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Can Bangladesh maintain its path of socio-economic prosperity?

Bangladesh, Russia, European, Canada, United States, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Maldives, COVID, St. Martin Island

Opinion

Can Bangladesh maintain its path of socio-economic prosperity?

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During the past 13-plus years, Bangladesh has been witnessing significant socio-economic progress with the United Nations decision to strike the country off its list of the world’s least developed nations. But due to COVID and Ukraine war, Bangladesh currently is facing hard-currency scarcity, where economic experts are expressing pessimism of Bangladesh celebrating its graduation ceremony in 2026 from least developed country to a developing nation. But, according to key policymakers, Bangladesh will be able to overcome this challenge. Good news it – in July 2022, Bangladesh has seen a significant rise in foreign exchange remittance, where expatriates have sent over US$2 billion. This inflow of foreign currency will hopefully continue to grow further.

Bangladesh’s main economic backbone is export of readymade garments. We need to remember, big apparel brands in the world needs their goods produced in Bangladesh, mainly because of competitive price. Following the global economic recession due to COVID challenges and then Ukraine war, buying capacity of the Westerners will significantly decrease, where the opportunity for Bangladesh to earn more foreign currency through garment export will significantly increase. At the same time, Bangladesh needs to focus on massive garment market in Russia and former CIS countries, in addition to its existing exports to European nations, Canada, Australia and the United States.

At the same time, Bangladesh needs to immediately focus on opening new arena for foreign exchange earnings, in addition to its current dependence only on readymade garments. Tourism sector is the most important avenue, which has remained unattended or greatly ignored for decades. Bangladesh can learn from Thailand, Dubai and even the largest Muslim nation Indonesia, which are making massive amount of foreign exchange every year from the tourism sector. We need to remember, to foreign tourists, Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangrove forest, Buddhist sites, tea gardens, sea beaches, plenty of haor in different parts of the country, picturesque Rangamati and especially the St. Martin Island.

For years I have been writing about the infinite possibility that the St. Martin Island holds for Bangladesh, which can contribute hugely in country’s foreign exchange earnings. For my readers, who are still unaware of this island, here is some details:

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St. Martin Island is located in the northeastern part of the Bay of Bengal, about 9 kilometers south of the tip of the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula in Bangladesh. There is a small adjoining island that is separated at high tide, called Chera Dwip. It is about 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the northwest coast of Myanmar, at the mouth of the Naf River.

Millennia ago, the island used to be an extension of the Teknaf peninsula, but at a later time some portion of this peninsula got submerged and thus the southernmost part of the aforementioned peninsula became an island, and was disconnected from the Bangladesh mainland. The first settlement started 250 years ago, in 18th century, by Arabian merchants who named the island ‘Jazira’. During British occupation the island was named after the then Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong Mr. Martin as St. Martin Island. Likely because one or more of the Arabs were Saint and whose name could not be identified. Local names of the island are “Narikel jinjira” which means ‘Coconut Island’, and “Daruchini Dwip” which means “Cinnamon island”. It is the only coral island in Bangladesh.

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First of all, Bangladesh needs to convert St. Martin into an “Exclusive Tourism Island” by relocating the existing dwellers to other parts of the country. Luxury hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, pubs, casinos and other amenities should be planned for this island, while we can welcome foreign investors to invest and build various facilities. Once the island turns into exclusive tourism zone, Bangladeshi nationals willing to visit St. Martin would need to obtain special pass from the government, as only foreign currency shall be accepted by all the facilities in the island. A proper planning centering St. Martin Island will give billions of dollars into Bangladesh’s economy. We need to consider the size of foreign tourists into Maldives, a South Asian tiny country which recorded a total 555,000 tourists in 2020 (during the COVID period). In 2019, Indonesia recorded 1.90 million tourists, while Thailand had 39.80 million and Myanmar 4.80 million tourists.

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We need to remember, once the government can transform St. Martin into an exclusive tourist island, this will become possibly the only island in the world, which is exclusively dedicated to foreign tourists. And of course, such decision will not only help Bangladesh in earning huge amount of foreign currency, an exclusive tourism island will create lots of job opportunities for the locals.

Now replying to the title of this article – can Bangladesh maintain its path of socio-economic prosperity? My answer is yes. But for this, we need to ensure political stability in Bangladesh, and of course, the country requires the magnificent leadership of Sheikh Hasina. There is no alternative to it.

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Sohail Choudhury is the Executive Editor of Blitz

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