West Bengal has shot up in the tourism sector based on Foreign Tourist Arrival (FTA) figures.
While it is not apparent from consolidated numbers, an overwhelming proportion of them are arrivals from the Bengal’s bigger eastern half.
In fact, citizens of Bangladesh are hugely significant in terms of foreign citizen tourism in the Indian Union, especially West Bengal. The largest share (16% of the total tourist inflow) to India is from Bangladesh.
While it may be true that, on an average, the “white foreign” tourist might spend much more on tourism and services on a per capita basis, Bangladeshis more than make it up in numbers.
They are one of the pillars of the mercantile economy of central Kolkata as well as in each of the border town and hinterland areas of West Bengal in which there is an Indo-Bangladesh checkpost. Medical visits are the largest sub-component of this tourist arrival from Bangladesh.
Compared to this reality and the attitude of the West Bengal government in welcoming Bangladeshis for purposes of tourism, the government of India takes no initiative in making tourists from Bangladesh feel comfortable.
In fact, they are made to feel unwelcome. Recently, Government of India developed a multiple language tourist helpline. It had Hindi. It had 13 other foreign languages in that helpline. But there was no Bangla even though Bangladeshis rank first among the source nations in terms of foreign tourist arrivals. So, there is an apparent case of pseudo-xenophobic discrimination.
The BJP constantly creates “fear psychosis” among citizens of the Indian Union by playing up fears about illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators who are poor and ready to cause crime and demographic shifts in various border districts of the Indian Union.
What is coolly forgotten is that Bangladesh actually tops the Indian Union in quite a few human development indicators, including something as basic as human life expectancy.
Be that as it may, it historically has been the government of West Bengal, including the present one, which has stood up against such fear-mongering using the term “Bangladeshi” so much so that it has become a name of abuse among people of the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideology.
Till now we have talked about the state of the Bangladeshi citizen’s tourism in the Indian Union and West Bengal. What Bengal’s western half shares with the eastern half, no one else can understand.
The 1947 Partition was just the start. It has continued up until today through Hindu out-migration from the east. Muslim out-migration from the west more or less stopped by 1965. The number of Hindu out-migrants also outnumbered the Muslim out-migrants by a huge margin, the ratio being 4:1, or even higher.
Now these ex-East Bengalis and their descendants form a significant proportion of the population of West Bengal. Most of these families have stories of their homeland and homestead (bhita) from which they fled as refugees. These stories are handed down from generations and are part of family folklore. Children know of small town names which exist only in the mind.
Now that the 1947 generation is almost dead, many old people are making that last trip home, often after 50-60 years for that one last look of their real homeland from which they were removed without consent.
This represents something magical and tragic, but it also represents a pining that is also a business opportunity -- this sector of ancestral tourism. But it can’t simply be advertisements. Things have to be made welcoming. It has to be sold right. There has to be services specific to that search for roots, that yearning for homestead.
This business is for the taking and some small agencies on both sides have joined up to provide exactly that, including ancestral home search services, so that the trip is not wasted on an unsuccessful search.
It is time to have an open and vibrant discussion to promote ancestral tourism in Bangladesh
Against the backdrop of the mentioned reality and the posed opportunity, it is time to have an open and vibrant discussion to promote ancestral tourism in Bangladesh.
To develop a sector, it is imperative that it has the patronage and support of the different stakeholders within the sector namely policy-makers, the private sector, civil society, and local communities.
Forward and backward linkages need to be developed, along with the apt policy support/planning.
With an approach to develop an ancestral tourism sector, Bangladesh can cease the opportunity and use it as a precursor to develop its broader tourism sector, a sector which the country has been trying to tap into for a long time.
