Why do people travel?
The answer will certainly differ from person to person.
Some want to get immersed in the nature.
Some want the opposite; they travel to see the height of human civilisation.
Others want to get acquainted with new people, new communities.
Ashfaq Alam and his wife were looking for two of the above – they wanted to experience the food and lifestyle of the Manipuri community, who live with nature in the north-eastern districts of Bangladesh.
The duo travelled from Dhaka to Sreemangal, and then to the neighbouring upazila of Kamolganj. They were trying to find out a specific Manipuri village, but were not making much headway beyond that point.
Ashfaq tried to use Google Maps, but the internet was not available. He tried asking local people, but even they had not heard about any community-based tourism enterprise in the area.
However, Ashfaq and his wife would not give up. They left the CNG-run auto-rickshaw and ventured on foot. After walking about a mile on narrow rural roads, they eventually reached Vanubil Majher Gaon Community Tourism Centre where we met them.
In contrast to them, we went straight to Adampur Bazar in Kamolganj, and called Nironjon Singho Raju, founder of the community tourism centre in the Manipuri village. He arranged an electric three-wheeler for us, which took us to the spot.
This was possible because our trip was arranged by Avijatrik, an online tourism platform working to promote community-based tourism in Bangladesh.
The stated mission of the company is to contribute to the promotion of local culture and nature, while bringing economic opportunities for sustainable livelihoods to local communities.
What is special about Avijatrik is that it is a tourism marketplace, meaning tourism service providers such as holiday homes, cottages, river cruise operators, etc. can build a partnership with Avijatrik, which will take care of every detail of the trip – from arranging tickets to fixing a tour guide, if necessary.
"The main difference between Avijatrik and other regular tour agencies is that we do not work with big hotel chains. Avijatrik tries to engage local entrepreneurs as much as possible, provides guidance to them, helps develop tourist amenities, and creates income generating opportunities for local people in the process," said Nazmul Islam, founder and chief executive officer of Avijatrik.
Sixty percent of the revenue goes back to the community, he added.
It all began in 2015 when Nazmul was still a student. He and his friends started a Facebook-based travel group. The goal was two-pronged – to help people travel to remote destinations, and at the same time, get to know those places themselves without spending a dime.
The group then conceptualised Avijatrik, and in late 2016, the idea received a seed fund from YY Goshti, a social business incubator that helps socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs launch their product.
"In 2017, we launched Avijatrik as a private limited company with a view to developing local tourism in Bangladesh," said Nazmul.
Two years later, in 2019, the tourism startup received another award; this time from Youth Co:Lab, a project jointly led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation. The project works in the Asia-Pacific region to empower the youth and promote social innovation and entrepreneurship.
"Avijatrik was selected by the Youth Co:Lab to represent Bangladesh in its Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam. The summit was participated by 27 other startups from 27 countries. Among them, eight startups received the Social Innovation Award. Avijatrik was one of those recipients," recalled the founder of the startup.
Not a very smooth journey
How easy or hard is it to engage local communities with the enterprise?
The experience is mixed, Nazmul said.
At the very beginning, two families from the Khasi Palli living inside Lawachara National Park welcomed the proposition from Avijatrik to develop tourist amenities at their homes and started hosting foreign tourists.
Tourist hosts from ethnic communities living at Boga Lake, a very popular trekking destination located in Ruma of Bandarban, however, have not shown any interest so far. The place has been hosting innumerable trekkers since mid-2000s without developing any decent tourist infrastructure, as most trekkers oppose the idea of modern impositions in traditional habitats and lifestyle seen in the hill tracts region.
In Kamolganj, Nironjon expanded community tourism among 30 Manipuri families living in Vanubil Majher Gaon. But his efforts are also facing certain challenges from his own community. A part of the conservative community is against allowing outsiders inside their social sphere for fear of cultural pollution.
Asked how to address this fear, Nironjon said, "People will get used to it eventually."
But for those interested in hosting tourists, the issue of investment is still a major impediment. Many of the Manipuri households do not have modern, attached washrooms, which many tourists consider an absolute necessity.
"I am only working with low-income families so they can increase their income through tourism. They do not have enough money to invest in developing amenities," Nironjon explained the problem.
However, in many other places of the country, including the Sundarbans, Avijatrik has managed to get local communities onboard with relative ease, which led to getting hundreds of partners around the country.
Avijatrik is now connected with 400 local tourism service providers countrywide, Nazmul said. With the help of these providers, Avijatrik has developed a supply chain that enables it to plan and execute a trip on demand.
It also has 17 holiday homes onboard. Although those are owned by different people, Avijatrik set the standard for them, manages the marketing, and trains local people on hospitality to work as cooks and guards, among other occupations.
Sometimes, incepting a community project triggered self-propelled expansion of it.
"When we started marketing and branding for Relief International's community tourism project and began to provide tourists to their partners living near the Sundarbans, house-owners from the community reached out to us and asked to include them in the tourism chain," said the Avijatrik chief executive officer.
The government is apparently intent on spreading community-based tourism and has helped the Manipuri community time to time. According to Nironjon, the local administration said they would arrange easy loan for families willing to improve their homes.
But none of the member families are interested in loans due to the liability involved with it. So, the committee members have been asking for grants instead, but there is no promise of that from the government's side.
This is where lies the business opportunity for small private investors, and this scenario is not exclusive in the Manipuri community.
"If the government does not provide us with non-refundable grants, private investors can come forward. With mutually agreeable terms, together we can take forward community tourism and contribute in community development," Nironjon said.
Asked if there is space for more actors and investors in this field, the chief executive officer of Avijatrik said, "Community tourism is a relatively new idea in Bangladesh. The tourism ecosystem is not fully developed here. So, there is ample opportunity for new entrepreneurs to work to develop it and contribute to a sustainable economic development of local communities by means of tourism."