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Sunday, 6 July 2014

Stop dissing Bangladesh. Please?





Am rather fed up. In fact am simmering.  Here is why. 

On Saturday 5 July, 2014, brave British newspaper The Guardian did an article on Bangladesh as a holiday destination with a title of 'Big Bang."  A small voice that tried to showcase there might be more to Bangladesh than meets the eye. They were the first to agree to fly out with me - to investigate my theory that Bangladesh is ready to be a new holiday destination.  
At time of writing this it has got 50 or so comments.  Some of them quite strong and virulent (which thankfully have already been removed).  Some accusing the writer of being on dope.   It made me sad.  And it reminded me of the long, dusty, thankless walk I am on.  
But now it is time to fight back on behalf of Bangladeshi people. Its artisans. Its resort owners.   And why the Bangladesh Tourism Board must address the issues around infrastructure, traffic and negative image. 

Here are some examples of scarily 'enlightened' comments - which by the way I enjoyed reading:
"You don't need to go to Bangladesh to meet the folk, just go to Tooting or eight other London boroughs." 

Hmm. Ok. Could do but given the nation is the only one to have longest beach in the world - where do I turn right out of Tooting tube to find that?
"Looks awful. Why do these cool Guardian writers think they are sooo intrepid going to a country that offers nothing special for a tourist!"

Glad you find them cool. I do too.  Here's My #lightbulb - (sorry penny's thought) moment for you. Could be.... they are travel writers and their job is to suffer the pain, the highs, the lows so they can come back, write their hearts our honestly so they get to tell you and me all about it? Just so we can then get to leave our stream of subconscious comments?  :) 

"what has this correspondent been smoking.The bloody country should go in guiness book of record as to have nothing to see, nothing to offer, no infrastructure worth its name and all that romanticsm about the wild....leave it here...."    

If I was her, I might be tempted to reach for something strong judging by the amount of crass, racist  comments left. Ha ha.  Surely the Guinness Book Of Records has Bangladesh listed for longest beach in the world and has the largest mangrove forest. Wait. Let me help you.  Scroll below as I just added images so you can see these in real life. 
"All of the hallmarks of a rathole for mine."  

Yup - I sure empathise mate.  Ratholes I also see when spotting the poor and destitute sleeping along the walls of London. But of course when it is in our back yard - we immediately empathise and call it London's 'tragedy'.
Anyhow. Fair enough.  Am all for free speech. Honest.  Am only teasing and mean it all in good jest. 
Of course it is important to stay and show positivity - yay! So instead or writing pointed statements I like to go and get all warm and fluffy at the thought provoking comments from those willing to give Bangladesh a chance:
"Someone back those Otter fishermen at once, spectacular and brilliant. They should be paid zillions, Would love to go and see them."

"Good luck with your enterprise,Yasmin. In particular, the idea of encouraging British Bangladeshis (especially those born in the UK) to appreciate the beauty of their homeland and consider it as a holiday destination seems very worthwhile. I`m an Englishman who works in Bethnal Green with lots of British Bangladeshis, and this article has made me determined to visit one day."
But I find that is still not enough to calm me down.  You see, it's not just some bad comments from The Guardian article that has prompted me to write this though. As quite rightly - who can blame them for being ill informed? Not me.  Given there is not much positive stuff being shared out in the world or by the media.   People are force fed negative images and stories over and over and over again. So fair enough.  My main concern is those who should definitely know better! 

WHO COULD HELP TO STOP THIS DISSING? SERIOUSLY? 
Quite frankly uninformed opinion and negative comments simply serve to show more importantly the stigma and the fear and anxiety many have about travelling to developing nations.  Which is why I wish the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) or the ridiculous sounding UNOHRLLS* (the UN body for developing nations) - would step up and address.  Better still guys and gals - why not reply to me when I write in offering you suggestions?   Work with me? 

*United Nations Office Of The High Representative For The Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and The Small Island Developing States; (did you manage to catch your breath - nope neither did I).

The Bangladesh Tourism Board could also do so much more.  Listen and take the fears of tourists and travel opinion formers seriously.  As well as the World Travel Market who must make a concerted effort to showcase developing nations who lack the immense marketing budgets of say India, Brazil, Russia, USA etc