As mentioned above, there are myriad examples of ancestral tourism already happening, from West Bengal to East Bengal, ie Bangladesh. A sector development strategy by different stake-holders and a policy prescription focusing on ancestral tourism may consist of the following discussion points:
Easier visa regime
Bangladesh already has special visa categories such as “tabliq visa” and visa-free access for “persons of Bangladeshi origin.” India, for example, provides automatic visa for elderly Bangladeshi applicants who are 60+ years old. India has also introduced a “Muktijoddha” visa category for corresponding Bangladeshi applicants.
Bangladesh can reciprocate such measures by introducing a special visa category for people desirous of engaging in ancestral tourism and for people with familial ties in Bangladesh.
On a broader note, a natural question may be raised whether Bangladesh should issue special visas for fellow native Bengali-speakers.
Better immigration services
With focus on Deputy High Commission in Kolkata, the capacity for visa issuance has to be enhanced. Digitalising the visa application process, reducing long lines for submission for documents, “no waiting line” system for women and children, smoothening the process at the border controls by increasing booths, are some of the fast-track measures which can be undertaken.
The border immigration control posts need to enhance capacity to reduce long waiting lines. In short, some nuanced measures to improve the experiences of travellers would go a long way in boosting ancestral tourism. After all, immigration is the first welcome greeting into Bangladesh.
In terms of connectivity, the two Bengals (Bangladesh-West Bengal) have come a long way. Whereas till the 1990s, people could only travel via airplane, now multiple modes have been introduced.
The communications infrastructure planning (highways, railways, or even inland waterways) can be oriented to have better connectivity with West Bengal. West Bengal ought to reciprocate the connectivity needs.
In addition, better connectivity with more human crossings in southern Bengal would smoothen connectivity (currently Benapole-Petrapole post bears disproportionate amount of the traffic). More cross-border routes can be introduced along with strategies to make them feasible.
The newly introduced Khulna route is promising in this regard. The possibility of having a Kolkata-Chittagong cruise route may be explored, since a considerable amount of Chittagong-rooted people live in Kolkata.
Bangladesh and India governments have delved on various functional issues bilaterally. A promising example of bilateral cooperation is the Bangladesh-India Sundarban Region Cooperation Initiative (BISRCI), a Track II initiative to create a one-ecosystem joint policy on the Sundarbans.
The venture is to create a secretariat for implementing a joint policy (covering issues such as climate change, siltation, human activities, and eco-tourism) on the Sundarbans by including all stake-holders.
Similar to these measures, a Joint Tourism Board, with an outlined modus operandi, between the two Bengals would be a welcoming move to promote ancestral tourism. All inter-governmental initiatives have to take West Bengali government into the equation; otherwise, without the integration of a major stake-holder, the chance of any measure is highly likely to falter.
Travel industry and business-friendly regime
The shambled tourism sector in Bangladesh is in need of a good boost. Various initiatives, such as special tourism zones, are being taken to boost international tourism. However, the reality is that the sector falls well short of international standards in terms of both infrastructure and quality to attract foreign tourists.
Ancestral tourism, with a well-supported backward linkage industry, offers a unique opportunity to develop the sector. Unlike in the case of Western tourists, the standards and the facilities needed for ancestral tourists need not be transformed drastically, meaning it does not need massive investments.
Due to higher income levels in West Bengal (but still lower than that of Western, Middle Eastern, or East Asian tourists), ancestral tourists will find Bangladesh to be more affordable. Moreover, similar cultural and lifestyle patterns and non-existent language barriers requires a lesser transformation and investment for the sector.
The private sector and the businesses can play a more nuanced and innovative role in this regard. Tourism businesses can offer specialised packages to ancestral tourists to visit their “bhitas” and other attractive destinations around the country.
Bangladesh is an expanding economy, and investment is pouring in -- especially from India. However, we see investors from non-Bengali parts of India more than from West Bengal.
Getting more West Bengali investors will have a ripple effect in all essential sectors including the promotion of ancestral tourism. The Economic Zones (EZs) initiative by the government is already offering specialised EZs to targeted Japanese, Chinese, and Indian investors.
Why not break down “Indian investors” and further target West Bengali investors?
