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Saturday, 1 June, 2002, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Good times for bourgeois Bangladeshis
Entrance to the Fantasy Kingdom theme park
Theme parks were unthinkable until recently

Bangladesh is normally only in the news for floods, poverty and corruption but the latest figures released by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) show the country has grounds to be optimistic.

We are talking about a $70bn market consisting of 13 million people

Economist Devapriya Bhattacharya
The figures show that despite a slight dip in recent months, the economy continues to grow at around 4% a year.

The growth has led to a host of business initiatives, the most recent being a $65m Western-style theme park, Fantasy Kingdom, on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka.

The strengthening economy has also led to an unprecedented growth in the spending power of the Bangladeshi middle class.

Rising incomes

Fantasy Kingdom has been hailed as this country's answer to Disneyland.

Dhaka skyline
The capital's skyline is rising fast
It is equipped with everything from roller coasters to amusement arcades.

The park is the first mainstream leisure outlet designed especially to attract middle-class spending power.

Economist Devapriya Bhattacharya says the launching of Fantasy Kingdom and its possible financial viability speaks about the emerging middle-class and its new purchasing power.

"In some ways, it also gives the image of the new Bangladesh. Now you look at the income structure of Bangladesh, the top 10% control about 38%-39% of the total national income.

"If you translate this in real purchasing power parity, we are talking about a $70bn market consisting of 13 million people.

"It's a huge market in comparison to many European countries for that matter," he says.

Shopping complexes

Nowhere is the financial muscle of the Bangladeshi middle class more clearly seen than in the various new supermarkets that have sprung up all over Dhaka and other cities.

The manager of the biggest new supermarket in Dhaka, TD Pakiya, concedes that products in his store are way beyond the budget of most of the country's 130 million population.

The vast majority of us can only dream about the products we see in these shops

Half of all Bangladeshis live below the poverty line.

"We see a majority of the middle and upper class because still there's a segment where people are a bit sceptical about the pricing and the ambience we have created here," he says.

"They little realise that you can have the same prices as outside market prices. People are just using the same budget which they bought items from the open bazaar, you call it open market, in Bangladesh."

"With the same budget I think they buy more here, I suppose because with the quality they get less wastage, the right weight.

"It's not a matter of having more money, but you can still manage with the same budget," he says.

"It'll take a while to persuade people to come in here, but it's more comfortable."

Beyond reach

On the streets of Dhaka, many seem unconvinced about the new shopping lifestyle.

Dhaka rickshaw pullers wade through rain water
For many Bangladeshis times are still tough

Hanif is one of Dhaka's 400,000 rickshaw-pullers, earning about $3 a day.

"It's obvious that many of these shops are not affordable for us. Anybody who goes in them must be a very rich person.

"The vast majority of us can only dream about the products we see in these shops," he says.

But evidence of middle-class spending power can now be seen all over Dhaka, a city which many foreign visitors have likened to one vast building site.

Changing times

Everywhere, huge skyscrapers are being built for office, retail and housing purposes.

Mohammed Hussein supervises over 1,500 workmen on a site on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Dinosaur and rides at Fantasy Kingdom
The middle classes demand entertainment
"This is the biggest project in South-East Asia and this is actually about 10 storeys high with three basements and the area is about 450,000 sq.ft," he says.

While Dhaka undergoes a facelift, individual lifestyles are also changing profoundly.

Some middle-class young people even have Thai disco dancing instructors.

Demand for Western-style music, clothes and food is at an all-time high.

Five years ago it would have been impossible to find an Italian restaurant outside Dhaka.

But diners can have a pizza for lunch on the hour's drive from the city to Fantasy Kingdom.

It is not clear when or even whether ordinary people will see any benefits for themselves.

But Bangladesh today is shedding its stereotyped image of the land of floods and poverty.

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Business
07 Apr 02 | Business
20 Nov 01 | Business
31 Oct 01 | South Asia
25 Oct 01 | Business
31 Mar 02 | South Asia
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