Then. I also have to deal with my own kind.  Not many (as was quite shocked to learn I was voted into the 100 British Bangladesh Power & Inspiration list) but the ones when they do, rip you to shreds. Ever since I started doing Lovedesh, I hear  me and Bangladesh getting criticised.  Like the chap who has told me off for not turning Bangladesh into a budget destination.  Of how I have got it all wrong. See here. Maybe I ought to ignore him but am sorry if I leave it empty, it shows I have no argument or faith in Lovedesh or my idea.  Isn't that what entrepreneurship is all about?  Many of the Bangladeshi diaspora who grimace at the idea of a new Bangladesh.  Who ridicule me at the idea of trying to smash the stigma and get the rest of the world travelling out there - not for charity - but for a HOLIDAY. Yup. I just said the scariest 7 letter word that I am going on record to state - dear reader -  is not mutually exclusive with  Bangladesh.
Next. I have had tour operators disdainfully turn their noses up at me. Who smiled sweetly and told me more or less to 'sod off'. Who quite frankly do only care about the bottom line.  If a destination is not a hit or popular - they do not want to take a risk. They keep telling me that Bangladesh is NOT a holiday destination.  Perhaps how I ought to go and speak to volunteerism countries or wildlife and trekking groups - who might take some interest. Erm...no.  I have been to many countries and can say - Bangladesh is one of the best destinations I have ever been to.  It is authentic, unspoilt and unaffected.  I just wish people could see pass the poverty, garment workers, charity and political strife labels.   
But it won't be easy for 'poor' Bangladesh.  Isn't it funny what happens when a nation like Bangladesh tries to forge ahead - in a positive way.  To remove the shackles of the stigma and negativity.  To start showing off its real beauty.  Akin to those "Mean Girls' or "Muriel's Wedding' - snarling twin top wearing high school bullies, a classic ingredient for this type of teen film genre, who - upon seeing the ugly, fat, spotty protagonist turn from ugly duckling into a swan - get all hysterical. 
Same can be said here.  When Bangladesh refuses to be stuck in the doldrums, or shifts from asking for handouts, I know the naysayers and bullies will emerge. To say to it - 'Oi you - get back to where we need you to stay. Can't having you escape".  The rest of the world has become so used to seeing image after image of Bangladeshis being in need, in crisis, in a mess and in misery.  Or how fantastic micro-finance has been (hmmm - something I now disagree on and will soon be writing about especially the fears and worries I have about such an idea). 
It could be argued it is easier, better for us masses across the world to expect Bangladesh ought to stay where it has always been - seen as a mess of a nation with nothing going for it.  Of being in need?  No. Not me.  I refuse to accept that.  Bangladeshis are too brilliant to be left behind. They survived a genocide.  Fought for their independence. And are the dumping ground for the Western world's need to pay for cheap solutions (be it ship breaking to skinny jeans).   It is why I set up Lovedesh to smash the stigma it suffers from.  To start sharing the good stuff.  So that the rest of the world can change the way it sees and experiences it - and the other poorest nations in the world.   
How? Is it really too much to ask for support for sustainable tourism? Where we help to create a new industry that helps connect local folks to foreigners. So that they earn money. It is either that or a life in manufacturing, garment factories or handouts.  
A lot of people forget - tourism in developing nations is often the courage and preserve of the private sector.  Entrepreneurs who put their money where their mouth is.  To build something positive to give jobs.  Brave people like Nazim Kamran Choudhury (Nazimgarh), Kristen Boekhoff (Panigram), Nasser Rahman (Dusai Resort & Spa), Mahmud Hossain Murad and Archt. Syeda Zarina Hossain of Shuktara Resorts.  These five have created stunning feats of spectacualr design. They  ought to be applauded and seen as national - nay global - treasures - purely for showing the rest of the world that Bangladesh has style, design and IS worthy of being a holiday destination.  

Anyway I guess I knew doing Lovedesh would be hard work.  Must stop ranting.  I guess it will take baby steps.  But this is where I have to be the change I want to see - in order to deliver change.  And to show my faith in Bangladesh, I am compelled to  put my neck on the line here.  I am asking 12 people to join me to travel to Bangladesh in November.  Let's see if the bookings come eh? 

See the film below of the Lovedesh Voyage To Bangladesh, a 13 day trip where travellers can experience what The Guardian had.


I hope watching this helps demonstrate it can be a holiday destination. But here is even more I hope will persuade you.  
SO WHY IS BANGLADESH A GREAT DESTINATION?
WILD. Sunderbans - the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to 400 Royal Bengal Tigers.
CHAT. Friendly, kind, funny people.

FOOD. Smashing food. Me below with Khalil in Sylhet (he is often outside Aarong) shaking up a street snack called Chanachur. 

WORLD RECORD. Longest beach in the world.  Yes it is, it is, it is. Look at where I was in February 2014:
Island off Cox's Bazar. 
SURF's UP. Coolest surfing community. 
Me with the surfer boys (Ramjan and Rashed) in Cox's Bazar. 

ANCIENT CURRY. Home still to the ancient wood fired curry - yum - and one hosting a large river delta abundant with fresh fish. 
Film below shows how wood fired curry in UK helps to change the stigma surrounding Bangladesh. 



HEROES. Finally the real stars who need rescuing.  Fishermen who use trained otters to hunt for fish - an ancient ritual that will soon die. Unless Lovedesh can help by hiring them for our tours. 
Sunderbans fishermen & Otters, a dying tradition due to climate change. 

COMFORT. Bangladesh now has many stunning, cool boutique resorts where you can stay right now. Where you need not compromise comfort and style. With swimming pools.  

Pioneer Nazim Kamran Choudhury's Nazimgarh Wilderness Resort's infinity pool.