In order for ancestral tourism to take a mature shape, the demand side has to be catalysed. Otherwise, there is no point of enhancing the supply side.
Basic suggestion to increase promotion of ancestral tourism will consist of targeted ad campaigns to desired groups in Kolkata and other prospective areas of West Bengal.
Why not brand Dhaka as a “kacchi biriyani” city? It is common for East Bengalis with family in West Bengal to go to West Bengal/Kolkata to celebrate Puja. Moreover, Kolkata in general is seen as a holiday destination for Bangladeshis.
However, the vice-versa is not true. Strategic efforts can be made to change this.
West Bengali channels/programs are quite popular in Bangladesh, and the potential of Bangladeshi channels to gain popularity in West Bengal is promising. Now, sure there are obstacles and complications to enter the Indian (West Bengali) media market.
However, this pursuit will be imperative because free flow of information, ideas, and art will go a long way in promoting business at large and ancestral tourism in particular. In light, when people in Kolkata see Pran commercials, it gives a vibrant picture of Bangladesh.
Furthermore, increased co-ventured movies between the Bengals is another promising emergence in this regard. Another factor that may boost the demand side is if there is a West Bengali enclave, in Dhaka and Chittagong, where the West Bengali tourists can consider a safe go-to area.
Cultural bonds, a shared history, rising incomes, and socio-economic ties between the neighbouring Bengals is a unique state of affairs
Such enclaves are intense economic activity zones and are a common feature around the world: Chinatowns, K-towns, Little Indias, Jackson Heights in NYC, Brick Lane in London, etc. However, such enclaves usually grow organically, but the process can be expedited with local community and policy support.
If the topic of ancestral tourism ought to be raised, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room: Vested Property Act, commonly known as “Enemy Property Act.” The Enemy Property Act of mid 1960s, which has been through various forms, had essentially been made void in 2011.
The legal flaws, contentions, and implementation failures of it are at the discretion of the government and legal experts. However, the controversy and the fear of “Hindus returning,” in a country where property-related conflicts are way too common, is real.
Any policy planning and development of ancestral tourism has to be sensitive to these real problems. After all, instead of promoting harmonious tourism, another issue of communal tension should not arise.
There are bright spots on this issue also. For instance, many “enemy properties,” especially the prominent ones, house government offices/officials or other new residents. The government can take unilateral actions in resolving such property-ownership issues.
Celebrities from West Bengal including Srabonti, Nichikata, Jyoti Basu, and Amartya Sen have visited their ancestral homes without any upheaval. No doubt that the government of Bangladesh provided special protocol for them, but the fact that it has been happening is surely encouraging.
The above is both a wish-list and a policy prescription for a serious call to action. Promoting ancestral tourism is not going to be an easy task. Severe technical problems, such as establishing who qualifies as an “ancestral tourist,” will endure.
But it’s surely a worthy venture for Bangladesh. Bangladesh cannot offer medical tourism or grand-destination tourism, such as the Taj Mahal, or even offer shopping opportunities available in Kolkata (access to the vast market of Indian products), but it can leverage its niches.
More importantly it’s good for the businesses and the economy. The obstacles are real as much as the potentials are real. It’s not going to be a straight line.
In the process, uncomfortable questions on the state and plight of Hindu minorities of Bangladesh will be raised. Shying away from such questions will be yet another lost opportunity.
Cultural bonds, a shared history, rising incomes, and socio-economic ties between the neighbouring Bengals is a unique state of affairs. If Bangladesh keeps to its core spirit and ignites the Bengali tradition of welcoming guests, there is little doubt that a vibrant ancestral tourism sector should and will flourish.
Following Bangladesh’s lead, similar initiatives to promote inter-Bengali ancestral tourism can be a blueprint for the West Bengali part of India to reciprocate.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac. Syed Mafiz Kamal is a Senior Researcher at Policy Research Institute (PRI). He can be followed on twitter @SyedMKamal.