It may never be high on the list of the Club Med set, but Bangladesh--one of the poorest countries in the world--has begun a serious campaign to lure foreign tourists.
Despite a $285 million budget deficit last year and annual agonizing over whether it can pay the interest on its $4 billion foreign debt, the martial-law government of Lt. Gen. Hussein Mohammed Ershad has ordered that "due priority" be given to tourism development.
During a tour of this incongruous seaside resort, which boasts South Asia's longest beach, Ershad this month dedicated a posh, government-built hotel and pledged to provide more facilities throughout the country to attract foreign tourists.
He said the tourist industry would be fostered as one of the country's main sources of foreign exchange, although he did not specify exactly what would compel tourists to travel to Bangladesh.
So far, sightseers have not exactly inundated Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the 90 million people live below the poverty line and where the per capita income is $100.
M. Shaukat Islam, a retired Air Force captain who is chairman of the Bangladeshi tourist corporation, said in an interview that last year nine tour groups visited Bangladesh. But he added that he hoped this year 20 groups would visit.
Precise figures on the total number of tourists here are difficult to pin down, he said, because the 64,000 persons who entered Bangladesh last year on tourist visas included businessmen, voluntary agency workers and foreigners visiting relatives, and many therefore do not generate much tourism income.
Idyllic travel posters depicting lush, green fields more akin to the average tourist's vision of Ireland than of Bangladesh urge, "Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come."
When asked whether the tourism drive had prompted much debate over the ordering of national priorities in Bangladesh--where, by the gloomy projection of Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith "millions of people will die young from malnourishment"--Shaukat said Ershad's backing was evidence enough of the government's commitment.
"I think definitely he will help us. I'm counting on it," he said. He added that he is hoping for a generous increase this year in the tourist development corporation's $1.5 million budget.
Ershad, in a speech dedicating the hotel, the Shaibal, said that he had ordered construction of new roads to Bangladesh's principal tourist sites and that the government was considering expanding air links to this resort town, which was founded in 1798 by Capt. Hiram Cox of the East India Co.
Cox's Bazar, with about 40 miles of coconut palm-lined beaches on the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal near where the southern edge of Bangladesh meets Burma, is a crowded, dusty city with a mixed population of Bengali and Burmese-speaking natives.
Although the resort area is undergoing frenetic development, with a half dozen hotels and guest houses available, it does not seem overrun by tourists. The Shaibal appeared mostly deserted, except for a few British tourists who wandered into the lounge to see Ershad's arrival.
One explanation for the vacancies could be the tortuous four-hour drive from Chittagong on roads that have repeatedly been washed away by the floods and typhoons that periodically strike the coast.
Small commuter planes connect Chittagong and Cox's Bazar twice weekly.
Bangladesh attractions--besides Cox's Bazar and Chittagong, a sprawling port called the "Green City"--include numerous Buddhist monasteries and Moghul ruins. Mainamati, 5 miles west of Comilla, is a center of Buddhist culture, where deva kings who ruled southern Bengal in the seventh century left what are now impressive archaeological ruins. Dhaka, the capital city founded in 1608 during the period of Moghal greatness, has become an overcrowded, deteriorating city but still boasts many impressive mosques.
In Dhaka, towering majestically over the somewhat seedy Karwan Bazaar, is the new high-rise Sonargaon Hotel, which most veteran South Asia travelers regard as the Subcontinent's most luxurious.
Government officials said that despite the new campaign, tourism represents a small part of the country's $1.2 billion development budget, which is slightly exceeded by foreign aid. They pointed out that the country's worsening balance of payments deficit--exports finance only 40 percent of import requirements--makes it imperative to generate more foreign exchange.
At the same time, Ershad said in his speech, this remote, desperately poor area can be made a tourist spot of "international standard."