From Argentinean heavy metal fans to Scottish retirees, Joyanta Howlader’s couch has hosted the full spectrum of backpackers who arrive — sometimes with mixed feelings — in impoverished Bangladesh.
The country seems an unlikely stop on a budget traveler’s itinerary, but foreign visitor arrivals are rising and Bangladesh’s lack of tourist infrastructure is, ironically, proving an attraction.
“You have to be adventurous. There is no other way to travel in Bangladesh,” said Howlader, a 38-year-old Dhaka-based television producer who has hosted dozens of tourists through Couch Surfing, a hospitality exchange network.
“One backpacker who stayed with me, he just hated it here, said he’d never come back. He was a real tourist, he just wanted an easy travel experience, which Bangladesh is definitely not,” Howlader said.
With mod-cons now available in backpacker haunts in Thailand, Vietnam and India, where prices are shooting up, increasing numbers of budget tourists are seeking out alternative, low-cost travel experiences elsewhere in Asia.
From spending a night on a stranger’s sofa for free, sampling Dhaka’s best biryani for US$1 a plate, or checking into a midrange hotel for less than US$10 a night, Bangladesh is about as cheap and adventurous as it comes.
Even a four-day all-inclusive cruise through the world’s largest mangrove forest on a traditional wooden boat will only cost around US$150, far cheaper than a comparable trip in neighboring India, experts say.
Bangladesh is one of only a few places left in the region that still offer the original pioneering travel experience, according to Lonely Planet’s Bangladesh author Stuart Butler.
“It is very easy to get well off the beaten track and is a place in which you can make your own discoveries and travel for weeks without meeting another western tourist — or any tourist for that matter,” Butler said.
The problems of getting around and finding accommodation, particularly for women, in the conservative, Muslim-majority nation are, for some travelers, Bangladesh’s unique selling point, he said.
“For many travelers this lack of knowledge of the country and the lack of a tourist industry is the prime reason for visiting. Traveling in Bangladesh is a genuine adventure,” he said.
Tourists are still something of a rarity in Bangladesh with just 267,107 foreign visitor arrivals in 2009, according to government figures, which do not distinguish between tourist arrivals and Bangladeshis with foreign passports.
This is up from 2000, when 199,211 foreign visitors arrived in the south Asian nation of 160 million people, and local tourism industry figures say they anticipate further growth.
“Inbound tourism is growing more than 10 percent a year — a few years ago, no one had heard of Bangladesh, they thought it was part of India,” said Taufiquddin Ahmed, president of the Bangladesh Tour Operators Association.
“The average spend for package tourists is now around US$500, which is less than they would spend in India or Nepal,” he said. “And we get a lot of backpackers coming here and just traveling on their own.”
Traveling in Bangladesh, while not for the faint-hearted, is extremely cheap, with the 27-hour trip from Dhaka to Khulna on The Rocket, the country’s most famous river ferry, costing just US$15 for a first-class cabin.