Sustainable tourism business model for Dhaka circular waterways

Mohammad Azaz. File photo

Mohammad Azaz. File photo

Recently the Institute of Water Modelling (IWM) commissioned a feasibility study for certain civic amenities and sustainable preservation of the rivers Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakhya by constructing walkways, eco parks, allied structure on the foreshores and removing waste from the riverbeds.

Based on the feasibility study findings, Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) came up with a project that includes 110 km on either side of the rivers totaling, 220 km of river demarcation with RCC pillars, and construction of 52 km of walkways along with construction of key protection walls along a 40 km area. Initially this government-funded project costs were estimated at Tk 8.4855 billion, but later stretched to Tk 19 billion.

This is undoubtedly an ambitious and optimistic plan for the government. Following the feasibility study, meetings with the government bodies and other civil groups on indicated that the project could be efficiently implemented.

The feasibility study contained two major components. Firstly there was the construction of walkways on piles, an eco park, bank protection and other related facilities on the foreshore of circular waterways. Secondly there was identification of the conditions of the river beds and dredging of the circular waterways.

Dhaka, the most densely populated city of this planet, surrounded by four beautiful rivers, is gradually losing its wetlands, rivers and flood flow zones due to filling, encroachments and pollution. With 36 per cent of the country’s urban population living in greater Dhaka, the capital of the country has become the world’s most polluted city as well. In a recent High Court verdict, the court awarded all rivers of the country the status of ‘living entities’ to ensure their protection and to raise awareness of their environmental significance. As rivers and wetlands are not part of the mainstream development agenda, it is given little attention in urban and development planning. Illegal land grabbing by real estate, factories and encroachment are widely seen on most of the river banks in urban areas.

By 2035, the capital city will have more than 35 million people. Between 1995 and 2005, the road surface in Dhaka increased by only 5 per cent, while population increased by 50 per cent and traffic by 134 per cent. For alternative transportation and recreation, the circular waterways and tourism facilities along the four surrounding rivers of the city will be a key strategic factor.

Once the project is completed, the four urban rivers of Dhaka will be the epicentre of urban tourism. Accordingly, the spots need to be conserved and sustained in the future. Their management will be crucial.

The following attractive tourism services can be offered through multiple stakeholders — theme areas consisting of open fields, amphitheatres, children’s play areas, gardens, butterfly parks, water gardens and utility areas, sculptures, eco-zones consisting of wetlands, grasslands and more.

The proposed five sites for eco parks in the project are not enough. Along with these parks and green patches, the project should consider the four urban rivers and their river banks as a tourist hub that will contain theme areas as well as urban tourism amenities where aforementioned packages and benefits can be provided with.

Urban amenities, for instances, gardens, gymnasium, performing arts centre, picnic tables, playgrounds, playing fields, showers, swimming pool, and WiFi should also be there. Along with these restaurants and shops, photo galleries, theatres, paddle boating, rowing, duo cycling, speed boats, bird watching, gun shooting, archery, cultural events, gaming zones, parking lots, eco carts, toilets, food courts, and special events will be included.

To sustain this tourism project, joint management combining top down and bottom up approaches can be applied. The government will have to control the tourist spot management, formulating policies and legislation.

In the projected areas, stakeholders will have to focus on tourism development. The parks, rivers and river side areas will be conserved by top down control with consultative management, and co-management by locality based communities and entrepreneurs.

The civil society and stakeholders involvement is also essential because tourism sustainability is more likely to occur when the community is actively involved in the design. The success of participatory tourism development will depend upon many factors including relationships among interest’s groups and levels, types, scales, directions and stages of tourism development.

This tourism management project should pay attention to the following principles: development of river tourism should be based on local wisdom that reflects the unique cultural heritage and the uniqueness of the environment; preservation, protection, and improvement of the quality of resources that become the basis for the development of the riverine areas; development of additional attractions that are rooted in the river side cultural treasures; service to tourists based on the uniqueness of riverside culture and environment, and provide support and legitimacy to the development of river tourism if proven to provide positive benefits, but instead control and or stop the tourism activity if it exceeds the threshold (carrying capacity) of the natural environment or social acceptability although on the other hand can increase riverside community income.

Also, accountability and transparency are key facts. Bi-phased digital transparency and accountability system can be introduced. Every owner of the urban amenities and authority’s performance services will have separate digital review system.

There should be an opportunity for tourists to provide feedback on each and every service, and consequently their reviews should be made public. If any respective stakeholder’s average review is less than two stars for two months, their allotment or lease will be notified for provisional cancellation. And if this rating still continues for next three months then their lease, allotment, contract, and appointment will be automatically canceled and new businesses will replace.

Key Challenges

Challenges will be inevitable. The possible challenges are: political syndicate that may influence in terms of allocating of shops and operation; the continuous fund flow would be a key challenge; though this project is very much based on riverside bank beautification and amenities building, water quality of the rivers and pollution management seem a huge challenge; the city corporation open dumping practice may find this project area difficult to maintain cleanliness and conserve rivers and pollution intrusion from the WASA managed canals.

*Mohammad Azaz is an independent river researcher in Dhaka.

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