Conceptual Plan for Integrating Community – based Tourism along the Bangladesh – India Protocol Route for Inland Navigation

Background & Rationale:

Spread across the coastal region of Bay of Bengal and considered as one of the natural wonders of the world, the Sundarbans is a huge forest located in the delta region of Padma, Meghna and Brahmaputra river basins. The world’s largest coastal mangrove forest extends across Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat districts of Bangladesh and South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal in India. Writing about the Sundarbans archipelago, eminent author Amitav Ghosh in his popular fiction ‘The Hungry Tide’ describes, “There are no borders here to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea. The tides reach as far as three hundred kilometers inland and every day thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater only to re-emerge hours later.” He further depicts, “When the tides create new land, overnight mangroves begin to gestate, and if the conditions are right they can spread so fast as to cover a new island within a few short years.” However, compared to its potential of becoming one of the most sought after global tourist destinations, the Sundarbans has chiefly remained as a weekend getaway for the urban population of Kolkata.

The initiative to develop and promote community-based river cruise tourism between Bangladesh and India, especially in and near the Sundarbans, has the potential to not only popularise some of the existing tourism routes and locations in this part of the world, but also identify new destinations and routes for tourism that can-do justice to the unique experience that Sunderbans can offer from an ecological, cultural and historical perspective. The uniqueness of the largest delta forest of the Indo-Bangla sub-region has the potential to attract tourists from across the world. While there have been sporadic interests among domestic and foreign tourists to explore this nonpareil land of mangroves, tiger, estuarine crocodile and Olive Ridley turtle, a comprehensive plan based on detailed fact-finding on tourism prospects can enable better promotion of global tourism for this terrain.

Apart from the exquisite flora and fauna of the mangrove forests; pilgrimage and heritage sites, local cultural events including fairs, festivals and many other traditional practices by the local communities of Sundarbans can become popular incentives for tourists. Bonbibi Pujo, a traditional worship revered by both the Muslim and Hindu communities of the delta island, to save themselves from the attack of tigers, is a unique example of harmony prevailing amongst the two major communities of the region.

Appropriate promotion of community-based river cruise tourism has substantial potential towards generation of new and sustainable livelihood for local inhabitants, a majority of who belong to poor and marginalised section of the society. There is also widespread migration by male population in the Sunderbans due to lack of employment opportunities leaving the women to manage households, agriculture and other small-time income generation activities at the local level like fishing. Tourism with appropriate capacity enhancement can generate better livelihood options for these communities and particularly women and also help them promote local cuisines, art and culture, with better returns in terms of income. Additionally, promotion of sustainable and responsible tourism in the Sunderbans will help highlight the importance of this unique mangrove land which is already identified as UNESCO World Heritage site, help preserve the delicate ecological balance of this unique biosphere through global attention, exposure and participation. This will in turn, help strengthen the evidence for framing policies (by governments on both sides of the border) that are unique for the sustainable use and preservation of the Sunderban biospheres.

Objectives of the Study

The specific objectives of this assignment are as follows:

  • Identify and study the possible and most feasible route (likely to be the already identified Kolkata – Haldia – Raimingal – Mongla – Kawkhali – Barisal – Hizla – Chandpur – Narayanganj route) of India Bangladesh waterways to understand the following in a sequential manner;
  • Identify locations of interest (tentatively in terms of ecological, cultural, historical, adventure, religious and nostalgia factors) for tourism along and near this identified route. This will include a listing of all such places, seasons, activities, festivals, etc. that may be of interest to tourists;
  • Identify and document existing and required infrastructure at such potential locations for tourism development, with emphasis on community-based tourism;
  • Look at policies and regulations that govern navigability along the route and understand what changes may be needed, if any;
  • Identify opportunities and challenges for operating river cruise tourism in the identified route. This will include issues like navigability (to be ascertained through available government data and rigorous interaction with local knowledge resources (particularly boatmen and sarengs), embarkation spots and their existing infrastructure, links from river to nearest place of interest,
  • Briefly understand the impact of river cruise tourism on political-economy factors at the local level, including developing local livelihood opportunities linked to such tourism along the identified route.
  • Prepare a conceptual plan of the various tourist circuits possible (with emphasis on night-stay within the communities) using a mix of unique or alternative themes for each circuit.
  • Recommend additional studies that will be required, prior to either any public investment, or before putting the proposal to private sector to attract investment.

Approach and Methodology

  • The project is being implementing through a combination of desk and field research with an aim to identify locations of interest along and near the proposed Indo-Bangla protocol route, generating and/or strengthening available information on the identified locations, highlighting existing and required infrastructure for tourism promotion, gathering preliminary information and evidence on local socio-economic factors that may be impacted by such tourism. The desk research is being undertaken based on available secondary literature on the existing tourism routes, available information on existing infrastructure and the policies and regulations which govern tourism promotion in and around the Sundarbans.
  • CUTS has partnered with its strategic partner Unnayan Shamannay in Bangladesh so as to undertake this work effectively in Bangladesh. The Unnayan Shamannay team is working on this assignment with support and guidance from the CUTS team.
    Based on the desk research and also to add to it, Key Informant Interviews were undertaken by CUTS and its Bangladesh partner to add to secondary and available information and evidence and also to inform the primary research. This primarily involved interviews with government officials, people’s representatives, experts and known champions of Sunderbans. The idea of this activity was to validate secondary information and also add new information on possibilities for cruise-tourism in the Sunderban, including identifying new locations that may have potential.
  • A comprehensive field work is being undertaken to understand the feasibility and potential of developing community-based river cruise tourism along the Indo-Bangla protocol route through Sundarbans. This involves multi-stakeholder perception analysis through structured questionnaire survey of stakeholders including government officials, entrepreneurs, people’s representatives, opinion leaders, subject experts, civil society organizations and media. Key informant interviews of relevant stakeholders will also help to understand the impact of tourism development on the local livelihood generation
  • While the primary objective of the study is to develop tourism, focused interviews with stakeholders will also be undertaken to understand experts’ opinion and apprehend people’s perception about the impact of tourism development on local biosphere, flora and fauna of the largest mangrove delta forest in the Bay of Bengal region.

Expected Outcome:

The study will result in the following outcomes:

  • Better understanding on Kolkata-Dhaka river route(s) and locations of tourism potential along the route
  • Better understanding on the policy, infrastructure, facilities and political-economy related challenges that will need to be addressed to promote tourism
  • Overall understanding on the impact of river cruise tourism along the identified route on local livelihood and hence the ownership of such tourism by the local people (crucial for successful implementation)
  • Better understanding by private players interested in river cruise operation on feasibility, opportunities and challenges along this route

Project Duration

March 2018 – June 2018