Table of Contents
Bangladesh is a country rich in natural beauty of rivers, mountains, and the sea. The country’s Chittagong hill tracts (henceforth, CHT) region is especially abundant in ecological and cultural diversity, making it one of the main tourist attractions for tourists in Bangladesh. CHT, consisting of almost one-tenth of the land of the country, is a culturally unique and ‘exotic’ spot with more than ten different ethnic communities (UNICEF, 2019). Tourism is one of the reasons for increasing reciprocity among the rural hill tribes and the lowlanders of Bangladesh. The close intersections between tourism, social life,economy, and ecology shapes the relationship between the communities of tourists and locals. There are several positive and negative impacts of tourism in the hilly areas and the lifestyles of the Highlander ethnic communities. It is necessary to talk about the people living for centuries in CHT, which recently emerged as a tourist attraction spot. With the evolving role of the hill tracts for the people of the country, the relationship between lowlanders and highlanders is also evolving with major impacts on lifestyle, economic and cultural aspects. To understand the dynamics and mobility of tourists and indigenous communities, it’s important to bring out the perspective of both, and the role and perspective of the tourists are equally important as the indigenous. Though there is much research and reports being conducted with the indigenous and economic perspectives, the tourist community, who are the main focus of the tourism industry, are being overlooked. My paper intends to bring out the standpoints of the tourists in the matter of indigenous lives. The stand of both indigenous community and tourists are important to create a social dialogue about tourism development as a fast growing sector. In fact, with the inclusion of indigenous and local perspectives on the emergence of tourism, the opinionated participation of the tourists are also important to create a sustainable society around the tourist attraction spots.
The tourism industry of Bangladesh has been a concern for the country’s leaders since the independence of the country. In 1972, after the victory of the Liberation War, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation (BPC) or Bangladesh Tourism Corporation was introduced by the presidential order. This suggests that since the state’s inception, Bangladeshi leaders had a vision about tourism’s importance for the country’s future. about the emergence of tourism and its economic aspects for the future. And accordingly, the industry contained 3% of the total GDP in the 2019 fiscal year and is rising over the recent years and the government has allocated 1000 crore in tourism development in 2022 (Dhaka Tribune, 2022). The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) predicts that by 2023 Bangladesh’s tourism sector will employ about 1.7 million workers, roughly 4.2 percent of the country’s workforce (Hasan, 2021). This suggests that the tourism industry has enough potential to boost economic growth in Bangladesh. Yet the consequences of the development of the country’s tourism industry for its indigenous minorities remained fraught from the beginning . Bangladeshi tourism focuses mostly on the rural and hilly areas of the country, which also consists of a diversified community of indigenous people. With the concern of tourism and its development as an industry, in most cases, the lives of the indigenous community are excluded (Tithila, 2020). This exclusion traces back to the first constitution of Bangladesh which conflated Bangladeshi identity with Bengali ethnic identity, thus marginalising indigenous communities in the newly formed state (Jnan, 2018). Then, the militarization in the territory, because of the demand for the CHT Regulation Act by the locals, was actually a threat to the freedom of the indigenous people. The Regulation Act was introduced by the British government for the perseverance of the tribal minorities of CHT. Therefore, the emerging tourism industry of CHT, is related to such historically marginalised society, creating a new economical way of exclusion and exploitation (Tithila, 2020).
