As relative peace returned to the CHT with the signing of peace accord in 1997, the country’s youth started to explore the majestic land in the early 2000s. At the end of the decade, trekking grew into a very popular outdoor sport in the country
In the monsoon of 2010, a group of friends and I did what we then considered a grand adventure – started trekking from Ruma in Bandarban, and in six days, ended up at Thanchi, another hill township in the same district.
In six days, we traversed hills, forests and streams.
The sound of the mesmerising waterfall at Jadiphai still murmurs in our ears.
Even after 10 years, we cannot forget the first sight of Baktlai Waterfall which is much higher than Niagara Falls, though not comparable to the latter in terms of water flow.
We had stayed a day longer just to visit this waterfall.
And also, we enjoyed the company and distinct lifestyle of communities living deep in the hills as we stayed in their bamboo houses at night.
As relative peace returned to the CHT with the signing of peace accord in 1997, the country's youth started to explore the majestic land in the early 2000s.
At the end of the decade, trekking grew into a very popular outdoor sport in the country.
The nature of adventure trips evolved a bit with time.
At first it was only friends grouped together in small numbers to enjoy the beauty of nature.
Later, some people started organising trips in a more commercial way allowing anyone interested to join the adventure.
Within another decade, hill villages known as paras became so crowded with tourists that many earlier adventurers ceased to visit the place they once considered a heaven on Earth.
But the number of visitors and trekkers rose every year. Small paras had to host hundreds of them every day during peak seasons and public holidays.
There are people who did not like this development and kept missing the tranquillity of the trails.
Some did not bother.
Notwithstanding the debate around how it should be done, one thing did continue to happen – cash continued to be pumped into the dry veins of hill economy.
Changes became visible at the early 2010s.
Decent-sized generators were brought in popular tourist destinations like Boga Lake, and a familiar tourist host started riding his own motorbike through the muddy terrains.
Places with no grid connectivity had refrigerators to serve tourists with chilled soft drinks.
Capitalism's first signs were also manifest.
The newly found financial solvency was not equal among the paras, even inside the paras.
Some earned more, while the rest earned little.
Some viewed these changes as a threat to the culture and tradition of ethnic communities and the land they lived on.
Harbingers of economic development, however, advanced and replaced community forests preserved by the ethnic communities with monoculture plantations.
As commercial interests progressed through the hill landscapes of what was once a part of a biodiversity hotspot, the ethnic communities retreated deeper into the hills, and the scars of slash and burn cultivation as well as hunting was felt even deeper.
In 2013, a delegation of ICIMOD (The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge-sharing centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas that include Bangladesh, visited Chattogram Hill Tracts.
Afterwards, a daylong seminar on shifting cultivation and ecotourism in the CHT was held, where the then agriculture minister as well as the aviation and tourism minister were present.
ICIMOD researchers presented two papers on shifting cultivation practiced by the hill people and the prospect of ecotourism in the region.
The researchers emphasised how well-planned ecotourism could supplement the meagre income of ethnic communities living in the hills.
Government officials and representatives of hill people also opined in favour of creating alternative income generating activities to stop jhum cultivation with a view to protecting biodiversity in the region.
The plan everyone talked about was never formulated.
Yet, adventure tourism continued to grow in the hills like a free flowing river with all its flaws and strengths.
The self-styled tourism sector grew despite regular restrictions to entry into the area.
But the greatest blow to the sector came in 2015 when two trekkers from Dhaka along with their local guide were abducted from a popular but less travelled Ruma-Rainkhyang trail.
The local guide was released the same day, but the whereabouts of the tourists were never known again.
After that, imposition and lifting of restrictions to remote trekking destinations never returned to its earlier rhythm, and the growth of adventure tourism in the area not only halted, but also contracted to a large extent.
"The scope of exploring Bandarban has reduced to such an extent that, my group members have not been there since 2015," Zahirul Islam Akash, a first generation trekker said.
Zahirul and his friends are known for their prolonged exploratory trips in upper-Sangu wilderness.
CHT has a volatile political past, and the place is not fully at peace yet.
Winning the hearts and minds of people living in the hills is important to eliminate any sort of extreme political ideas that might have taken root.
Creating an environment which allows them to reap the benefit of growing domestic tourism industry can be a good start.
Reopening of the trails for young adventurers could open the way to unlearn what we have learnt, and respect traditional lifestyle that preserved nature from time immemorial.