Padma Bridge opens a new horizon for tourism in Bangladesh

Roadside restaurateur Nazrul Islam in Kuakata, a small, sleepy town with a panoramic sea beach on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, considers monsoon as the off-peak season when tourists visiting the locality to enjoy the scenic views are far fewer in number than in other seasons, hence his business slows down significantly.

Golam Mortujabdnews24.com
Published : 24 June 2022, 05:29 PM
Updated : 24 June 2022, 05:32 PM

Every year during the off-peak season, Nazrul, whose speciality is fresh fried seafood, tends to scale back his operation and wait until the monsoon is over so that he can run his business at full capacity.

The ongoing monsoon, however, came a little differently for him.

At present, he is busy redecorating and revamping his restaurant and has just installed a new refrigerator to store food items. Because he is expecting a change in the inflow of tourists after Jun 25.

That's the day Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the Padma Bridge, a dream come true for tens of millions of Bangladeshis on the south-western side of the country which covers three out of eight administrative divisions -- parts of Dhaka, Barishal and Khulna.

Not only restaurateurs or hoteliers like Nazrul but also the tour operators who organise visits to the Sundarbans -- the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to myriads of animals including the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger -- are considering the opening of the bridge as a game-changer for them as they expect the number of domestic tourists visiting the region will rise significantly.

FOCUS ON WEEKEND TOURISM

The bridge, for all its intents and purposes, will surely change one thing - the communication between the region and the rest of the country. According to an estimate, it will reduce the travel time by 4-6 hours to the 21 administrative districts from Dhaka.

For example, by road, the distance between Dhaka to Kuakata is 262 km and at present, travel time is 10-12 hours. The bridge will cut the travel time down to 5-6 hours maximum.

That factor alone has the potential to boost weekend tourism, as visitors may plan to make a quick getaway to a resort in Kuakata, and Bagerhat, or even a safari in the Sundarbans.

Ahsan Habib, an assistant general manager at a state-owned bank, is someone as such. He often travels with an entourage of friends to different remote parts of Bangladesh during his holidays, especially on long weekends.

Long weekends in Bangladesh mean an additional day or two of public holidays, on either side of the actual weekend -- Friday and Saturday.

“After the opening of the bridge, we may even plan a trip to Kuakata soon,” he said.

The tour operators and administrators, however, are not sure if Kuakata and the Sundarbans have the capacity and infrastructure required to handle a surge in the flow of tourists.

For example, places to stay in Kuakata are limited, as Ruman Imtiaz, president of the Tour Operators’ Association of Kuakata, said existing hotels and resorts can only host a maximum of 15,000 people at a time.

It also appears the Kuakata-based tour operators have seen the signs a bit earlier than the rest. According to Ruman, several newly built hotels and resorts are about to make a debut.

All of them agreed that preserving the status quo of biodiversity is also a major challenge, as this factor is the main attraction in Kuakata and the Sundarbans.

Masud Hossain, managing director of Bengal Tours, has been organising trips to the Sundarbans for foreign tourists for the last three decades. He said they often opted for taking the air route to either Jashore or Barishal to avoid the interruptions at the ferry terminals.

“After the opening [of the bridge], we can reduce our costs significantly if our tourists take the road or train, which also means we can attract more domestic tourists,” he said.

“My one concern is preserving the biodiversity [of the Sundarbans] as it is, because a rising inflow of tourists may upset it.”

Nazrul Islam Bachchu, the proprietor of Khulna-based Pugmark Tours and Travels, which operates two ships for tourists for Sundarbans trips, is more concerned about the existing infrastructure.

“There is hardly any pier [in Khulna’s Mongla] for tourists to board our ships properly. Not only would we not find a hotel or resort to keep at least 50 tourists but also there are no restaurants where you can make arrangements for 40 people at a time. I’m not sure what will happen when the number of tourists increases,” he said.

He believes private operators do not have such deep pockets to build necessary infrastructure by themselves. He asked the government to step up its game.

Abu Taher Mohammad Jaber, CEO of Bangladesh Tourism Board, is aware of the lack of preparations to manage an increased flow of tourists.

“For decades, tourists have been visiting Khulna and Barishal areas despite challenges in travelling. That’s all about to change,” he said.

“However, a lack of infrastructure is still a major concern. I’m sure the government is going to make a significant investment to develop tourism [in Khulna and Barishal], but we [BTB] are more geared towards luring in private investors.”

METAMORPHOSIS OF SHIMULIA

As soon as the bridge opens, most of Bangladesh’s traffic bound for the southwest, especially coaches and trucks, will be diverted via the bridge to cross the river Padma, which will save hours, even days for passengers and goods to reach their destination.

But the downside for these traders at the ferry terminal, known as Ghat in Bangla vernacular, is that they will lose most of their target customers - passengers, drivers and transport workers. And they are yet to figure out how they are going to cope with the soon-to-be-changed future.

