Along the road from Kalatali to Labani points in the buzzing tourist town of Cox's Bazar, a vibrant stretch of hotels, motels, and restaurants has emerged over the years. The whole area has been transformed into a teeming tourist spot from a deserted landscape of water bodies and sand.
Decades ago, Laldighi, Main Road and Baharchhara were the focal points of tourism and trade, but now the hotel-motel zone has taken centre stage, offering a diverse array of accommodations and dining options catering to the influx of visitors.
As dusk settles over Cox's Bazar, a sense of tranquillity descends upon Diabetes Point. Unlike Kalatali and Sugandha points, Diabetes Point, despite being the town's first beach attraction, now exudes a serene emptiness. It is where the tale of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh's southernmost district, got off the ground to become a thriving tourist hub.
Once, a handful of tourists used to get a charge out of the panoramic sea views while munching peanuts on the open beach. Today, that modest stretch of tourism has expanded into 120 kilometres of beaches, and the tourism industry's revenue has soared to crores of taka annually.
With a continuous cycle of innovation and adaptation, the economic landscape of Cox's Bazar has undergone a profound transformation over the past five decades. The town has witnessed a dynamic shift in economic activities.
Improvements in road infrastructure and the narrowing of waterways have played a pivotal role in reshaping the commercial landscape, leading to the emergence of new trade hubs. Now, on the cusp of another transformative chapter, Cox's Bazar is entering a new phase of growth with the launch of a rail network, promising to further unlock the town's economic potential.
"In the '60s, Noor Hotel in the Laldighi area was the heart and soul of Cox's Bazar," reminisced Abu Morshed Chowdhury, president of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, while talking to The Business Standard. "Other prominent establishments included Mujah's Oushadhalaya (apothecary) and Descent Tailoring. Back then, well-developed roads were a rarity. Waterway was the main channel of communication, with a few wooden buses plying between Cox's Bazar and Chittagong. The filling of Kasturighat of the Bankkhali River, the decline of waterway communication, the expansion of the road network, and the construction of the Kalatali bypass road have collectively revolutionised the dynamics of trade and economic activities in the area."
As a resident of the Kasturighat area, Kamal Uddin witnessed the dramatic transformation of the region's rhythm of life and livelihood, brought about by the changing course of the river. "Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, and other heads of state traversed through this Kasturighat ghat of the Bankkhali River to reach various coastal areas. Ships once plied the Chittagong, Bhola, Manpura, Ramgati, Hatia, Kutubdia, Banshkhali, and Maheshkhali routes, making this ghat a busy hub of fish trade. Fish, dry fish, salt, and other agricultural products were transported through Kasturighat," he recounted.
"However, over time, the riverbed silted up, rendering the ghat unusable around the year 2000. In response, the municipality constructed ghat number six, but it failed to recapture the allure of the waterway route," Kamal further said.
Driven by the allure of employment opportunities, many individuals from coastal regions like Hatia, Ramgati, and Bhola migrated to Cox's Bazar in search of a better life, eventually settling there permanently. Seventy-year-old Babul Mia, a resident of Peshkarpara for over four decades, shared his experiences, stating, "Many people like us came here seeking work. Many relocated due to river erosion."
The advent of advanced communication systems improved transportation in Cox's Bazar, paving the way for a network of buses connecting the town to other districts. Apart from the central bus terminal, numerous bus counters sprang up along the Kalatali-Labani road, offering convenient access to a variety of destinations.
In the 1980s, prior to the country's independence, microbuses and wooden buses were the primary modes of public transportation on this route. However, the post-independence era witnessed the introduction of BRTC buses, heralding a new era of luxury travel. These buses, initially referred to as "luxury coaches," soon gave way to more advanced models equipped with air conditioning, further enhancing passenger comfort.
New junction will be built around railway station
"The development of a rail link in Cox's Bazar will undoubtedly attract a surge in tourist numbers. However, the train schedule may not always align with passengers' travel plans, creating opportunities for bus and other transportation services to thrive alongside the railway," remarked Wahidul Alam, counter manager of Swadhin Travels.
"Historically, wherever trains have traversed the subcontinent, they have inevitably led to the establishment of junctions and trade centres. Similarly, starting from the Jhelongja railway station in Cox's Bazar, all the stations along the new rail line are poised to evolve into hubs of activity."
