The government is planning to renovate seven eco-parks and build four new ones in the Sundarbans, aiming to boost tourism in the world's largest mangrove forest.
The government also has plans to procure high-speed vessels to protect tourists in disaster-prone areas.
Even though more and more people visit the world’s largest mangrove forest each year, tourists and travel agencies complain about insufficient facilities and travel arrangements to the Sundarbans.
The complaints range from lack of basic and emergency medical services, food and accommodation, supply of fresh water, adequate security to booking complications at the forest department. The watch towers and jetties inside the forest are also in dilapidated conditions.
“Each season, around 1.5 to 2 lakh local and foreign tourists visit the Sundarbans helping the government earn more than Tk 2 crore in revenue,” said Md Moinuddin Khan, forest conservator of the Khulna region.
“There're seven eco-parks for tourists in the Sundarbans. Under the current circumstances, a Tk 25 crore project titled ‘Development and extension of eco-friendly tourist facilities in Sundarbans project’ was proposed and it can be implemented from July next year if it gets approved from the ministry,” he said.
According to the forest conservator, development of the old seven eco-parks, construction of four new ones and overall renovation of watchtowers are included in the project.
“The project was sent to the Ministry of Environment and Forest, and we hope to get its approval soon,” Moinuddin Khan added.
Sources at Sundarbans East and West Forest Department said the number of local and foreign tourists visiting the Sundarbans is increasing every year.
They said a total of 100,817 tourists visited the Sundarbans in 2014-15 fiscal year, 128,175 in 2015-16, 183,490 in 2016-17 and 221,969 in 2017-18 fiscal year.
That figure rose to 251,969 in 2018-19. The forest department received more than Tk 2 crore in revenue from the tourism sector last year.
Talking to the UNB correspondent, several tourists who went to the Sundarbans shared the problems they encountered. As much of the forest is outside the mobile network, tourists are disconnected with the outside world after they enter the Sundarbans, they said.
There are no facilities for emergency medical care and even for clean drinking water, they complained.
“The Sundarbans is a place of amazing natural beauty and many people are really interested about it. People visit it purely at their own initiatives,” said Jamaluddin who came to visit the Sundarbans from Dhaka.
He feels that tourism in the Sundarbans has a lot of potential but government initiatives to develop the tourism sector is few and far between.
Jamaluddin also found the Sundarbans to be a safe area although people used to fear attacks from pirates and forest robbers before.
“Security should be increased at the tourist spots like Kotka, Kochikhali and at the river mouths where ships anchor,” Jamaluddin mentioned.
Mazharul Islam Kochi, managing director of Ever Green Tours and Travels Ltd, expressed concerns over the inadequate security at the Sundarbans.
“The security system is still precarious and each ferry gets only two forest guards, who are often too old to carry firearms. That’s why the dangers remain,” he explained.
“Tourists also do not get proper accommodation. They have to spend night on their boats. The watchtowers are also rickety and the tourist ferries are not allowed to use the forest department jetties. There is a crisis of fresh water, too.”
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of West Sundarbans division Bashirul AL Mamun said some initiatives are in the pipeline to make sure tourists can avail themselves of services easily at the Sundarbans.
“We monitor to make sure tourists don’t fall in troubles. Importance is being given to the necessity of designated jetties for tourists. Tour guides are being trained so they can remain alert while accompanying the tourists,” he explained.
“Priority is being given to manpower for monitoring the overall situation of the Sundarbans. Necessary manpower is kept in the eco-park areas even though we're short by one-third."
Mentioning that tourists should be more cautious so that the Sundarbans environment is not spoiled, the DFO said visitors often feed the animals and make loud noises. These activities are harmful to the environment.
“Due to lack of awareness, tourists throw polythene, packets, food and leftovers in the river and the Sundarbans, polluting the environment. This problem is difficult to solve by enforcing the law alone. Therefore, emphasis is given on raising awareness,” the forest official added.
“The ministry can approve projects up to Tk 50 crore without going to Ecnec. Thus the proposal for the forest department’s project will be cleared. There are only a few steps left and the work may begin before July,” said Begum Habibun Nahar, MP, deputy minister for environment, forests and climate change affairs.
“Although the Sundarbans Protection Project began in 2011, virtually nothing happened under it. Some work for protection will be done under the ‘Development and extension of eco-friendly tourist facilities in Sundarbans project’. It has been primarily approved,” the deputy minister said.