The Financial Express

Bringing back the charm of St Martin's

| Updated: June 14, 2021 21:16:20

Bringing back the charm of St Martin's

The pessimist segments of people nowadays observe that the St Martin's bell has long begun tolling. The authorities have realised this bitter truth. That the countdown to the once-idyllic island's extinction is gaining speed has long been a reality. Against this backdrop, the large first-page advertisement published in the national dailies on June 1 with 14 directives aimed at the people touring St Martin's Island has evoked mixed feelings. The authorities have felt the urgency a little more to float the advertisement due to a befitting occasion: the observance of the World Environment Day on June 5. The UN sponsored day is observed every year. The day is considered a principal event for creating awareness among people of the need for environmental protection.

The advertisement released by the Department of Environment outlines some features considered conducive to saving the ecological balance of the St Martin's Island, basically a coral island, in the Bay of Bengal. It is located 9km south of Teknaf on the southern tip of the Cox's Bazar district. Thanks to the rush of domestic tourists increasing uncontrollably over the last three-and-half decades, the environmental fragilities have begun creeping alarmingly into the 3-sq-mile island. With its qualitatively rich and abundant coral reefs plundered by unscrupulous tourists, mushrooming of hotels, 'electric light' produced by diesel-run generators, raucous noise on the beach and many other sources of environmental-hostile activities have sapped the innate tranquility of the island. With the mechanised, but risky, small vessels replaced by several shipping lines, the maddening rush of tourists keeps overwhelming the St Martin's now lost pristine beauty.

The timely advertisement's 14 directives cover almost all the environmental aspects of the island. In consideration of saving the small island from tourist pressures, the advertisement couldn't have been timelier. Its sobering effect on the visitors from the mainland is worth waiting for. But where the St Marin's Island is finally destined to in the present setting is clear. It doesn't need an in-depth study to find out how many of these mostly fun-seeking, sea-food and coral buying tourists could be made sensitised to the imperative of environmental protection. The results come to the fore after a series of casual exercises of guess-work.

The restrictions specified in the advertisement meant for tourists include a series of dos and don'ts. Many people living on the island and at Teknaf have witnessed the fast rise in the popularity of the tourist site. They have watched how a number of anti-nature and anti-solitude trends --- in fact environment-hostile, are getting popular with the island visitors. Given the increasing dominance of affluent young tourists at the spot and the frenzy of visiting the island by all and sundry, conscious people find the directives in the advertisement difficult to enforce. Many tourists might care a fig about complying with the prohibitions. Meanwhile, the environmental activists have questioned the very rationale of putting up such media adverts aimed at reckless tourists in order to discipline them. The highly serious of them have come up with the suggestion of shutting all tour-related activities on the island for a month. They know full well that an action like this will enrage dozens of entities involved in businesses related to the island tours. But as they find it, it's a drastic action only which can save the St Martin's from disappearing from the country's tourism map. Few could visualise in the 1980s that this tiny island would one day emerge as a popular tourist spot as well as a site with rich biodiversity.

Had it not for a group of daredevil Dhaka youths, the island would possibly have still remained an obscure village populated by a few hundred people --- mostly from fishing communities. In order to explore the mid-sea patch of land growing thick bushes and having a long coastline bustling with fishers and fishing boats, the youths one summer morning hired a fishing trawler. They rented it for a full day and had to promise that they would have to return in the evening. Apparently, the youths enjoyed their day-long stay on the island, visiting many unusual natural spots before they returned in the late evening through the dark sea, overwhelmed by the starry night-sky. Thus these 4-5 youths pioneered tourist trips to the St Marin's. Before the launch of larger vessels, the engine-run light and makeshift trawlers were the medium of commuting between the island and the mainland. Like the ferrying of the island people, brave young tourists also started making occasional trips to the St Martin's.

The scenario keeps changing nowadays, with the arrival of environmentally- insensitive tourists on the island. Peaceful tourists feel exhausted and become tired of watching the strained relations between a section of arrogant tourists and the environmental crusaders. Many site-seers have long dropped their plans for visiting this bio-diversity-rich beautiful island. To them, the St Martin's could have been the country's Galapagos Islands --- virgin and unspoiled. But it remained illusory. To speak curtly, the very thought of resisting the wild and unwieldy site-seers would remain lodged in a domain of pipedream for a long time to come. Against this backdrop, the tourism authorities can mull the steps of keeping tourism on St Marin's closed for a fortnight to one month.

The June 1 advertisement released by the Department of Environment emphasises the protection of the island's biodiversity and ecological balance. In the beginning, it has termed the St Martin's the only coral-rich island which is now an ecologically endangered area. It said it was putting up the advert in order to reclaim the island's environment, ecology and biodiversity. In presenting a 14-point list of restrictions and prohibitions aimed at the intending St Martin's Island tourists, it has turned to the Environmental Protection Act 1995 (Amended 2010).

Given the cavalier attitude and nonchalance of a section of tourists towards the prohibitions in place, many environmentally conscious people are sceptical of the full implementation of the newly enforced rules. The authorities do not express any worry about the educated urban middle class. Most of them have long proved themselves responsible when it comes to environment-friendliness. Problems crop up with the younger people --- be they university-going students, office executives, or coming from the academically humble but moneyed classes. Male youths, and a handful of young females, normally create nuisance at almost all outdoor tourist sites in the country. A section of adults also follow suit. Perhaps keeping these fears in mind, the advertisement especially highlighted a few restrictions. As the island is an apparently safe habitat for sea-turtles, especially during their egg-laying season, using lights and flash lights for photography has been prohibited. Operating loudspeakers, making noise, singing aloud and arranging barbecue etc on the beach has come under strict ban. So have the trips on speedboats, country boats and trawlers to the nearby Chheradia Island, a treasure-trove of rare plants, small marine creatures and insects. Collection of corals, snails, oysters, sea-turtles, exotic birds, Star Fish, King crabs, marine grass, marine moss and sales and purchase of these items have been brought under the purview of offence. Moreover, wastage of sweet groundwater has also been strictly prohibited. At the same time, dumping of plastic containers and other wastes into the beach, the sea and the waters of the Naaf River has come under the ban.  Driving bicycles, motorbikes, cycle-rickshaws, vans etc have been prohibited.

When it comes to the ecological value of tourist sites in Bangladesh, St Martin's Island is no less important compared to the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Many otherwise rich countries in terms of natural resources lack the gifts of flora and fauna having ecological importance. The small St Martin's Island can be viewed as a unique gift filled with panoramic marine views and ecological abundance. Once it was an ideal destination for people interested in enjoying the concentration of rich biodiversity at a single venue. St Martin's Island has eventually emerged as such a place. To the woes of the nation's nature lovers, the island has continued to become bereft of its extraordinary pristine beauty. It is only restoration and prohibitive measures which can bring back the island's ecological richness lost to human mindlessness. Many natural tourist spots around the world are made to become subject to temporary public bans; to the general tourists the places remain a no-go area for certain lengths of time. During the seasons of storm and rain, St Marin's Island witnesses a remarkable cut in the number of tourists. The enforcement of an island-shutdown should be prompted by a necessity --- one that is related to its existence in its full glory.

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