COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Walking on the world’s longest stretch of beach on a balmy Saturday morning, one would expect to find the shimmering sands filled with sunbathing tourists and the calm blue sea with swimmers.
The best bar in town should be buzzing with the thirsty jostling for space on a Saturday evening at the peak of the tourist season.
But not in Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest Muslim nations, where traditional attitudes, ineffectual authorities and a powerful Islamic group have thrown a veil over what could be a tourism gold mine.
A few thousand local visitors flock the beach in Cox’s Bazar -- by the Bay of Bengal on the country’s southern edge -- but they all stand gingerly by the water, the women in saris and a few in burqas.
While some men wade in the water with their jackets on, others sit on beach chairs under umbrellas, hesitant to even roll up their trousers and feel the surf.
There is not a soul in the bar in the only five-star hotel in town, where the bartender is listening to Bollywood love songs.
“I’ve seen beaches in Brazil, Spain and Thailand but in terms of beauty, this is the best,” says Syed Ahmed Khair, a merchant navy officer from Dhaka visiting with his family.
“But Bangladesh is a conservative country, people are shy, you won’t find them sunbathing here,” he says, watching his children play in the water. “You won’t find foreigners here for the same reason.”
FEAR OF IMMORALITY
Cox’s Bazar owes its origins to the subcontinent’s British colonial rulers, who sent Capt. Hiram Cox to settle Buddhist immigrants from nearby Burma into the area in the late 1790s.
The 120 km (75 mile) unbroken stretch of beach here is the world’s longest, and a chain of hills that run parallel to the sea for almost the entire length, towering cliffs, colorful, ancient pagodas and Hindu temples, make it a natural attraction.
Waterfalls, a game park, coral islands and tribal villages nearby add to its charm in a country the world knows more for its poverty, floods, ferry disasters and political violence.
Bangladesh gained independence only 35 years ago, and its struggles with political instability, corruption, militant Islam, modernizing its economy and feeding its poor millions have taken precedence over tourism.
The rise of a traditional Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (Party of Islam), to share power in 2001 in a coalition government, in a country where 87 percent of the 140 million population are Muslim, only hardened attitudes toward tourism, industry officials say.
And Cox’s Bazar is the perfect example of the combination of neglect and fear.
“Islam says that all of Allah’s resources should be used for the benefit of the people,” said Mohammed Shah Jahan, Jamaat’s Cox’s Bazar district chief.
“But our misgivings are that in the name of promoting tourism we should not end up encouraging any immoral or illegal activities,” he said.
Sunbathing in skimpy costumes, gambling, drinking in the open are, according to Jahan, immoral, distasteful and against local culture.
“A couple can do anything if they are married,” he added. “But we wouldn’t allow unmarried pairs to come to the beach.”
Although Jamaat does not patrol the beach enforcing the Islamist party’s moral code, local people say its mere influence was enough to ensure compliance at a time when fears of religious extremism have risen in Bangladesh.
Hardliners, however, are not Cox’s Bazar’s only problems.
Hotel managers in a town with 4,600 mostly budget rooms complain of red tape and interference from local authorities who are suspicious of foreign tourists and want hotels to seek permission for cultural shows and parties.
Besides, chronic power shortages, lack of good water supply and garbage disposal systems, English-speaking workers and the absence of a tourism promotion plan have hampered growth.
Yet, an estimated 100,000 local tourists visit the destination during weekends between December and February -- the peak tourist season.
And this has woken up district and tourism officials to the potential of Cox’s Bazar. Plans are being made to build an international cricket stadium, a golf course, an international airport and a Web site.
Foreign investors would also be invited to develop exclusive tourism zones and resorts for international tourists -- which Jamaat approves -- said Mohammed Aminul Islam, the district administrator.
But with no target date to implement the plans, Cox’s Bazar could remain an exotic destination waiting for the world to discover it.