- Tourists on a beach near Cox’s Bazar, May 2, 2008.
South Asia now boasts a pretty happy marriage of tourism and high-minded talk fests.
Goa, India’s most popular beach destination, hosted the THiNK festival at the beginning of November, just as the tourist season got underway.
In January, the perfect time to visit the Indian state of Rajasthan, which is now firmly on the celebrity travel circuit, visitors can attend the Jaipur Literature Festival.
In March, Sri Lanka will host a literary festival in charming Galle.
Where does Hay Dhaka fit into all this?
Launched as a one-day program last year, this year the literary festival has expanded into a two-and-half-day affair with a mix of Bangladeshi and foreign writers. Kicking off Thursday night and running through Saturday, Hay Dhaka is being held at the city’s Bangla Academy, the body responsible for promoting the country’s national language. That’s a big deal, since the festival focuses on writing in English. But, unlike the other South Asian cities that now host literary festivals, Dhaka is most decidedly not on the tourist map.
“The idea of Bangladesh is terrifying to a lot of people,” said Sadaf Saaz Siddiqui, founder of the three-year-old Jatrik travel agency. The main perception? That the country is all about “floods and poverty,” she said.
In 2009, the latest year for which tourism figures were available from the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, an agency set up by the government to boost tourism, the country got 267,107 visitors, of which nearly 123,000 were tourists. Sri Lanka received nearly four times that number of tourists the same year.
“It’s not a typical tourist experience,” said Ms. Siddiqui. “We don’t have a Taj Mahal.” (That’s not strictly true.)
But Ms. Siddiqui, who is one of the organizers of Hay Dhaka this year, is hopeful that the festival – and a slate of other cultural gatherings – will help put the country on the tourist radar.
- Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
- A young girl at the Boshonto Utshob festival in Dhaka, Feb. 13, 2010.
Last year, Ms. Siddiqui worked with other organizations to create the Dhaka World Music Fest 2011, which showcased a mix of African, Caribbean and Bangladeshi music, and was well-covered across the border in Indian newspapers.
That followed on the heels of the Chobi Mela, a photography exhibition that takes place every two years. Chobi Mela has become an important stop in the Subcontinent for photographers from many countries. The next one begins in January.
The plan is for Hay Dhaka, an offshoot of a festival that began in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, to take place every year from now on.
“We’ve kind of got the product ready. So now it’s kind of like, ‘Do come to Bangladesh,’” Ms. Siddiqui said. “I’m really hoping as the years go by and as Hay becomes more established, more and more people will come and see the rest of the country. You can experience a huge diversity of things.”
Ms. Siddiqui said her tours around the country can include river trips, bird-watching, time in the country’s mangrove forests, and visits to villages to listen to local music.
It must be said that a fairly intrepid – or perhaps earnest – nature may be required to fully enjoy Bangladesh’s offerings. One traveler told Ms. Siddiqui he was looking to see “the most densely populated country in the world.”
Ms. Siddiqui doesn’t pretend the negative perceptions of Bangladesh don’t exist. Her tours include visits to poverty-reduction programs, along with more typical sightseeing.
“Sometimes we take them to a social initiative, an orphanage, maybe show them how women do microcredit,” she said.
Even those who arrive with every intention of loving the country can find it a bit of an uphill battle at times.
Eye surgeon James Muecke visited Bangladesh to see how his Australia-based organization, Sight for All, could help prevent sight disorders. He traveled around and wrote about his experiences for a newspaper last year. His article included these memorable closing lines:
“Another night in the remote Chittagong Hills, another night in a lonely hotel, another vegetable curry, another blackout. I was ready to return to the chaos and charisma of Dhaka.”
Perhaps that’s why Bangladesh is also trying to figure out how to cater to the conventional sunbathing-and-pina-colada traveler. Officials are beginning with plans to develop the beach of Cox’s Bazar, along the Bay of Bengal.
The Lonely Planet has warned travelers that a foreigner used to the “liberal sands of Spain, Australia or California, is likely to be far less enamored” of Cox’s Bazar than the locals. Bangladesh is planning a gigantic 1,100-acre play area with five-star hotels and swimming pools there anyway.
“We are going to build up an exclusive tourist zone for foreigners,” said Maksudul Hasan Khan, chairman of the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation.
Mr. Khan says there are also plans for an airport so tourists can fly directly to Cox’s Bazar from other parts of Asia or Europe, rather than arriving first in Dhaka, then flying to Chittagong and traveling the rest of the way by road.
“The airport of Cox’s Bazar will be ready by June 2013,” he said. “When the airport is completed, people from Britain may like to go to Cox’s Bazar directly.”
But Ms. Siddiqui doesn’t think that Bangladesh should try to compete with Thailand or Europe for lazy beach vacations.
“If you want to lie on a beach on Malaga for two weeks this is not the holiday for you,” she said. “We won’t win in that.”