Asia

Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar: A paradise being lost?

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Media captionMass tourism and unplanned development are putting Cox's Bazar at risk

Pristine sandy beaches, coconut palms, sunshine and tropical weather - Cox's Bazar in the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh has everything to make it an ideal holiday destination.

With more than 100km (62.5 miles) of sand, Cox's Bazar has the world's longest uninterrupted natural beach.

Since this long coastal line by the Bay of Bengal has rarely been explored, many feel it has the potential to rival other beach holidays destinations in the region like Pattaya in Thailand or Galle in Sri Lanka.

This tropical paradise is key to the Bangladeshi government's new plans to put the country on the international tourist map. It hopes to earn more than $5bn (£3.17bn) from tourism in the next 10 years by attracting more domestic and foreign visitors.

But a walk along the main beach in Cox's Bazar suggests the ambitious dream of an international tourist attraction may turn sour unless the authorities act fast.

"The whole area is being developed in an unplanned way," said Professor Mushtaq Ahmed, an environmental campaigner in Cox's Bazar.

"The beach area has been encroached and hundreds of buildings have come up there creating a negative influence on the environment."

He says many of the hotels, government buildings and shops that have been built in recent years lack proper planning permission.

Construction boom

Image caption Hundreds of new buildings have sprung up in recent years

Until about two decades ago, Cox's Bazar was a sleepy beach town which attracted mostly Bangladeshis looking to escape the noise and pollution of big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong.

However, the entire landscape has changed and hundreds of high-rise hotel buildings, apartment blocks and restaurants have mushroomed in the area.

On the main beach itself, there are dozens of shops selling souvenirs, toys, clothes and fast food.

Hotels and restaurants are being erected in almost every part of the town and in nearby beach areas as the construction boom continues.

Environmentalists fear if the illegally built buildings along the main beach are not removed soon, the area may never recover and its beauty will be lost forever.

They say despite a court order last year to remove all unauthorised structures from Cox's Bazar beach, hundreds of buildings and shops still remain.

But officials say following the court order, the government has formed a committee to identify buildings and other structures which should be removed from the main beach area.

"The problem is many government buildings have also been built on the beach area," Mohammad Monirul Islam, a senior government official said.

"The committee will soon come out with a list of structures which should be demolished."

But the slow pace of the demolition drive has irked many environmental activists who feel precious time is being lost to protect the beach from encroachment and land grabbing.

Bangladeshi Tourism Minister Faruk Khan admits that there has been some unplanned growth in Cox's Bazar, but says the government is taking measures to protect the area.

"We are already building a marine drive from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf and we have given instruction that no building should be built on the southern side of the marine drive that is on the beach.

"That's how we plan to control encroachment," Mr Khan told the BBC.

Image caption Bangladesh wants to rival other beach resorts with Cox's Bazar

Multiple impact

The problems are not confined to the seaside - nearby hills are also facing threats.

"Trees are being cut indiscriminately on the hillside and lands are also cleared to make way for buildings," Prof Ahmed said.

"As a result, we witness frequent landslides during monsoon period killing many people."

Dozens of people were killed in June when mud banks collapsed during heavy rain, burying houses. It was the second major landslide in less than four years.

The increasing number of visitors is also having an impact on the marine environment.

Activists say many tourists take coral home as souvenirs. As a result, traders and locals frequently collect corals and sea shells from nearby islands like St Martin's.

What is more visible to visitors is the pollution in and around Cox's Bazar's. As it attracts millions of tourists, tonnes of empty packaging and plastic water bottles are strewn across the beach area.

"I think there should be strict rules to prevent pollution on the beach. We can see garbage in many places and we should stop polluting this beautiful place," says Maria Hossain, a tourist from Chittagong.

Too little, too late?

Image caption Sea shells are sought-after souvenirs

Officials say the government has taken a series of steps to preserve Cox's Bazar. They say the planned Cox's Bazar Development Authority will monitor and regulate all new building constructions in the region.

But it's not clear whether that alone will be enough to save Cox's Bazar.

The government aims to double the number of foreign tourists arriving to almost a million by 2021, which it says will help to generate at least half a million jobs.

The influx of additional tourists will no doubt put pressure on Cox's Bazar as developers will look for new sites for construction.

For decades, tourism was not on a priority for Bangladesh.

But amid an uncertain economic outlook, if they can get it right, tourism may offer the country a perfect opportunity to diversify its revenue base and change its image to the world.

The challenge for the government, however, is how to balance the need to promote development without hurting local ecology.

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