"Examples like Dhaka's Kamalapur and Airport railway stations, as well as Chittagong's Station Road, demonstrate how railway stations can transform into thriving junctions. These areas have witnessed the establishment of bus counters, hotels-motels, restaurants, and markets, all catering to the influx of passengers and visitors," he explained.
Anticipating the surge in business opportunities that the railway would bring, Syed Karim, a Saudi expatriate, established a grocery shop just a few hundred metres from Jhelongja station. "With the commencement of rail services, sales are bound to increase," he remarked to TBS. "That's why I decided to set up a shop on my own land. I'm not planning to go abroad anymore."
Kabir Ahmed, a local resident and shopkeeper, shared with TBS, "Land prices in this area have skyrocketed, with some properties experiencing a fivefold increase in value. The anticipated opening of the railway station has fuelled this surge in land values, as many businesses are eagerly awaiting the influx of passengers and visitors. In fact, several companies are actively seeking to acquire land for the construction of hotels and motels."
From water bodies to hotel-motel zone, opening the door to tourism
During the Pakistan era, the hospitality landscape of Cox's Bazar was characterised by a handful of hotels, including Hotel Upal, Prabal, Simon, Benua, and Palangki, which were primarily located along the Main Road and in the Laldighi area, near the Ansar camp. The town's culinary scene was also in its nascent stages, with restaurants like Sagarika and Koxy catering to the limited number of visitors.
Following the country's independence, several boarding houses, such as Balaka, Aziz, Jonaki, and Cox's Bazar Boarding were constructed near the Laldighi petrol pump. These boarding houses provided affordable accommodation options for visitors and locals alike, often serving as temporary residences for those involved in work like legal proceedings at the nearby police station and court.
In 1997, two new hotels, Diamond Palace and Zia Guest House, emerged along Kalatali Road. This marked a significant shift in the area's landscape, as it was originally developed as a residential area by the Public Works Department in 1980. However, recognising the growing potential for tourism in the region, Abul Kashem Sikdar, the owner of Diamond Palace, envisioned the area's transformation into a vibrant hotel-motel zone.
Diamond Palace owner Abul Kashem is currently serving as the general secretary of Cox's Bazar Hotel-Motel Guesthouse Owners Association. Recalling the area's transformation, he shared with TBS, "In the past, this Kalatali area was a vast expanse of water and sandy land. The Public Works Department constructed a residential area here, and during that time, I was working as a contractor. The overall environment was quite favourable for development. With this in mind, I decided to build a single-story hotel. Over time, this decision sparked a radical transformation, and the entire area evolved into the hotel-motel zone that we know today. Another significant factor contributing to this growth was the construction of the Kalatali Bypass Road."
Sultan Ahmad, a resident of the Kalatali Bypass area for over six decades, recounted to TBS, "The Kalatali Bypass Road was once a hill, posing a significant barrier to travel. In 1978, a proposal emerged to construct a road through this challenging terrain. Although the road was completed in 1990, its initial utilisation remained limited due to the area's reputation for being prone to robberies. It wasn't until the year 2000 that vehicles began to regularly traverse this route. As the popularity of the Kalatali Bypass Road increased, the surrounding area witnessed a surge in development, with hundreds of hotels and resorts springing up to cater to the growing influx of visitors."
Laldighi's Burmese market loses shine
The Burmese market at Laldighi and Main Road was renowned throughout the country for its unique selection of goods. Tourists used to flock to this vibrant marketplace to purchase a variety of items, including pickles, Rakhine handloom clothes, lungis, shawls, bedsheets, and Rakhine hand-rolled cigars. The market also used to showcase the exquisite craftsmanship of Baharchhara residents, who created delicate pearl and oyster jewellery. The majority of traders in the Burmese market belonged to the Rakhine tribal community, reflecting their deep-rooted traditions and entrepreneurial spirit.
Say Mon, a Rakhine businessman from the Burmese market, expressed his concerns about the market's decline, stating, "While there are numerous shops selling pickles, clothes, pearls, and oysters in the hotel-motel zone, business has been sluggish here. This decline is primarily attributed to the shift in tourist focus towards the Kalatali Road area."