The daily life of Bandarban's tourist guides used to revolve around leading groups of tourists across the hills and jungles. Sometimes they had to walk for hours from one waterfall to another. From accommodation to transport, they took care of all the needs of their customers.
But since the deadly Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, their lives have changed, changed for the worse. Hundreds of youths have lost their livelihoods and are now forced to work as day labourers and Jhum farmers.
According to local residents, in Bandarban anyone can wander around the various tourist centres in the city as much as they wish. However, popular tourist spots like Thanchi, Ruma and Alikadam are located in remote areas, where there is almost no mobile network. There are administrative rules for tourists to be accompanied by guides while visiting these areas.
The mandatory condition for tourists to have guides while travelling to remote areas has encouraged hundreds of local youths to take up the lucrative job.
Talking to The Business Standard (TBS), they said as the country went under lockdown, the tourism sector suffered a heavy blow. Dozens of tourist guides from Ruma, Thanchi, and Alikadam upazilas were compelled to seek work as day labourers in other people's mango gardens throughout the season. Now that the mango season is now in its final stages, they are looking for new jobs. Some among them have taken to developing orchards as a means of survival.
Mamunur Rashid, general secretary of the Thanchi Tourist Guide Association, said he himself had to work as a labourer planting mangoes during the mango season. He also worked as a trawler assistant on the Sangu River. But, due to the lockdown, the movement of people on the river is less and the fare has dropped too.
Emon Tripura, president of the association, said some tourist guides had returned to Jhum farming in the remote hilly areas.
"They used to come to the city when the tourist spots were open. Now everyone has gone to their respective villages."
Shimian Tripura, a tourist guide from Thanchi, said "There was some income last year after the government lifted the lockdown for a limited period. I'm somehow getting by with the little money I had saved. I have some banana orchards, but I haven't been able to make any sales due to the lockdown. I am having a hard time now."
Chahlamang Marma, another tourist guide from Thanchi, said that like Shimian, he too had gone for some small orchards and commercial gardens but had failed to make any sales.
"There's no telling how the situation will turn out. Everyone is just trying to survive in whatever way they can," he said.
There are altogether 175 tourist guides in Thanchi upazila, with 125 of them registered with the upazila administration. The remaining 50 are in the process of applying for registration, according to Emon.
The situation is the same for tourist guides from Ruma Upazila. Most of them are working as day labourers, while some have taken up farming.
A guide named Lal Lom Bom said he had been working as a day labourer since last year, as he failed to get any contract for guiding tourists.
He said, "I usually earn Tk2000-3000 on average if I go on a long tour during the tourist season. At the end of the month, I would earn Tk20,000-25,000. Corona has ruined me."
"Currently, I work wherever I'm recruited. The rest of the tourist guides are also engaged in labour work in different places. We are worried about what will happen if the situation does not improve," he added.
Parnuam Bom, president of Ruma Upazila Tourist Guide Association, said "There are a total of 70 tourist guides in the upazila. At least 60 of them have suffered heavy blows during the lockdown. I spend my days doing whatever I can get my hands on."