The exceptional growth of global tourism over the last 6 decades is one of the most remarkable economic phenomena of the 21st century. It has emerged from being a relatively small scale activity into one of the world's largest industries and a rapidly growing global economic sector. The total contribution of tourism in the global economy accounted for up to 9.8 per cent of world GDP which was around 7.2 trillion USD.
Tourism is considered a composite industry that involves transportation, accommodation, shopping, entertainment and hospitality services for individuals and/or groups. There are several types of tourism such as coastal tourism, rural tourism etc. However, they all play a common role in the development of economies through a multidimensional framework. Recent statistics of United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) highlighted that tourism development in 2015 was responsible in supporting 284 million jobs worldwide. The tourism industry is labour intensive in nature offering a wide range of job opportunities both for skilled and unskilled workers. Such prerequisites of tourism development are ideally matched by demographic features of labour force structures of developing nations of which Bangladesh is a member. Thus, tourism can play a pivotal role in shaping the economy of Bangladesh and complement all its policies aimed at achieving the status of a middle income country by 2021.
Rural tourism, a variant of Ecotourism, is a branch of activity that has been becoming increasingly popular in the developing countries in recent times. Bangladesh, despite being open to encourage tourists by offering its wide array of distinctive endowments, rural tourism still at its primitive stage. Previously, rural tourism was limited to traditional farm-based or agricultural tourism. However, with the wind of change, this has encompassed a wide range of potential activities including touring, water based activities, land based activities, conservation activities, cultural activities, gastronomic activities, health or fitness activities and many more. It offers magnificent opportunities for tourists to experience traditions and lifestyles of local people, events, culture, heritage, cuisine and crafts, which are not available in urban regions. Contrary to conventional tourism, rural tourism provides the ideal opportunity to get in close proximity with the beauty of nature and also to get accustomed to national heritage. It is a beautiful blend of seasonality and local events, where tourist activities are based on the preservation of culture, heritage, warmth and traditions. By adopting traditional beliefs and values to modern life, a new dimension in the sustainable development of tourism can be introduced with minimal harmful impact, but immensely benefiting the local community economically and socially.
Bangladesh, a country of 86038 villages could offer its rural landscape, wildlife, heritage to attract visitors from within the country and abroad. Endowed with vast natural assets, our country has huge potential in being host to international tourists all-round the year. Many countries have already been utilising the rural advantages as an alternate source of livelihood and employment. Mahasthangarh, the ancient capital of Pundra Kingdom (situated outside Bogra, on the bank of Karatoa river) is the oldest archaeological site of Bangladesh. Because of the greenery and riverine countryside, our country can promote other activities like fishing, trekking, boating, swimming safaris in Rangamati, Khagrachhari or Bandarban. Wildlife safari into the jungles of Sundarban and Chittagong with trained guides can add a new dimension to the development of tourism in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a lot of canals crossing through the whole area. Boats can be seen sailing in these canals. The boat travel is an interesting part of the tourist attraction. Travelling at a full moon night is an exciting experience that tourists should take advantage of. Boat racing is a popular water game event in many rural areas of the country. This is an integral part of Bangladesh history, tradition, literature, culture and sports. It is a part of the folk culture as well. Many of the pre-harvest and post-harvest rites are held in rural Bangladesh, which could be a good attraction for tourists. Pre-harvest rites like Megharani, hudmadeya and beng-biya (wedding of frogs) can be a good source of entertainment for tourists. Kuakata holds many outdoor sports events and is a great source of attraction for tourists coming from Western countries. The tourists can directly participate in these rural games. If a clean and aesthetic accommodation along with hygienic food is provided, staying in the farmhouse would be a wonderful experience. The tourists could have the taste the pastoral flavour of real rural Bangladesh in a true sense. Furthermore, resorts like Nilgiri in the hill tracts of Bandarban and the tea gardens in Sylhet could also be added to the illustrious list of picturesque tourist sites within the nation.
Although Bangladesh has shown some improvements in its tourism indicators over the years, there is a lot to be done to improve them further. According to World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the total contribution of tourism in 2014 to Bangladesh's GDP stood at US$8.1 billion compared to US$125.2 billion in India and US$8.2 billion in Sri Lanka. In addition, tourism also accounted for 18, 94,000 jobs in Bangladesh which was way above Sri Lanka with a record of 81,9600 jobs. The total capital investment in tourism in Bangladesh was around US$0.8 billion which was far less compared to US$34.5 billion in India. However, the growth rate of tourism's contribution to overall GDP and employment in Bangladesh is sluggish.
Rural tourism can be associated with a wide range of socio-economic impacts like generation of foreign exchange, increase in employment rates, improvement of country image, increase in government revenues and contribution to the transformation of an agrarian economy into a modern service industry. The local residents with limited skills can readily work as food servers, retail clerks, or simply as tourist guides. This can be a pathway to eliminate rural poverty which can eventually be helpful in overall poverty eradication.
Tourism accounts for roughly 2.2 per cent of Bangladesh's Gross Domestic Product. Tourism revenues can be used for environmental improvements such as paving village roads, improving management of sewage and litter disposal. These will help rural people to improve and maintain a healthy environment and preserve natural habitats. Moreover, income from such tourism activities can supplement rural household income. Through rural tourism, education and health of the rural community can be improved and also, local people will be introduced to modern culture. Moreover, rural tourism can provide an idle image of the community, which can lead to deepened personal ties and community solidarity. Most significantly, it can help reduce rural migration to urban areas. Another important aspect of rural tourism development would be the fact that it would lead to infrastructure development.
Rural tourism has been used as an imperative tool to resolve several macroeconomic problems in many countries across the globe. Developing countries like Kenya had managed to energise its rural tourism sector through efficient management and maintenance of the nation's natural endowments. Similarly, a case study of tourism in Rajasthan, India stated that tourism practices when implemented with proper planning, it can be self-sustaining. Malaysia has shown that community based tourism is often considered as one component of a broad based plan to improve rural and urban economies. The socio-economic development in remote, rural areas can be achieved by increasing tourist spots in those regions.
Development of rural tourism calls for a total package, involving among others strong community leadership, support from local government, strategic planning etc. Moreover, coordination between local governments and businesses along with cooperation among tourism entrepreneurs are vital in enhancing the capability to promote and distribute information about the area and relevant tourist destinations.
Tourism risks degrading natural resources in rural areas, if there is no proper regulation. To safeguard rural resources, careful planning and development of authentic attractions are imperative. Sufficient training has to be ensured for quality services. Furthermore, appropriate actions can be taken to conserve our historical relics from physical damages.
In conclusion, rural tourism should be viewed as a potential instrument that can reduce poverty, generate employment and empower women. Thus, if effective measures are taken and executed, there is no reason why Bangladesh can not count on the resources available to bring a remarkable headway in rural tourism.
Dr Sakib Bin Amin is an Assistant Professor at the School of Business and Economics at North South University, Muntasir Murshed recently completed his Bachelor's degree in Economics and Saanjaana Rahman studies Economics at the same university.