critical habitats.
A substantial public awareness programme to encourage visitors to protect natural resources on St. Martin’s island and The Sunderbans must start without delay to minimize and halt the damage. A balance between conservation and development must be found as soon as possible to develop ecotourism.
Private Sector Linkages
The private sector must be involved in every phase of development of ecotourism to ensure that projects developed associated with protected areas achieve appropriate market linkages. Communities must be carefully linked to the supply chain with private sector partners. All tourism marketing and sales should be consigned to private sector partners.
Environmental threats to tourism
In many mountain regions, small islands, coastal areas and other ecologically fragile places visited by tourists, there is an increasing concern that the negative impact of tourism on the natural environment can ultimately hurt the tourism industry itself. In other words, the negative impact of intensive tourism activities on the environmental quality of beaches, mountains, rivers, forests and other ecosystems also compromise the viability of the tourism industry in these places.
There is now plenty of evidence of the ‘life-cycle’ of a tourist destination, that is, the evolution from its discovery, to development and eventual decline because of over-exploitation and subsequent deterioration its key attractions. In many developing and developed countries alike, tourism destinations are becoming overdeveloped up to the point where the damage caused by environmental degradation—and the eventual loss of revenues arising from a collapse in tourism arrivals— becomes irreversible.
Sustainable tourism development
The buzz word of current global tourism industry is the sustainable development.Countries and regions where the economy is driven by the tourism industry have become increasingly concerned with the environmental, as well as the socio-cultural problems associated with unsustainable tourism. As a result, there is now increasing agreement on the need to promote sustainable tourism development to minimize its environmental impact and to maximize socio-economic overall benefits at tourist destinations. The tourism authorities on Bangladesh seems to not aware of the situation.
The concept of sustainable tourism, as developed by the United Nation World Tourism Organization in the context of the United Nations sustainable development process, refers to tourist activities “leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems”
Tourism is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world. It is an increasingly important source of income, employment and wealth in many countries. However, it’s rapidexpansion has also had detrimental environmental (and socio-cultural) impact in many regions.
The new approaches to sustainable tourism development should not only seek to minimize local environmental impact, but also give greater priority to community participation and poverty reduction. In particular, more emphasis should be given to a ‘pro-poor tourism’ approach at both national and international levels.
This emerging global consciousness represents a great opportunity for tourism industry. To translate this new consciousness of the sector’s value into action and to ensure these wider benefits are achieved, the government must not leave anything to chance. But unfortunately, ourthe government has left everything to chance.
At the conclusion of the third Global Travel & Tourism Summit held in May 2003, more than 500 of the world’s most influential business and political leaders called on WTTC to create a new vision and strategy for Travel & Tourism. A vision that would involve a coherent partnership between all. The WTTC Blueprint for building New Tourism is to help bring new benefits to the wider world.
The New Tourism needs new joint strategies, using new mechanisms springing from new partnerships with public authorities. Industry’s recognition of its broader responsibilities has to be matched by government, and all sides must be prepared to adopt a new form of long-term thinking, and a new degree of openness and cooperation, to develop contingency planning as well as development strategies. With the public and private sectors working together at all levels, growth can be strategically planned to be sustainable and sensitive, not only to develop the sector’s potential, but also to defend it against severe disruption due to external events beyond its direct control.
Long-term objectives for national tourism policy can be set as a vision of how government and the country’s citizens wish to develop Travel & Tourism in conjunction with the private sector. A widely agreed plan will help spread the benefits equitably across the country to all stakeholders, stimulating support and commitment from all sectors.
New Tourism means accepting the responsibility to provide a secure and predictable future, where planning relates to the extended time frames into which the private sector has to project its own investment.
It must be remembered that tourism has the potential to create beneficial effects on the environment by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. It is a way to raise awareness of environmental values and it can serve as a tool to finance protection of natural areas and increase their awareness.
Our government must promptly take measures to protect the tourism resources. Sooner the action come, the better for the country and the nation.
(The writer is former edior, The Banglaqdesh Times.)