Given the rising trends of visiting coastal spots among the upper middle-class domestic tourists, Bangladesh has long deserved the operation of deluxe liners. After the completion of the preparatory works of a liner and finding it fit for travel, the dream of boarding an imposing and sleek ship may not remain elusive. Upon getting government clearance, the luxury ship is expected to be pressed into service at the year-end. According to a media outlet, the ship has been procured by a Bangladesh company under a 10-year lease from a foreign firm. Dubbed a 'cruise ship', the sea-going tourist vessel is fitted with all state-of-the-art facilities. They include cabin accommodations ranging from presidential suites to twin-bed cabins to bunk beds.
The country's whole southern part is gifted with the long stretch of the Bay of Bengal coast. It starts from the western tip of the Sundarbans mangrove forest up to the south-easternmost point of Shah Porir Dwip in Teknaf under Cox's Bazar district. Apart from carrying tourists between different coastal points, the exclusively built ship could connect the mainland with the St. Martin's Island tourist resort in the country's south-eastern Bay. In fact, the ship's voyages are expected to be limited to the St. Martin's Island for now --- in all likelihood from either Chattogram or Cox's Bazar. Already several smaller ships operate on the decades-old Teknaf-St. Martin's route. Overenthusiastic would-be tourists of the liner, however, look forward to the mid-distance seaborne destinations like the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Once proven popular and profitable, the liner could look beyond these two Indian Ocean countries.
A section of ship-based tourists, meanwhile, bring into question the timing of the cruise liner's start. The maiden destination of the first ever cruise ship of Bangladesh is the St. Martin's Island, currently the most popular of on-sea and seaside destinations in the country. But the current state of the once-idyllic resort defies all normal criteria that traditionally apply to such a spot. Just three decades ago, the small island, not too far from Teknaf, was veritably unknown to even many people in the Chittagong district. Eventually, small groups of venturesome youths reached the site on fishing trawlers. The journey was fraught with risks, as the intending travellers had to brave the rough sea. Later, winter was identified as the most ideal season for making trips to the island. In the initial days, people travelling to the St. Martin's Island had to return to Teknaf by nightfall. There were no facilities in place which could work as night-time shelters for outsiders.
Compared to today's St. Martin's Island chockablock with all types of crowd milling around, frantically entering the reserved zones marked for rare plant and animal species, the island was a largely quiet place a couple of decades back. Electricity supply was virtually absent, with its tree-covered villages getting shrouded in darkness after evening. In fact, lots people liked this ambience. Everything in the area back then used to effuse freshness and vibrancy. The rich biodiversity of the whole island remained virtually undisturbed.
In the early days, few showed interest in culling corals from the special zones beneath the sea-water and take them home in Chittagong or Dhaka city. The handful of hotels and motels which were built then used to operate large generators to keep their sites lighted. In some cheap, makeshift hotels there were no arrangements of functional electricity. An atmosphere lighted with lanterns or petromax (hajak light) would have been ideal for the place having scattered bungalow-type rest houses. In a short time, it proved a veritable pipedream. Long-term business concerns with money-making strategies began filling the area. With the mushrooming of profit-focused hotels, mostly unleashing an unplanned growth, the seemingly endless flow of tourists became the reality. The coral island now has around 120 hotels. These days, during the December-March season approximately 10,000 tourists arrive in the spot daily. A sizeable number of them stay there overnight. During their short or long stays on the island, these tourists allegedly wreak havoc with its rich biodiversity. Their only goal appears to be collecting corals from the place.
Environmental activists and climatologists have long started worrying about the future of the island. The outsiders' forays into the pristine island began with sea-going fishing trawlers arriving here. Their operation was irregular. It was mostly the Teknaf-St. Martin's commuters who would travel by these mechanised boats. Adventure-seeking young tourists were seen occasionally travelling by these trawlers. In a decade, the whole spectacle changed radically. Nowadays, 8 to 10 large and medium ships ply the route. Ships have also lately been given permission to travel from Cox's Bazar to St. Martin's. With so many vessels being in operation, the pros and cons of the introduction of a 2,000-cabin accommodating liner travelling between Chattogram and St. Martin's via Cox's Bazar ought to go through a detailed scrutiny. A major factor which is set to result from the introduction of the big ship is a remarkable increase in tourists bound for the coral island.
However, tourism experts do not feel much worried about the liner's operation. As they view it, the passengers of the luxury liner would comprise mainly upper-middle class and richer segments of society. These people are normally educated, and are aware of the imperative of environmental protection. The flipside is how many of them would finally stick to their decision to take the trip to a spot mobbed by mostly unscrupulous people.
The Directorate of Environment has for sometime been mulling enforcement of control on tourist arrivals on the island. Meanwhile, environmental activists continue to become vocal on saving the island's rich biodiversity. That biodiversity loss on a big scale looms above the island is now common knowledge. A catastrophic development related to the mindless collecting of corals continues unabated. According to a research paper published in the Ocean Science Journal, the St. Martin's Island may not have any trace of corals at the bottom of its surrounding seawaters by 2045. Apart from the coral reefs, the island is a rich source of different types of flora and fauna. All this constitutes a rich biodiversity collection. Once the island boasted of its native olive tortoise, which is now in the process of extinction. Besides, it has four species of dolphin; and birds, small animals and insects etc. A lot of them have gone extinct, the rest on way to vanish.
In fact, it is difficult to imagine a harmonised coexistence of these long threatened animals and plant species with a maddeningly rising number of humans. Apart from the inbound tourists from all parts of the country, the tiny island holds a population of 10 thousand. Few at the higher policy-making level appear to be serious about thrashing out a long-term plan aimed at helping the unique island thrive in an environment-friendly way.
It's natural that spots like St. Martin's Island have long been drawing normal tourists and environmental researchers. In the developed countries, the governments keep special funds aside, besides employing trained manpower to ensure that the sites' sylvan character remains unspoiled. In the case of the St. Martin's Island, the performance of Bangladesh is filled with elements which are blatantly insensitive and lackadaisical. Time has not yet run out. Bangladesh can still embark on initiatives which might emerge as a new lease of life for the island, now in its death throes in terms of environment and biodiversity. Saving the coral island deserves to be among the national imperatives. It's time to start taking efforts to recoup the ecological losses incurred by the country at the site.