Economic Interconnection of Tourism and Indigenous
For people searching for ‘refreshment’, ‘stress detox’, and ‘productivity boost’, travelling is the top choice for a lot of people. According to one of the interviewees, “There are two types of tourists to find in CHT. The first group consists of those who want to have a vacation, live in luxury hotels, and have all the urban facilities. The second group includes those who want to experience the place”(Rashid, personal interview 3). Fortunately, CHT has arrangements for both types of tourists. Most famous tourist spots like Bandarban, Sajek, Rangamati have enough hotels and resorts to accommodate tourists throughout the year. The BPC also has authorised hotels, motels, resorts and restaurants over the country and including several places in CHT. And these provide economically to a vast number of local families as the jobs in the tourism sector are easily available. The adventurous and experience-seeking travelers are in favor of accommodations that enable natural intimacy and for this, camping is one of the most popular and convenient living arrangements. Other than the concept of living in tents, there is one unique living arrangement introduced by the indigenous community. The tourists can spend the night or stay inside the remote villages in the forestry lands of CHT. A young tourist and member of the ‘Adventure Club’ of his University, stated that “the indigenous people are very welcoming and friendly to invite the tourists to stay in their houses, or simply spend the night on their veranda in exchange for an affordable amount of money” (Islam, personal interview 1). Certainly, the indigenous people have economic advantages to gain from tourism. Unfortunately, the commercial tourist businesses have thus far marginalised indigenous communities from the industry, snatching indigenous lands for building luxury hotels. Sajek, which is one of the tourist hotspots of CHT, is a rapidly developing area in the context of tourism. Protests by the ‘Mro’ community against the snatching of their rights to their land(The daily star, 2023), has been reported in the press as a major setback for the tourism industry of Bangladesh. A student of BRAC University who recently visited Sajek, a tourist hotspot of CHT, stated that “the resorts in Sajek are likely to be built on the inhabitants of the ‘Pahari’ people as a tourist reports that the resort they were living in, was previously the residence of a local family and now the family lives in the resort being employees of that place” (Kubra, personal interview 9)
. More concerning report comes out in another research that there have been deaths of people due to forceful displacement from their lands in Nilgiri, another tourist attraction of the CHT. But this case is slightly different than Sajek’s as here the military is involved(Chakma, 2016). As land issues of the CHT are parallel with the growth of tourism and tourism business, the relationship between tourism and local inhabitants has come to be marked with more lines of conflict. It shows that the tourism industry is actually working as a tool of exploitation and displacement for the indigenous community. According to Prof. Azim, chairperson of English and Humanities department at BRAC University, the domestic property developers are the driving force of land related subjugation and injustice towards the indigenous people. The escalation of tourism, leads to more investment in this sector for an amplified return of investment. In this whole system of business and development, the tribal communities are overlooked (Azim, Personal Interview). Tourism as a business sector is growing with social prejudice towards the tribal communities and the Bengali community also participates in such land disputes with the local indigenous community of CHT.
Some 295 Christian families in a cluster of three villages — Saingya Tripura Para, Hatibhanga Para and Laimi Para — are concerned that a Bengali Muslim businessman intends to build a five-star hotel on 101 hectares by allegedly exploiting his financial and political clout. (Rozario, 2019).
On the contrary, another interviewee, a frequent tourist and a member of an “Adventure Club”, remarked about the rising cost of basic necessities in newly developing tourist areas. The local restaurants inside small tourist villages, or the grocers, charge more than the actual market price of everyday products which was a disappointing experience for one of my interviewees. Another tourist and interviewee for this project, corroborated this information with the explanation that the supplies of the commodities are limited and the sellers are dependent on the tourists from the lowland to do business. The interviewee stated that, “Small village shops are not rich in supplies and customers to maintain the actual market price. Also local indigenous people are in the transportation field as well as small businesses and the tourists can rent the vehicles in exchange for a good amount of money for their local exploration, as their income is totally based on the tourists, they ask for extra payment”. Additionally, an important testimony of a frequent visitor of CHT is that the income source of the ‘Pahari’ people are shifting towards the tourism industry rather than their traditional Jhum cultivation. Seemingly, it is a matter of concern that the locals are being diverted from their agricultural economy and being involved in the tourism industry while making the tourists pay extra cost for the services.
