Community based ecotourism: A potential solution for protecting the Sundarbans

Posted July 7, 2022

By Sohara Mehroze, Head of Solutions Mapping - Accelerator Lab, UNDP BD

© UNDP BD

Tourism is playing a significant role in delivering sustainable solutions for people, the planet, prosperity, and peace. In particular, it has been included as targets in the Sustainable Development Goals 8, 12 and 14 on inclusive and sustainable economic growth, sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and the sustainable use of oceans and marine resources, respectively.

An emerging industry in Bangladesh – tourism accounts for 4.4% of the country’s GDP and is showing noticeable growth every year.[1]  Following an extensive exploration of the sustainable development challenges for Bangladesh and addressing the challenge of sustainable tourism in Bangladesh, the accelerator lab Bangladesh focused on community-based tourism as a viable pathway to achieve economic empowerment through employment generation.

In this context, with the objective of increasing employment generation, the Accelerator lab has been targeting informal workers in the tourism sector and through sets of sensemaking and behavorial insights sessions, the lab facilitated capacity building trainings for these workers to improve their service quality. Building on its experience, the lab is mapping existing innovative community-based solutions in the tourism sector to generate new learnings aiming the lab’s further plans related to blue economy. The Bangladesh lab’s solution mapper recently conducted a visit to Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat - gateways to the largest mangrove forest of the world and UNESCO World Heritage Site the Sundarbans, a major tourist site of Bangladesh. The flow of tourists has created income opportunities for tour operators, hotels, and other service providers.

UNDP Bangladesh has previously focused on conservation of endangered species in the Sundarbans, a key challenge to which is unsustainable tourism. To ensure the biodiversity conservation and promote responsible tourism in the Sundarbans, the lab identified ecotourism as a potential solution. One of the grassroots organizations working in this space that the Lab met during this visit was the local environmental organization Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS) in Khulna, which is implementing an innovative community-based tourism initiative for promoting sustainable livelihoods and conservation of the Sundarbans. The solutions mapper visited their ecotourism site in Banishanta, where many insights were gathered which are aligned with the lab’s work on sustainable community-based tourism.

BEDS’ ecotourism site focuses on community-based tourism carried out by the locals. The community maintains organic farms and uses them to feed visitors traditional meals of crab, shrimp, and fish. Performance troupes offer song and dance, often about the local mythical figure Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the forest who is said to protect the people of the Sundarbans as they go about their work. Small shops offer visitors their pick of handmade wall hangings, embroidered cushion covers and other local crafted items for tourists to take home. The purchases also help to support the local economy, reducing the communities’ over-reliance on the forest’s resources.

Cottages at the BEDS ecotourism site

To further reduce dependence on the Sundarbans’ resources, BEDS conducted skill development training among the community, selecting women from 100 families and training them handicrafts based on the biodiversity of the Sundarbans (tablecloths, bed sheets, pillow covers, handbags, key rings, handkerchiefs, vanity bags, etc.) which they can sell to tourists. BEDS has developed its own brand Banojibi agro farms, under which various food items such as rice, oil and pickle are being produced by the locals. The CEO of BEDS Khulna, Md Maksudur Rahman shared his vision, “We want to build trust and resilience among the community through our Banojibi brand.”

BEDS has also undertaken nature education for the forest dwellers by creating interactive and engaging communication products such as board games showing different parts of Sundarbans and biodiversity maps showing flora and fauna. These materials can also be used to educate tourists and promote ecotourism.

Interactive communication material produced by BEDS showing the whereabouts of Sundarbans

Learning for Accelerator Lab Bangladesh

During BEDS eco-tourism site visit in Banishanta, Dakope the lab identified few challenges regarding the proliferation of ecotourism, such as communication and transportation issues due to absence of land connectivity, lack of promotion of the tourist spots, as well as limited understanding of the concept of ecotourism.

The solutions to these challenges that came up from the local stakeholders include:

  • Behavorial insights and capacity building of the local service providers to improve tourists’ satisfaction as well as quality of the service provided
  • Improving promotion of ecotourism via better communication with tour operators, publishing materials detailing the facilities, search engine optimization, building social media presence, app development, improving the website etc.
  • Solving energy access challenges in the remote regions via solar power
  • Capacity building and market linkages of female entrepreneurs for them to be able to explore opportunities within the tourism sector and the blue economy.

 

The way ahead

Grassroots initiatives such as that of BEDS indicate that the Sundarbans has the potential to become a very popular ecotourist spot providing the locals an alternate opportunity of employment and reducing their dependence on the mighty forest. Recent inauguration of the Padma bridge linking opens a new door for tourism as communication and transportation hassles for the region will be reduced.

The matter of sustainable and responsible tourism is increasingly garnering attention as a huge number of locals are now depending on tourism for their livelihoods. According to Rajat Shuvra gain, the field advisor of BEDS-Khulna, lack of work was pushing the desperate locals into the tiger reserve territory to collect honey, fish for crabs, and undertake illegal logging and even poaching. “Our (BEDS) ecotourism related initiatives are stirring a decline in Sundarbans dependency among the locals and more people from the community these days are driven towards tourism related employment such as tour guide, tour operator, boatman and so”.

However, under the veil of ecotourism, mass tourism is often practiced. Thus, it is crucial to consult experts and incorporate grassroots knowledge from local leaders, tour operators and relevant stakeholders to promote ecotourism in a pragmatic manner, according to Nazmul Alam David, general secretary of the Tour Operators Association of Sundarbans, a Khulna based organization[1]. He also emphasized on local solutions for conserving the environment of the Sundarbans besides promoting ecotourism.

“Ecotourism is a very tough concept to adopt in Bangladesh as it is a densely populated country,” David said, “but if the people are sincere, it could happen.”

 


[1] The Sundarbans: Calls grow louder for eco-friendly tourism | The Daily Star