Intrepid travellers find Bangladesh a bargain
From Argentinian heavy metal fans to Scottish retirees, Joyanta Howlader's couch has hosted the full spectrum of backpackers who arrive -- sometimes with mixed feelings -- in impoverished Bangladesh.
The south Asian country seems an unlikely stop on a budget traveller's itinerary, but foreign visitor arrivals are rising and Bangladesh's lack of tourist infrastructure is, ironically, proving an attraction.
"You have to be adventurous. There is no other way to travel in Bangladesh," said Howlader, a 38-year-old Dhaka-based television producer who has hosted dozens of tourists through Couch Surfing, a hospitality exchange network.
"One backpacker who stayed with me, he just hated it here, said he'd never come back. He was a real tourist, he just wanted an easy travel experience which Bangladesh is definitely not," Howlader told AFP.
With mod-cons now available in backpacker haunts in Thailand, Vietnam and India, where prices are shooting up, increasing numbers of budget tourists are seeking out alternative, low-cost travel experiences elsewhere in Asia.
From spending a night on a stranger's sofa for free, sampling Dhaka's best biryani for a dollar a plate, or checking into a midrange hotel for less than 10 dollars a night, Bangladesh is about as cheap and adventurous as it comes.
Even a four-day all-inclusive cruise through the world's largest mangrove forest on a traditional wooden boat will only cost around 150 dollars, far cheaper than a comparable trip in neighbouring India, experts say.
Bangladesh is one of only a few places left in the region that still offer the original pioneering travel experience, according to Lonely Planet's Bangladesh author Stuart Butler.
"It is very easy to get well off the beaten track and is a place in which you can make your own discoveries and travel for weeks without meeting another western tourist -- or any tourist for that matter," Butler told AFP.
The problems of getting around and finding accommodation, particularly for women, in the conservative, Muslim-majority nation are, for some travellers, Bangladesh's unique selling point, he said.
"For many travellers this lack of knowledge of the country and the lack of a tourist industry is the prime reason for visiting. Travelling in Bangladesh is a genuine adventure," he said.
Tourists are still something of a rarity in Bangladesh with just 267,107 foreign visitor arrivals in 2009, according to government figures which do not distinguish between tourist arrivals and Bangladeshis with foreign passports.
This is up from 2000, when 199,211 foreign visitors arrived in the south Asian nation of 160 million people, and local tourism industry figures say they anticipate further growth.
"Inbound tourism is growing more than 10 percent a year -- a few years ago, no one had heard of Bangladesh, they thought it was part of India," said Taufiquddin Ahmed, president of the Bangladesh Tour Operators Association.
"The average spend for package tourists is now around 500 dollars, which is less than they would spend in India or Nepal," he said. "And we get a lot of backpackers coming here and just travelling on their own."
Travelling in Bangladesh, while not for the faint-hearted, is extremely cheap, with the 27-hour trip from Dhaka to Khulna on The Rocket, the country's most famous river ferry, costing just 15 dollars for a first-class cabin.
From Khulna it is easy to access the Sunderbans mangrove forest, which is the country's most popular attraction, although northern Srimongal district's tea gardens are also attracting interest, he said.
The biggest problem for the local tourism industry is the lack of any concerted government effort to promote the country, such as the successful "Incredible India" and "Malaysia Truly Asia" campaigns, he said.
"Bangladesh suffers from a negative image, but slowly things are changing for the better," he said.
Bangladesh is one of travel bible Lonely Planet's "Best Value Destinations" for 2011.
And for Mickey Leung, author of the Bradt Guide book on Bangladesh, there is no point in trying to fight Bangladesh's international reputation -- instead, the industry should try to capitalise on it.
"We're not going to get away from that image. There is going to be another cyclone, people are going to keep talking about climate change damage... you can't just sit and hope it will go away," he told AFP.
"Everybody knows Bangladesh is a poor country, so let's take that image (and) make it like: your decision to travel to Bangladesh represents your decision to change the world," he said.
The government should focus on building up pro-poor, community based eco-friendly tourism, for example by providing loans for setting up guesthouses for backpackers, he said.
"I would like to see budget travellers come to Bangladesh with an open mind, and with a willingness to experience local hospitality. They have to leave luxury behind."
* * * * *