The Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA) New Tourism Frontiers Forum 2016 was held at the end of November in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, under the theme “Designing a sustainable tourism brand”. The conference gathered practitioners in destination and sustainable tourism management for inspiring and insightful discussions on some of the major issues in marketing and managing tourism growth in unexplored destinations. I participated as one of the conference 21 speakers, presenting to delegates from over 90 national and international organisations (governments, NGOs, universities, tour operators, travel associations, community organisations, hotels and the media).
NTFF 2016 was hosted by the Bangladesh Tourism Board (BTB) that is keen to develop and brand Cox’s Bazar as one of the major international tourism destination, in a responsible way. The forum tackled a range of topics: developing heritage tourism, developing tourism around a trail concept, protecting marine tourism, brand building and marketing for emerging destinations.
Why Cox’s Bazar?
Cox’s Bazar – the “unexplored destination” – located along the Bay of Bengal, is a town and a district famous for its unbroken 120 km-long sandy beach, the longest beach in the world. However, during the three-day stay we have learnt that there is much more to it than its natural beauty. The rich cultural heritage and diverse local communities with their own traditions, religions and customs are another asset that can potentially attract international visitors.
We have visited a few Buddhist temples and monasteries, including the Ramu Temple and its 100-feet-long golden statue of the Sleeping Buddha. We had the opportunity to meet the welcoming Barua community – the ancient ethnic minority known as the Burua-Buddhist. We have also mingled with local fishermen and admired their distinctive Sampan boats.
How not to spoil it all – key recommendations
So how can the BTB build upon these assets and turn Cox’s Bazar into a popular international destination? And, most importantly, how can they do it responsibly and “not spoil” its the pristine and undeveloped beaches, benefitting the local communities at the same time? Here are some key learnings and recommendations taken from the conference (and it is worth mentioning that although some of them sound obvious and trivial, surprisingly often they are being neglected):
- Community engagement is key to build on a destination’s cultural heritage – and not as a one-off, box-ticking activity, but as a managed, long-term, continuous process from the very beginning throughout all stages of the engagement. The communities need to agree what they are comfortable with sharing, showing and selling, and understand what the level of their participation in tourism development is (and how they can benefit). To quote one of the speakers Peter Richards: “a shift is needed from looking at people as products to people as partners to build their confidence and capacity”.
- Legally enforceable policy and urban planning as well as a strong RT development strategy need to be in place – their lack result in unsustainable destinations. This involves a close cooperation between many stakeholders (government, developers, tour operators and the local community) to agree on the long-term vision for the destination and the ways to mitigate the potential negative impacts of tourism.
- Dispersion of travel is crucial to avoid high concentration of visitors in one place. That needs to be considered in both planning and marketing.
- Selling a destination doesn’t stop with selling a tour to a customer (tourist) – they will arrive and immediately share it on social media. And nothing sells better than “experience” – so use the available resources to create products for tourists that will allow them to experience your destination and share the best from what it offers. Remember to ask your visitors to add location and tag people when posting on social media.
- Development of heritage trails: there are many types of trails that can be created in a destination (contrary to some beliefs that trails can only be built in the mountains). The Cox’s Bazar area has a unique combination of the longest beach and the highest hills in Bangladesh in one place, so a “beach to hills” trail provide an attractive alternative to tourists (not to mention the number of Buddhist temples or the variety of the local cuisine).
- Marketing/branding: to compete with well-established destinations, emerging ones need to build their brand around a clear and differentiated positioning. Use the assets that are unique to your destination. And, like in any communication with customers when we want to influence behaviour, our marketing needs to show “what’s in it for them” – how can they benefit in a tangible way? (and maybe after they will think of protecting the planet…).
And as one of the key speakers Marjorie van Strien said in her presentation: “ The memories I will take from here are the memories I take from interactions with the local people”. Combining that with the vast, never-ending unspoilt stretch of sand, Cox’s Bazar already has everything needed to become “a brand”. It is now up to its decision makers to take the Forum’s recommendations seriously and apply them in practice.