Environment, adventure, and ecotourism
The term ecotourism refers to the methods where the tourism industry will be managed in a way that does not harm the ecology. The BPC (Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation), has ecotourism on their development agendas too. The increase in tourist interaction in the rural hilly areas can threaten the natural balance of that place. As mentioned earlier, the cultivation system and lifestyle of the indigenous people are heavily dependent on local ecology which is being hampered with the development of tourism. The idea of development around the hill tracts is seen as tourism based rather than local concerns. The tourism infrastructure like roads, and buildings, materially beautifying the surroundings, are a threat to the ecosystem. A fellow of YECAP (Youth Empowerment in Climate Action Platform) and a contributing NGO employee, during the interview, stressed on the necessity of ecotourism in CHT while addressing the failings of Bangladesh in providing proper ecotourism support due to the lack of proper policy-building and implementation, even though Bangladesh was one of the first countries to take climate and mitigation plans(personal interview, Anonymous 6). The implementation of ecotourism will also increase the chances of a better economy with reduced prices of living cost and more tourism from diverse economical backgrounds. One of my interviewees suggested that with proper publicity ecotourism can help foster a more cooperative relationship between tourists and the environment. (Anonymous, Personal interview 6). The interviewee is part of a tourist adventure club that has a strict ‘zero littering policy’ where they do not throw any kind of plastic or waste in nature, rather they carry the plastics with them to dump in a particular place. According to the tourists, not all places of CHT are commercialised. Many tourists prefer places like Nafakhum, Amiakhum, Sakahafongh, that require a little bit of trekking, are attractive for trekkers and adventure seekers. Tourists visiting these places tend to stay with local families in the small villages in these areas. (Islam, personal interview 1). Another interviewee pointed out that, “Even though the Paharis are harmoniously coexisting with nature, being dependent on it, the majority of tourists are not responsible enough to keep the environment clean and free from their personal waste to pollute the nature” (Rashid, personal interview 3). The YECAP fellow also stated that “
rights (Anonymous, personal interview 6). One of my interviewees, belonging to the Bandarban region as a local, informed me that “tourism development is a tourist based development style where the locals are lacking proper social development. There’s water shortage and no proper health care system for the tribal villages as well (Anonymous, interviewee, 4). This suggests that the tribal people are deliberately marginalised by the tourism development industry. The ecology and development of lifestyle is a further context for the tourism development sector.
“I love to visit the hilly areas because of the tribal people and their culture over there. Especially the food”(Amit, interviewee 2)
The vibrant culture of indigenous communities plays a vital role in attracting tourists multiple times. Many of my interviewees found the lifestyles of indigenous communities inspiring. As one of them put it, the everyday lives of these communities were deeply connected with nature, as was their culture. . Their houses are distinctively different from the lowland houses which further enhances the beauty of hills. The rich cultural lives of indigenous communities, as well as their warm and welcoming attitude towards visitors, made one of my interviewees want to keep going back (Riya, Interviewee 5). On the other hand, One of my interviewee stated from their personal experience that “the tribes are not very welcoming or are critical of the tourists” He also added “some locals are critical over the outfits of the tourists as most of the tourists wear ‘western’ clothes while trekking and visiting the tribal places” (Anonymous, personal interview) . So, there are two different versions of feedback extracted from the interviewees in the matter of social acceptance of tourism into the indigenous community. Sometimes the behaviour, clothing and habits are too different to them, so they are critical over this (Islam, interviewee 1).An interviewee who was born in Bandarban (a district of CHT) but grew in Dhaka, related to CHT both as a local and as a tourist. She also talked about the diversity of cultures and practices in these areas. Coming from a tribal family, she commented upon the differences of lifestyle of indigenous and lowland Bangladeshi people. According to her, “tourism was in fact exacerbating these differences. By profiting off the “exoticization” of minority ethnic groups, tourism was further marginalising these groups from popular understandings of Bangladeshi identity and society (Anonymous, personal interview). On the other hand, Prof. Azim has argued that ethnic cultural identity can also be a source of pride. At the same time, many people from these communities also seek social mobility through new opportunities in education and economic life (Azim, Personal Interview).
. Many of these groups are learning Bengali and seeking schooling in the language to increase their chances of social and economic mobility. Despite this, their distinct cultural practices remain important not only to members of these communities but also to tourists visiting these areas. For example, “three predominant indigenous communities – Chakma, Marma and Tripura – celebrate the New Year in different ways and with different celebrations” (Alom, 2017) and in recent times, the lowland Bangladeshiu tourists are also being intrigued and excited to experience the festival. The cultural diversity of the tribes is therefore an important factor driving the growth of tourism. But there are many other religious festivals which are only for people from the community and there are even times when the tourists or any outsiders are completely prohibited from entering the villages (Rashid, interviewee, 3). But the common statement almost all the interviewees stressed upon, was the need to have mutual respect and integrity while engaging with different cultures.
