More trade helps to cement ties
Ties between Bangladesh and Hong Kong will only strengthen, built on burgeoning two-way trade and increasing areas of cultural exchange.
Firm foundations are in place, helped by the migration of manufacturing and production from factories in South China and elsewhere. The stage is set for further rapid development, as Bangladesh takes advantage of its open, market-based economy and innovative private sector to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and target annual growth rates of more than 8 per cent.
Last year, exports to Hong Kong hit US$218 million, and total trade volumes with the city were valued at US$1.2 billion. For the same period, FDI from Hong Kong topped US$63 million and, with the two governments negotiating an agreement on the avoidance of double taxation, the door is open for new investment and initiatives.
'We have a winning combination of a competitive, business-friendly environment and a cost structure that gives manufacturers good returns,' says Ashud Ahmed, Consul General of Bangladesh in Hong Kong. 'The country also has a strategic location between China, India and Southeast Asia, good regional connectivity, and access to markets worldwide.'
The garment and footwear sectors have been a traditional focus and will remain important. However, practical incentives backed by an industrious, low-cost workforce - among a population of 152 million - and improving infrastructure have seen many new ventures established in the pharmaceuticals, electronics, leather goods, light engineering, software and shipbuilding sectors.
Many of these enterprises are based in one of Bangladesh's six exclusive economic zones for foreign investors. There, they can rely on extensive assistance from local authorities with construction plans, start-up formalities and recruitment. In addition, there is the prospect of tax holidays and useful introductions to potential partners in the country's fast-expanding domestic economy.
'Bangladesh has liberalised its investment regime with various investment-friendly policies, facilities and incentives,' Ahmed says. 'Against the backdrop of soaring production costs in China, investors are looking at Bangladesh as another 'China', especially for outsourcing and the manufacture of [high-volume goods].'
To explain the possibilities, an investment forum took place late last year. Co-organised with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, it gave a 13-member delegation, led by the executive chairman of the Bangladesh Board of Investment, a chance to discuss opportunities and answer questions from close to 170 interested companies based in Hong Kong. Delegates were from the public and private sectors. During their visit, they highlighted key imports - capital machinery, food grains, milk powder, cement and edible oils - but also the 12 'thrust' sectors designated by Bangladesh as important for economic diversification and sustained export growth. These include fresh flowers, seafood, handicrafts, herbal medicines and ceramic products.
As a follow-up to the investment forum, a team from RTHK visited Bangladesh. Their subsequent documentary included stories and comments to illustrate just how the country is changing and was aired as part of the Hong Kong Connection series.
To maintain the momentum, members of the local business community have set up a Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Its primary aim will be to provide a platform to help with and increase the flow of bilateral trade. It will be another conduit to spread the word about national goals and achievements.
'For example, in terms of road, port and airport infrastructure, the government is actively engaged in making sure it is all there,' Ahmed says. 'There are special quotas with the United States and Europe for exports of garments and other products.
Under the Vision 2021 project, celebrating 50 years of national independence, the objective is to make Bangladesh digital in every sector by then, and to be ranked as a middle-income country.'
Targets associated with this include raising GDP growth from 7.5 per cent to 8 per cent by next year and 10 per cent by 2017. With that would come a boost to electricity supply and a commensurate drop in the poverty level, as the country meets its millennium development goals.
Noting the economic impact of tourism, Ahmed sees enormous potential for attracting more inbound visitors from around the world. Bangladesh has its fair share of natural wonders - the biodiversity of its delta, Cox's Bazaar beach and the Sundarbans mangrove forests, home of the royal Bengal tiger.
To bring these and many historical and religious sites to wider attention, there are plans to invest in hotels, motels and tourist zones at places such as Kuakata, where it is possible to see sunrises and sunsets from the same beach.
National airline Biman is looking to increase the frequency of flights to and from Hong Kong.
'There is no doubt that co-hosting the Cricket World Cup in 2011 increased awareness of Bangladesh, and showed what the country can do,' Ahmed says.
'But the country's potential for business and achievements in other areas also need to be publicised properly and recognised at an international level.'