For Bangladesh, it is not a unique phenomenon though. When Bangabandhu Multipurpose Bridge on the river Jamuna was opened back in the 1990s, the Balashi Ghat in Gaibandha and the Bahadurabad Ghat in Jamalpur had practically become ghost towns overnight as all the commuters who regularly used the launch services had started using the bridge.

Traders at Shimulia ferry terminal, which currently serves the passengers and transport workers crossing the river, and its surrounding areas are quite aware and worried about the future that lies ahead of them. They want government intervention so that fresh investments come in and make the place attractive to visitors.

One of them, Moslem Uddin, is not ready to give up yet though his income from the business has suffered a significant drop.

A part-owner of a riverside restaurant next to the terminal, Moslem believes the area has much potential as a tourist attraction, and people from Dhaka and surrounding towns visit the area often to get a taste of fresh hilsa, especially in the evening after working hours.

In his Munshiganj dialect, Moslem said, “For the last 18 months or so, my businesses have shrunk to some extent and I'd have to lay off some members of the staff. Not sure what I’m going to do when the bridge opens to the public, but I’m still hopeful.”

There are around 16 such restaurants around the terminal and all of those have hilsa and its eggs as the signature dish -- a delicacy in Bangladeshi cuisine.

Arif Khan, manager of a riverside restaurant called the Bikrampur Padma Restaurant, is also banking on hilsa and the trend of the crowd it is currently driving into the terminal. The owner of the eatery has recently expanded the restaurant with the hope that the area has the potential to become a full-blown tourist attraction after commuter movement drops significantly at the terminal.

“Our weekend sales are terrific. The whole area is crowded with visitors coming to our restaurants from Dhaka with their families and friends,” Arif said.

Raj, a young man who had identified himself with his first name only, runs a convenience store on wheels in the area. He is also optimistic about the area’s tourism prospects.

“I open for business in the evening only and my target customers are these visitors who come from Dhaka. These people will keep coming here whether the terminal remains operational or not. I believe the number will increase. All rests on the almighty’,” he said.

Saikat Hossain, a member of a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, often comes to the terminal area.

He is a resident of the older part of Dhaka. It is literally a 45-minute ride for Saikat and his fellow motorcyclists, who love to spend time on the bank of the river after sundown and listen to the sounds of the river flowing on a moonlit night, which he says makes him relaxed after a long day of work.

“There are only a handful of spots in Dhaka where you can go for fresh air. The ride here [on a motorcycle] is immensely exciting too. Special bus service from Dhaka to the terminal for visitors may drive in more visitors,” he said.

During Eid, the launches in Shimulia are usually overflowing with passengers looking to make their way home for the holiday. But, most of the time, the launches make only a couple of trips a day and spend most of their time docked in port. Launch workers worry even those few trips will dry up once the Padma Bridge opens. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Another motorcyclist, Moudud Hossain, had somewhat similar thoughts. “It’s such an amazing place! The breeze on the bank of the river is really enjoyable and you can spend time and eat here at a really low cost,” he said.

He came up with a list of suggestions for improvement as well.

“Security is a concern that needs to be addressed. Lavatory facilities are inadequate too. The owners could set up food courts on the bank so that people can eat while enjoying the breeze,” he said.

The Shimulia terminal locality falls under the administrative jurisdiction of Medini Mandal Union of Munshiganj, and Ashraf Hossain Khan currently heads the body that governs it.

Unlike the restaurateurs and retailers, Ashraf says a different group of service providers are at a real disadvantage because of the bridge and are yet to come up with a coping strategy.

They are the operators of launches and speedboats and small retailers.

“Officially at least 87 launches and over 150 speed boats operate from the terminal. They are about to lose their livelihood as soon as the bridge opens,” he said.

The chairman of the union council called upon the government to come up with a new strategy as soon as possible to help the small retailers at a disadvantage.

He, however, also acknowledged the fact that tourism may turn things around for a lot of people.

“The bank of the river Padma gives some breathing space to the people cooped up in Dhaka. Where else can they find such an option?” he said.

ROADMAP BY DECEMBER

Tourism Board CEO Taher revealed a new government plan to develop new spots for tourism in Bangladesh’s southwestern region.

“Apart from established tourist hotspots, which we believe are at maximum capacity as of now, we’re attempting to develop new areas as tourist attractions. A project is underway at Sonarchar in Patuakhali’s Rangabali Upazila right now,” he said.

A mega-plan to completely overhaul the tourism sector in Bangladesh, in general, will be outlined by December this year to attract local and foreign investment, Taher said.

According to the plan, 1,100 tourist hotspots in the country will be revamped and the government will build new infrastructure there. The spots in Khulna and Barishal will get "special attention" due to the Padma Bridge, Taher said.

[Writing in English by Adil Mahmood, editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder and Biswadip Das]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher