Nowadays, Parimol Sing, a member of the ethnic Monipuri community in Moulvibazar, is busy readying his homes to welcome prospective guests. He can accommodate four visitors at once, all of whom can share his home and break bread with his family.
“Once I lived hand to mouth; now, I am solvent,” said Parimol.
For a single day, he charges Tk1,700 per guest, making a profit of Tk1,000. The earning is far removed from earlier when Jhum cultivation was one of the few things Parimol could rely on for a living.
Two years ago, the government initiated a pilot project titled “Monipuri Community-based Tourism” at Monipuri village of Moulvibazar’s Kamalganj upazila.
A few months later, it formed the “Monipuri Community-based Tourism committee” to oversee the business in the area. Currently, the committee has 80 members, of which Parimol is one.
He began the business with one room only back in 2018. His success has inspired others in the community to follow suit.
He said about 30 families in the village are now fully involved in the business.
“All the tourists, particularly foreigners, who come, enjoy their trips very much. They taste our meals, wear our dresses, and use our handicraft products,” he said, adding that they often organise dance and other cultural programmes to entertain the visitors.
Although the project began with much fanfare, over the years it has lost some steam.
Insiders say the authorities have not looked after the project much. Much of the potential remains untapped and despite its success, the government was yet to launch similar initiatives elsewhere.
“To popularise non-traditional tourism, the government needs to promote it worldwide, rather than taking on small-scale initiatives,” Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh President Md Rafeuzzaman opined.
He said community-based tourism was now very popular in many countries, including India and some African nations.
Bangladesh had ample resources, including attractive spots and tribal communities with different cultures, for such non-traditional tourism.
“We just need branding,” he said, adding that local host communities should be trained properly, as well.
The Moulvibazar community-based tourism is set to be a gamechanger for the fortunes of the indigenous community, which had so far relied mostly on betel leaf cultivation.
In community-based tourism, local communities are the entrepreneurs; they arrange accommodation and provide services.
This kind of tourism economically empowers host communities and provides space for sharing experiences and having cultural exchanges. Globally, the sector is worth billions of dollars.
“One of our surveys says at least 5,000 tourists come to Sreemangal every day to visit the greenery and the mountains. If we can popularise community-based tourism, about one-third of the tourists would be interested to opt for the non-traditional tourism to add an extra dimension to their trips,” said Sreemangal Upazila Nirbahi Officer Nazrul Islam, adding that the ethnic minorities can bag about Tk15 crore per month in earnings.
He estimated that the sector can be grown to be worth roughly Tk100-200 crore annually with a proper plan.
With its steadily growing reputation, Moulvibazar, is a desired destination for tourists seeking the soothing solitude of nature as a respite from the chaotic urban life.
Around 40% of the people in the district directly or indirectly benefit from the tourism sector, the UNO said.
The Monipuri Community-based Tourism project offered visitors a chance to glimpse into the lives of tribal communities, take their traditional meals, and enjoy their cultural beauties.
The initiative proved to be popular, but more can be done.
“If we can popularise community-based tourism, it would be great for the minorities, as well as for tourists,” said Md Mehedi Hasan, additional deputy commissioner of the district.
“We are planning to work for the sector, and will consult insiders soon,” he said, adding that ensuring security for tourists, as well as for the hosts, and other challenges should be addressed first.
He hoped community-based tourism would be a great alternative income source for the ethnic groups.
Entrepreneurs there said they can perform better if they get help from the government. Many want to enter, but are unable to due to lack of capital.
Many visitors come to the area on the occasion of different festivals of Marma, Khasia, Garo, Tripura, Munda, and Santal, and they can be attracted to the community-based tourism, they said, calling on the government to come up with a bigger plan to boost the sector.