- 500 houseboats operate in the haor
- Each boat employs at least four people
- 50,000 people in total are benefiting from the tourism in the haor area
- Houseboat rent for one and a half day (36 hours): Tk15,000-50,000
- Tour organisers often arrange a 36-hour tour in the haor for Tk4,000-6,000 per person
- The houseboat business lasts for 5 months in the monsoon season
- Each boat can accommodate 15-30 people
With the expanse of water as far as the eye can see and white clouds floating across the blue sky, Tanguar Haor in Sunamganj is now abuzz with tourists who find it an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
The main attraction of the tourist spot is the houseboats offering trips across the haor, and the number of such boats is rising in response to the growing demand from the tourists.
Declared in 2000 as the second Ramsar site, a wetland site designated to be of international importance, the haor's natural beauty has gained wider publicity since then.
Businesspersons involved in tourism in the region said the houseboats employ at least 5,000 people and run businesses worth crores of taka. Around 50,000 people in total are benefiting from the tourism-centred economy in the area.
The local administration does not have any statistics on the actual number of boats operating in the haor. They say there are 80 boats in Tahirpur upazila of Sunamganj. Apart from different upazilas of Sunamganj, a lot of boats enter the haor from different upazilas of Netrokona and Mymensingh. They estimate that the number of houseboats in the haor is around 500.
Tahirpur Upazila Nirbahi Officer Md Raihan Kabir said tourism in the haor has created a lot of employment for local people, who are involved in business focusing on the tourists. Each boat has at least four employees and so tourism is contributing significantly to the local economy.
Humayun Kabir, general secretary of Tahirpur Upazila Trawler Owners Association, said medium- and large-sized boats ply in the haor. Tourists rent a boat for one and a half day or 36 hours at Tk15,000-50,000. The houseboat business lasts for five months in the monsoon season.
There is no authoritative account of the exact turnover in the houseboat business, but all the 500 boats remain on rent during the monsoon season. The demand for the boats increases especially during the holidays and therefore tourists have to book them at least one month in advance.
Boats with modern amenities for nature lovers
Around 15-30 people can sleep at night in each boat. All these boats offer modern amenities for tourists. The more facilities a boat offers, the higher the charges for the visitors.
Usually a boat departs from the ghat in Tahirpur in the morning and anchors in a waterbody beside Shahid Siraj Lake at night. The next day, the boat takes the tourists to a few more spots and in the afternoon it drops them off at Tahirpur Bazaar.
Sheikh Rafi, owner of Rajar Tori Houseboat, said he has launched a wooden houseboat in the tourism business for the first time this year.
He said, "Currently, I am renting the houseboat at Tk16,000 for two days and one night. I have no empty slot in my schedule this month. The boat was completely booked a month ago."
He added that all the other boats he knew of have also been booked in a similar way.
The boat owners said it takes about two to three months to build a wooden houseboat and about a month and a half to build a steel houseboat. Five to six people are needed to make a boat that costs around Tk7-15 lakh.
Rajib Sohail, owner of a large steel boat named Shampan, said he and three of his partners together built a boat at a cost of around Tk15 lakh.
He said 32 people can sleep inside the boat at night. Inside the boat there are one toilet with high commode and two more with low commodes on the boat. At the back of the engine room are all the cooking utensils, including a two-burner stove, gas cylinders and the necessary glasses, plates, bowls, spoons, and tea cups.
There are also life jackets for everyone, a canopy over the boat, a dustbin, a box for keeping shoes on the boat.
Even after the tourist season is over, the boats do not remain idle as they are used as transport for local people.
Rajib said after the monsoon season ends, his boat makes trips three days a week from Sunamganj to Kishoreganj in the rest of the year.
High rent vexes tourists
Rajib also said many people think the houseboat rent is very high, but the reality is that it takes 10-12 years to cover the cost of one boat. What people see from a distance is not true.
Faiza Begum, a tourist from Dhaka, said she went to visit the haor with 15 members of her family and rented a houseboat for Tk40,000.
They were cruising through the haor for two nights and one day, which means they got on the boat one evening and kept traveling that night and the next day (24 hours). During these 36 hours, the boat ran for only six-seven hours. They spent the rest of the time at different spots on land near the haor.
"The rent of Tk40,000 for this is unimaginable. Considering the cost of building a boat and maintaining it, I think that the greed for extra profit will ruin the tourism business here," Faiza opined.
All the boat owners, questioned about the huge amount of rent charged, claimed that they were charging the tourists a low rate, while some other boat owners were charging an unusually high rate.
Humayun, general secretary of the Trawler Owners Association, said, "We have recently prepared a rent chart but it is difficult to monitor the situation because most people rent the boats before they come to the spot. So we cannot know how much they actually pay for renting the boat."
"Besides, tourists come from different parts of the country, so they too do not know how much the actual rent is before they reach the tourist spot. Nevertheless, we are trying to rein in the uncontrolled rent," he said.
The biggest organisers of the trips in the haor are various tour groups on social media. They arrange a 36-hour tour in the haor for Tk4,000-6,000 per person. Many of the admins of the tour groups have houseboats and run marketing campaigns via Facebook.