Go domestic, go North-East

Ashish Kundra | Updated on June 25, 2020 Published on June 24, 2020

Beauty and the beast: In Arunachal Pradesh, yaks strutting around mountainous area is a common sight   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

Why this pristine destination should be the first choice for travel in post-Covid-19 India

The desire to travel is embedded in human nature. Confinement is anathema to free-spirited humans, but a vexatious virus has forced a quarter of humanity into lockdown. Fettered to homes, people have been rummaging through their phones for happy images from the past to post on social media.

There are no images from the summer of 2020. Nostalgic visuals from a different age — families on a cruise to Alaska, kids snorkelling in Hawaii, youngsters hiking in the Alps — feature on people’s timelines. Each such post shimmers with hope — this is but a passing nightmare which we must all endure.

Time was when ‘normalcy’ meant packing your bags and travelling on a whim. A London getaway was the annual summer ritual of the charmed circle of Lutyens Delhi. Adventure seekers would head to Australia or New Zealand. Cultural aesthetes would follow the Inca trail, take a trip on the Nile or explore the Greek mystique. Nature lovers could mull over Amazonian rainforests, the fjords of Norway or the wildlife reserve at Maasai Mara in Kenya. Indian outbound travel was projected to touch the 50-million mark. This, of course, was before the advent of Covid-19.

Just a few months ago, all you needed for an overseas jaunt was a set of travel documents, along with foreign exchange and an air ticket. Things are no longer as simple. International air travel and the hotel industry will take time to revive. Travel, in the medium term, will be confined to the local. The insatiable wanderlust of aspirational Indians must be quelled. Will we be forced to make predictable choices of jaded destinations? Perhaps not. For there is the North-East, India’s enchanting though undiscovered frontier.

The enigmatic land beyond the Brahmaputra is rich in rapturous beauty, cultural diversity and spiritual serenity. The North-East is a voyager’s dream, not a destination for the faint-hearted. The verdant landscape of this unexplored paradise would surprise globetrotting Indians. The stark difference from the heartland is striking. Culture, creed, cuisine, custom and clothes have no semblance to what we find elsewhere. The fresh mountain air in the eastern Himalayas is fragrant. Music reverberates in the hills, be it the harmony of church choirs or the traditional beats unique to each tribe.

Hills, forests and rivers are sacred in tribal life. Which is why, two-third of its land remains under forest cover. The eight states of the North-East embody deeply secular traditions in matters of faith, embracing nature worshippers, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. So it is with food — pork is as popular as beef, and hot chillies are a common ingredient. Life is rooted in the local — village, clan and community are the first markers of tribal identity. Farm-fresh organic produce is served on a rainbow platter — oranges of Manipur and Sikkim, kiwis of Arunachal Pradesh, pineapples of Tripura, dragon fruits of Mizoram and Nagaland, lemons of Assam, strawberries of Meghalaya.

A rich bouquet of experiences suited to a range of palates is on offer. Colonial tea planters’ bungalows in Assam pulsate with an old-world charm. Wildlife enthusiasts can whet their appetite with sightings of the fabled one-horned rhino of Kaziranga, or the elusive red panda of Namdapha in Arunachal, which is next only to South America and Central Africa when it comes to rare bird species such as the Yunnan nuthatch, the green cochoa and the rufous-necked hornbill.

Thousands of Amur falcons stop by in Nagaland every year, for their roosting ritual, on their way from Siberia to South Africa. Sikkim beckons with opportunities for ecotourism, blending local culture with authentic jungle experiences. The rush of blood while rafting along the rapids of Siang in Arunachal Pradesh would thrill the wild-spirited. Young corporates, burnt out by work, yearn for solace. Serenity, so elusive in urban jungles, is so easily found in these misty mountains. Happy faces of young lamas, scampering around in the monasteries of Tawang, could cheer the saddest hearts. Yaks strut around rugged mountains where pink and white rhododendrons bloom.

Young entrepreneurs of the North-East are brimming with hope. Meghalaya, Sikkim, Assam and Nagaland have taken the lead. ‘Go organic, go local’ is the mantra, reinforced in Covid-19 times. Boutique resorts and homestays mark the countryside. In most cases, they lack the lavishness or aesthetic appeal the urbane tourist may be in search of. But what the region lacks is more than made up for by the warm hospitality of a vibrant culture. The Mizos have a name for it — Tlawmngaihna, or selfless service and hospitable spirit — reminiscent of the South African Ubuntu.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted chief ministers to leverage domestic tourism for a post-Covid-19 economic revival. The North-East is the final frontier of discovery. Decades of isolation and violence had shattered all prospects of tourism in this pristine land. Enduring peace has broken the jinx. The curse of connectivity has been purged by new highways of hope. Flying to any state in the region from anywhere in India is now a real possibility.

With seven years of public service in this mesmerising land, I have come to admire the people and their unique cultural traditions. As the virus-induced pall of gloom slowly begins to lift, it’s time to think of a trip to the North-East. It will open up a new horizon for the jaded traveller.

(Views are purely personal)

Ashish Kundra is a civil servant

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Published on June 24, 2020
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