Marginalisation, racial domination and ‘otherness’ towards the ethnic communities, are some challenging issues for the tourism development sector of Bangladesh. Beagle Chilisa in the book titled “Indigenous Research Methodologies” has clearly stated that
“Tourism can also perpetuate unequal power relations between Indigenous peoples and dominant cultures. The promotion of tourism often emphasises the exotic and primitive aspects of Indigenous cultures, while downplaying the modern and contemporary realities of Indigenous peoples.” (p. 157).
While the tourists are fascinated by the cultural practice of the indigenous people, there is also an evident sense of patronization in how they talk about and treat these communities. Bengali being the state language of Bangladesh, is also therefore imposed upon the tribal communities who have their own diverse linguistic identities. Two interesting factors identified for this are firstly education, job and inclusion in the mainstream, secondly, stronger communication with the tourists and many tourists even expected that knowing Bengali by the tribal locals, would be beneficial for the tourist groups. The cultural integrity of the tribal groups is an equal responsibility for the low and highlanders as it also represents the diversity of Bangladesh. The tribes have experienced many oppressions and negative impacts because of many pseudo-development of tourism and their resources were snatched. Tourism does put the mainlanders in a socially dominant position over the locals and tourists explicitly or implicitly accept this social hierarchy.
While some of my tourist interviewers were suggesting forms of tourism sensitive to local ecology and culture, , many other tourists desire material luxury in their travels to places like CHT. Numerous individuals hold racial prejudice with discriminatory conduct against ethnic communities. Prof. Azim suggested a unique style of installing a university in CHT for students of all backgrounds to learn in a diverse cultural setting which can enable a sense of acceptance and community among students. She also suggests introducing university courses about tribal culture, literature, and lifestyle. This way, the relationship and inclusion of the indigenous in the mainstream and the mainstream to the indigenous community can see a new horizon. Education can actually be a way of inclusion and empathy building for the future generations of Bangladeshi citizens be it from indigenous or Bengali communities
The rapid growth of commercial tourism has been detrimental for Bangladesh’s indigenous minorities and their lifestyle from every possible aspect. However, ecologically, and culturally sensitive tourism where indigenous minorities are important stakeholders, has the capacity to encourage intercultural dialogue and promote inclusive community building specifically around the tourist areas. Tourism is definitely a sector in Bangladesh that has the capacity to bring diverse populations together and create new contexts for inter-cultural exchange. Like the interviewees supporting sustainable tourism, the government should encourage the implementation of tourism in the relationship of coexistence between the majority and minority communities while implementing inclusive planning and policy building to determine the perseverance of indigenous economy and culture along with tourism development policies.
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Chilisa, B. (2011). Indigenous Research Methodologies.
Chakma, M. (2016). Tourism development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: The impact on indigenous peoples (IPs) (Doctoral dissertation, Thesis, Flinders University. https://flex. flinders. edu. au/file/6842a80c-cce0-4f2a-a85f-8014acf5ec07/1/Chakma% 20MCw% 20thesis% 20March% 202017. pdf).
Hasan, E. H. (2021, December 20). The future of the travel industry. The Financial Express. https://thefinancialexpress.com.bd/views/reviews/the-future-of-the-travel-industry-1639981030
Jnan. (2018, June 14). Ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh: the Chittagong Hill Tracts? Asia Dialogue. https://theasiadialogue.com/2018/03/08/ethnic-cleansing-in-bangladesh/
The Daily Star. (2023, January 3). Protect Mro community from violent land grabbers. The Daily Star. https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/editorial/news/protect-mro-community-violent-land-grabbers-3211761
UNICEF. (2019, August). MANY TRACTS ONE COMMUNITY UNICEF’S Work in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/bangladesh/sites/unicef.org.bangladesh/files/2019-09/CHT-report-LR-August20-website.pdf