During normal times in the rainy season, Uchitpur haor and ghat in Netrokona, popularly known as "Mini Cox's Bazar", remain busy with the hustle and bustle of thousands of regular passengers and tourists, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made the place almost desolate due to an absence of tourists.
River transport workers and small business owners have said at least 1,500 people are involved with this tourist spot, which emerged around the ghat. The financial loss in the last three to four months has been to the tune of at least Tk7-8 crore.
Usually more than 150 boats ply to Sylhet, Ajmiriganj, Kishoreganj, Mohanganj, Khaliajuri and Madan from here every day. After three-and-a-half months, when the monsoon ends, the activities of the ghat also come to a stop.
Uchitpur has become a tourist destination as the huge haor area starts from Uchitpur ghat. It is directly connected by road with the district headquarters. On the other hand, after the construction of a beautiful bridge over the River Balai near the ghat, the place has attracted more people to it.
It is called "Mini Cox's Bazar" because from Uchitpur ghat one can enjoy the boundless beauty of the horizon. Standing on the roof of an engine-driven boat speeding through the waves of the haor, one would think that this was another sea.
Meanwhile, Uchitpur ghat has become a multi-dimensional business hub with crowds of passengers and tourists present.
There are more than 100 engine-driven boats here where 300-400 people are involved. Besides, at least 50 small and big shops, including hotels, restaurants, fast food, stationery, tea and coffee shops, mobile shops, pharmacies, car garages, mini-parks, etc, have been set up.
Ghat officials say at present only 20 boats are operating regularly and a handful of private boats are running due to a lack of passengers because of the pandemic.
Mohan Mia, an engine-driven boat owner, said he used to earn Tk6,000-7,000 per day but at present, he can earn at most Tk1,500 and make a minimum profit.
Another launch owner, Sorwar Ahmed, said he gets only 10-12 passengers whereas the capacity for him is 80 passengers. He said his maximum earnings per day are Tk 1,700 which is not enough after payments of wages to workers and meeting operating costs.
Leaseholder Lahut Akand is also in dire straits with the lease of Uchitpur ghat. Last year, the lease price of this ghat was Tk21.42 lakh, but after a good profit in the last few years, many people have become interested in taking a lease, making it more competitive.
"I had to pay Tk32.40 lakh to take lease of the ghat and I have to collect this amount in just three months from July to September. But my daily income nowadays is only Tk12,000 to 13,000. If the situation does not improve, the maximum amount I can earn in three months will be Tk12 lakh whereas we had targeted earnings of Tk50 lakh," said Lahut Akand.
Meanwhile, other traders of the ghat are also facing losses.
Swapan Mia has been running a restaurant at this ghat for five years. This time too he had the furniture repaired and the hotel room spruced up, thus keeping the business ready. But in the end, he could not start the business as there were no passengers and tourists.
Idu Mia, another hotelier, said, "If business is closed, we have to starve. So somehow, I have kept the hotel running. But there are no customers. I cannot even sell products worth Tk2,000-3,000 a day."
This is the first time Rupak Mia has started a fast food shop by renting a piece of land for Tk22,000. He has also invested some money in house construction and furniture. But due to the travel ban, lockdown and lack of passengers, the desired number of customers are not coming and he is facing losses.
Nazrul Islam, who owns a car garage, said, "100-150 motorcycles and private cars used to be in my garage every day. Often, the garage remained fully occupied but not even five motorcycles are coming. I used to charge Tk30 for motorbikes and Tk150 for cars and large vehicles."
A young man named Md Rahi set up a mini-park cum restaurant at the east of Balai Bridge near Uchitpur. According to many, this floating park is also one of the reasons behind the attraction of people to Uchitpur. If anyone goes to Uchitpur, he does not return without seeing the park.
However, Covid-19 forced Rahi to close the park. He said he had spent a few lakh of taka to build the park. Moreover, he has to pay wages to workers even though he has no income at present.
Transport workers, rickshaw and easy bike pullers are also spending their days in frustration as they cannot make a living with a handful number of tourists who visit here.
The government has established a mini tourist spot named Haorbilas Centre which is also closed due to the coronavirus situation.
Madan Upazila Executive Officer Bulbul Ahmed said, "We focus on training of sailors before the monsoon, distribution of safety equipment to prevent accidents (life jackets, buoys, etc), a listing of ships, exchange of views with those concerned for proper management of the wharf. I had completed the matter of police deployment too but due to the Covid-19 infections, the government has imposed restrictions on all kinds of public gatherings and tourists have been banned from visiting Uchitpur."