In December this year, Md Hannan Mia, chairman of Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC), said the government wants to raise tourism's contribution to the national GDP to 10 percent in the future. At present, it is around 3.03 percent.
To achieve this target, the government is banking on heavy infrastructure to drive up tourism. For example, a rail line will connect Chattogram to Cox's Bazar, an expressway through Banshkhali will reduce the distance from the port city to the longest sea beach by 54 km, while the recently built bridge on Payra River established a unique connection with Kuakata beach.
The number of high end hotels around the country have been growing in recent years and new liquor trading licenses are being issued to bars and hotels. There is frequent talk of branding Bangladesh abroad, as well as plans to 'beautify' the major cities. All of these directly or indirectly tie in with the government's plans to increase the number of tourists to Bangladesh.
And yet what all these grand plans miss out on a very important determinant in tourism - the people. People visit a place or a country not just for the sights and facilities, but also for the culture and the people. When tourists go back home they not only talk about what they saw, but how friendly and reliable the people were. And also, more importantly, how safe the place is.
Unfortunately, as the alleged gang rape of a female tourist in Cox's Bazar demonstrated, we may have invested a little too much on infrastructure, and very little on the people.
This is of course not the first time something like this happened.
Last September, a female tourist was found dead in a Cox's Bazar hotel. In September alone, at least six tourists died of 'unnatural causes' in Cox's Bazar alone. Back in December 2019, BBC reported a rape attempt on a female Australian tourist in Cox's Bazar.
This predicament for tourists is not only limited to Cox's Bazar. Last year in December, a woman in Sylhet was gang-raped while travelling with her husband.
With all these negative incidents, how can you sustain the tourism industry even with local tourists, let alone foreigners, and dream of reaching a 10 percent contribution to the GDP?
Additionally, tourists who safely return after travelling from Bangladesh's popular travel destinations, consider their financial expenses.
With comparatively fewer attractive travel destinations than the neighbouring countries like Nepal and India, one way we could have attracted international travellers would have been safe and cost-effective tour packages.
But what is the ground reality?
During the Victory Day holidays, Cox's Bazar made news headlines again for the wrong reasons. The restaurateurs there charged up to Tk400 for dal-bhat while the hoteliers charged up to Tk5,000 for a Tk1,000 room.
In peak seasons in Bangladesh, travelling becomes a punishment instead of a relaxing endeavour for tired tourists. From van drivers to hoteliers, everyone seems on a mission to 'hunt' for money.
As a result, many travellers in Bangladesh believe that the expenses and hassle in some of our tourist destinations can easily cover a trip in attractive destinations in India, Nepal or Bhutan.
The authorities involved in planning the growth of tourism in the country seem quite unaware of the importance of law and order in attracting people to tourist spots.
For example, how many tourists visit Cox's Bazar in peak season? The number, in fact, is in lakhs. And how many tourist police are there to take care of this huge flock of tourists? Only 200.
For the purpose of brevity, we will avoid getting into issues of sustainability and environment. But suffice it to say, social media trending photos of plastic haphazardly littered in places of natural beauty and pristine environment does little to draw international tourists to a country.
To sum up, we can build as many roads and hotels as we want, but until we invest in changing the mind-set of people, and ensure the safety of people all around, achieving growth in tourism will remain a far cry.