During the last two decades, tourism has emerged as the driving force of the economy in Srimangal upazila of Moulvibazar.
By virtue of its good rail connectivity, the upazila was once one of the commercial areas of the district. Traders of the district town would buy goods from Srimangal wholesale market, making it a lucrative area for business.
But with the improvement of communication in other areas since the 1980s, Srimangal lost much of this privilege.
Again, the picture started to change with the onset of the present century. The economy of the upazila is now entirely dependent on tourism. Over the last 20 years, tourism has become the driving force of its economy.
According to the upazila administration's most recent survey, 5,000 tourists visit the upazila every day.
Besides tea gardens, locals were once involved in pineapple and lemon gardens; now, however, many are shifting to the tourism business, which has recently boomed, creating employment opportunities for thousands of people.
Shamsul Haque of village Radhanagar of the upazila had set up a grocery store and established a lemon orchard. But with Srimangal tourism prospering day by day, he realised that business in this sector can be much more profitable.
In 2006, he built a single room eco cottage inside the lemon garden on an experimental basis. With the outcome exceeding expectations, he built three more cottages. In 2018, he invested Tk35 lakh in a joint venture, building five more cottages.
He has created employment for 30 persons. Around 200 people, including drivers and tour guides, are dependent on these cottages for their livelihood.
Though he was unable to make a large investment like Shamsul Haque, tourism has also transformed Russel Alam's life.
Russel was a private tutor during his student days. Eco tourism piqued his interest in 2005. He soon trained to become a professional tour guide. His income multiplied within a few days.
At present, during peak season, he earns Tk30,000-40,000 per month. Russell said tourism has brought economic prosperity to at least 15 guides.
Other tourist-centric businesses have also sprung up. On their way back home, tourists buy tea leaves from Srimangal, famous for its tea.
In the last two years, there has been a manifold increase in the number of shops selling tea leaves.
Rows of tea leaf shops can be seen at several spots of the upazila, including Station Road and Bhanugachha Road. Despite there being so many tea leaf shops, all are doing business, selling tea leaves to tourists.
Saiful Islam, manager of Fahim Enterprise, said there are at least 200 tea leaf shops in Srimangal, both legal and illegal, and they are mainly frequented by tourists. Several thousand people benefit from these 200 shops, either directly or indirectly. Those who ran various small ventures are now interested in the tea leaf business.
ASM Yahya, president of Srimangal Traders Association, said, "We have more than 2,000 registered traders in our association, all of whom are benefiting from tourism in one way or another. Tourists are the driving force behind the local economy. When a tourist pays Tk50 to a rickshaw driver, the driver then spends Tk10 from that income at the local tea stall."
According to Saju Marshiang, a leader of the ethnic Khasi community, there was a time when his primary source of income was betel cultivation. He currently has two jeeps for use by tourists. He said many people in his community are similarly interested in the tourism business.
"There are several hundred jeeps in Srimangal. These jeeps were once used to transport various products, including lemons and pineapples, bringing in Tk500-600 at day's end. But many of these jeeps are now carrying tourists, significantly increasing income. Each jeep owner currently earns Tk1,500-2,000 a day. In addition, private cars, CNGs and auto rickshaws are now also dependent on tourists, creating employment for hundreds of drivers.
Restaurants can be seen on every corner of Srimangal, most of which are dependent on tourists.
Apart from these traditional routes, young people are also reaping the financial benefits of tourism by leveraging social media and digital marketing. Prior to their arrival in Srimangal, external guests are using social media to book hotels and resorts.
Abu Siddique Musa, convener of Srimangal Parjatan Seba Sangstha, said there are 65 hotel resorts in Srimangal, some of whom have more than 100 employees. "We have 29 employees in our resort.
"Approximately 1,000 people are employed in the resorts alone. From a roadside betel leaf stall to CNG drivers, everyone is benefiting from tourism. An estimated 10,000 people, including various businessmen and drivers, are earning a living from tourism, and they all have families," he added.
When asked how much money is transacted in Srimangal's tourist-centric economy, he replied, "A tourist spends Tk2,000 to Tk50,000. At least four lakh tourists visit every year. Srimangal has hotels with Tk500 rooms, as well as star hotels and resorts. Overall, the tourism sector contributes several hundred crores of taka to Srimangal's economy."
Srimangal Upazila Nirbahi Officer Nazrul Islam said, "According to a survey we conducted, 5,000 tourists visit Srimangal every day from surrounding and remote areas. Srimangal's economy is dependent on these tourists."
"If tourists do not visit for six months for any reason, 40% of agricultural products will remain unsold. Tourists directly purchase 40% of various agricultural products, including lemons, pineapples, and tea leaves. Around 15,000 people are directly employed in the sector with several hundred thousand beneficiaries in their families and neighbourhoods. There are numerous businesses, including tea leaf shops and Manipuri handicrafts, where 99% of the customers are tourists," he added.
The UNO said, "Our plan is rural development through tourism. We are working on a plan to enable tourists to purchase goods directly from farmers, without the involvement of any middlemen. We are working to triple the number of tourists in Srimangal by 2030."