Shuktara Nature Resort, Sylhet designed by Bangladesh female architect Syeda Zarina Hossain on her ancestral land. 

Luxury Dusai Resort & Spa, in Mouvli Bazaar.

Ocean Paradise hotel room in Cox's Bazar - longest beach. 


Moreover, the travel experts agree with me.  
BBC Traveller Simon Reeves sent this tweet:
"Yay - love beautiful so delighted to see this: Good luck B'desh and good luck "
As did Vicky Baker the writer: 
"Tourism is taking off in . @LovedeshScout and others are making it happen. (Loved this trip so much)

  
Conclusion 
Judge not a nation by its cover story.  Surely all the above makes it a viable holiday destination? 
It's why I was compelled to leave the following comments today in The Guardian's article in response to seeing some of the nasty ones. 
Here is what I wrote back on The Guardian's comments section; 
"Hi. This is Yasmin C. of Lovedesh here. I accompanied the journalist out to Bangladesh (BD) for this article!
Wow - so many comments. Great to read people sharing some of their own memories and experiences which were positive. Problem is I know they are few and far between. Why? Bangladesh rarely gets any real foreign tourists. I so want to change that. I guess it is why The Guardian chose to visit so they can make their own minds up.
I wanted to share some more of my own perspectives. First. Am always scratching my head at why there is so much focus on Dhaka. The capital can be a nightmare. But I have not had that experience (yet) as I know where to go. I choose to stay away during peak times. Plus I tend to avoid it as much as possible. I now land straight into Sylhet (the region where the tea estates are) via direct flight by Bangladesh Biman from London Heathrow - much quieter.
Moreover most foreigners in BD are expats who live in the capital city Dhaka. Or those paid to have to be there (textile and apparel buyers, NGOs, engineers, diplomats, civil servants). They are often there - not from choice - but as part of their job. And on the foreign travel circuit, where they will be comparing BD to more exotic locations - China, Thailand etc .
Dhaka of course is where the 5 star hotels and expat areas are: Gulshan, Baridhara, Dhanmondi. Where most foreigners stay. They often tell me they are having a dire time but that they prefer to stay holed up in their 5 star hotels or rented accommodation. That they rarely leave Dhaka to go to explore the rest of the nation (mainly quiet, lush and rural) - which is madness - as this is where you will find the authenticity and joy!
Next. Add the media and news reports, that will of course report (and quite rightly) on the negative stuff - what then are the chances of stunning boutique lush resorts like Nazimgarh, Dusai, Panigram, Shuktara who employ local folks and the ordinary BD folks (who never meet foreigners), of ever getting the chance to shine and to get their voices out to the rest of the world? It's why I am so glad this article happened.
The stigma they suffer from is real. Until I started to explore the real Bangladesh, - heck - I too thought it had nothing to offer either. It simply confirms why I had to set up Lovedesh - as for some time now I have been arguing that countries such as Bangladesh are incredibly and unfairly stigmatised. How poorest nations are overlooked as destinations - due to all the wrong reasons. Which perhaps might make for skewed reading and opinions? Would you agree?
It is a shame we foreigners never get to hear more about the good stuff from developing nations. Like Romesh Ram Gour, the man in BD who has invented the world's first 7 layered tea (see Wall Strett Journal piece here, ), the hijab clad girls who I stumbled across surfing, or the artisans who work with their hands weaving ancient exquisite cloths. All these secret and stunning sights have been painstakingly scouted out by me over years of trips to BD. These compelled me to set up Lovedesh.
And there is something more to BD than meets the eye. Don't take my word for it. Both chef Rick Stein and BBC travel presenter Simon Reeve fell in love with Bangladesh upon visiting. And have publically stated as such. Same here with Caroline Eden, another travel writer. And Vicky Baker, writer of this piece who last night tweeted how much she loved this trip.
One more perspective I wanted to share - every country has its bad side. Surely if we were to only share the headline news of all the worst about UK or China, focus on its impoverished areas, high rise city centres, human rights issues, the traffic pile ups on M25, the sexual abuse cases, gang wars and the daily crime reports - how many visitors would these nations get?
And don't get me wrong - there IS a lot of work still to be done to improve Bangladesh. To me it is perfectly understandable why some of the negative comments have appeared. The Bangladesh Tourism Board needs to address this. Hopefully, thanks to all these comments - they will read and listen.
All I ask is to remember there are 160 million folks out there desperate to escape poverty. Most of whom are poor, kind hearted people who will share whatever food they have with you. And how nations like Bangladesh, are the last vestiges where you can explore the world quietly (if you know where to go!).
Anyway will shut up now! My dream is to help smash the stigma and redress the balance. So must get back on it. I am also about to start the #LTTTW campaign (Let's Travel The 'Third World'). Just so nations like Bangladesh can get a fair stab at being viewed from a balanced platform.
I hope my comments help. If you want to find out more on the real Bangladesh - holler via Lovedesh. Thx for reading."
Yasmin C.