Island hopping in Bangladesh?
Island hopping is a popular tourist activity in many countries and adventure travel enthusiasts have been visiting the islands in the Bay of Bengal for quite some time now. This begs the question: can island hopping be a new tourist activity in the country, like other tropical neighbours?
In the 1980s, Bangladesh's tourism industry ran a campaign with the slogan, 'Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come.' Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation posters with this slogan inscribed on them survive to this day. Unfortunately, foreign tourists never came. In hordes, that is.
However, domestic tourism flourished ever since.
Popular tourist destinations in the country are thronged by people of all ages, sex and income groups. Every year, during tourist seasons, different tourist spots run out of hotel rooms, and tourists have to undergo a myriad of inconveniences emanating from shot-up demand, so much so that tourists have been looking for new places inside the country (along with foreign destinations) to visit.
Backpackers and adventurers have been continuously exploring new, remote places, and establishing trends that are bringing stunning (oftentimes regrettable) changes to the new tourist locations, creating new opportunities for businessmen with a range of investment capabilities.
These adventure travel enthusiasts have been visiting the islands in the Bay of Bengal for quite some time now. There are a good number of small and medium islands in the Meghna estuary that actually offer a variety of tourist attractions such as mangrove and coastal forests, pristine beaches adorned with beautiful red crabs, river and canal cruises, and fishing villages.
These adventure travellers usually camp on these islands, mainly because they like it, but also because of the absence of conventional tourism facilities there. The islands are close by, taking a reasonably short time to hop from one to another.
And this begs the question: can island hopping be a new tourist activity in the country, like other tropical neighbours? What is the real potential and what challenges are there? We spoke with the travellers who have been frequenting these islands to know more. And the responses are mixed.
"The possibilities of island hopping in Bangladesh is immense. Tourists can hardly find any tourist spot other than the Sundarban, Bandarban and Cox's Bazar. The best way to 'decentralise' the tourist locations is to send the tourists to these southern islands," said Niaz Morshed, an adventure traveller and cyclist, who also has experience in tour operating with foreign tourists.
"The opening of Padma Bridge will help grow the tourism industry in the south, particularly [for] the visitors to these islands," Niaz added.
But there is a lack of decent hotels even in the district towns in the south such as Pirojpur, Barguna, Patuakhali and Barisal, places likely to act as a hub for day tours to the islands, Niaz continued, adding, smaller towns (upazilas) near the coast have absolutely no place to stay.
According to him, Bhola, or its upazila town Charfassion can be a base for island hopping. A good alternative can be Monpura, an adjacent island that has seen regular tourists for a couple of years now. Tarua, Char Montaj, Char Biswas, Char Kajol, Patilar Char, Dimer Char, etc can be island-hopping destinations.
Niaz says there are 15-20 such islands that are suitable for this activity. However, three-four islands can be covered on a day trip here.
Although there are no commercial operators for island hopping in Bangladesh right now, it is possible to do it using local speedboats. A small speedboat carrying six tourists may charge up to Tk16,000 for a four-island trip, according to travellers. There will be, of course, other costs (for food and accommodation) involved. Traditional diesel-powered wooden boats might be a lot cheaper, but the engines are really noisy, making them uncomfortable for tourists.
Tourists, at this point, may opt for camping in Kukri Mukri, or staying at a basic accommodation in Dhalchar. They can also return to Bhola to spend the night, or catch the evening launch to Dhaka. Bhola is also accessible via road, with only one ferry on the river Meghna.
Challenges for this tourist activity are plenty at this point. The infrastructure is absent. Most beaches of these islands are muddy, so suitably designed jetties need to be constructed so the tourists don't have to walk through mud.
Also, the 'branding' of each island has to be done.
"The branding for different islands could be like this: sunset and sunrise can both be seen from this island, there are a lot of red crabs in this one, there are plenty of deer in this island, or dolphins can be seen from this island, etc," Niaz shared his idea. Camping and canal boating/kayaking and fishing can be on the list as well.
Some of these islands have already got oriented with tourists: there are some basic toilet facilities managed by the locals, some households have tents to rent, etc.
Fazlay Rabby, an amateur radio operator and avid traveller, has done island hopping at home and abroad. In 2019, he, with a small group of friends visited several islands of Bhola and Noakhali in a row on his own inflatable boat powered by an outboard motor. Starting from Bhola, the boaters went to Char Kukri Mukri, Dhal Char, and finally to Nijhum Dwip in Hatiya, Noakhali, touching several other islands on the way.
Rabby and friends also popularised camping in Char Kukri Mukri, which is now regarded as a very safe destination for campers.
Rabby thinks traditional diesel boats are not very suitable for island hopping and recommends using speedboats, which are faster. He also suggests that the attention from Char Kukri Mukri be shifted to other islands so the communities living there can benefit as well.
Also, the popular spots around Nijhum Dwip itself can be another separate island hopping destination as it is a bit far from the Bhola islands. But there are other challenges to overcome.
"For island hopping to be viable for business in Bangladesh, enough tourists would be required," Rabby said, adding, "The first step towards that would be introducing and popularising island tourism itself to all these islands." The success of Kukri Mukri or Dhal Char can be showcased to the communities and administrative authorities so they are inspired to host tourists in their islands too, he opined.
The economy of the coastal area of Bangladesh has been constantly devastated by a series of natural disasters and the impacts of climate change such as salinity intrusion and an increased number of depressions in the Bay of Bengal. On the other hand, billions of tons of sediment brought in by the river systems each year give birth to new patches of land in the Meghna estuary. New tourism activities such as camping and island hopping can bring financial respite to the locals.
Locals are taking increased tourist activities positively.
"We welcome and encourage tourist activities on our island. Our people are being benefited by such activities, and we want more tourists to come here" said Abdus Salam Howladar, the chairman of Dhal Char. He feels that infrastructure development is a must for attracting more tourists.
"There are one or two accommodation arrangements on this island for the tourists, but the quality is not very good. Infrastructure such as a road from the pontoon to the accommodation area must be developed, and there need to be more toilet facilities for the campers," the chairman added.
Abdus Salam said he has already communicated the needs with district administrative authorities. Asked if the local private sector can come forward to create tourist facilities, he said one or two local businessmen said they were interested in building hotels on the island.
All the islands in the Meghna estuary except Bhola are underdeveloped, with few tourist facilities. However, when the tourists start coming, shops and services pop up around the tourist spots. The travellers said island-based tourism activities, such as island hopping can thus bring prosperity to the islanders.
Island hopping is a popular tourist activity in many countries. Top destinations include the Caribbean, Greece, and Croatia in the West. There are several island-hopping destinations in Southeast Asia as well: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
While most tours are privately operated, in countries like Croatia, it is possible to hop islands using public ferries, which make it cheap and easy to explore the islands independently.