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Venturing beyond the blue mountains

Ashish Kundra | Updated on September 04, 2019 Published on September 04, 2019

This Independence Day, the Prime Minister made an unusual appeal. He urged Indians to make a bucket list of 15 domestic destinations to visit by 2022. The message, far from being a perfunctory reference, makes eminent economic sense. Traditionally conservative travellers, Indians are now the second largest outbound tourists, next only to China. The United Nations World Tourism Organization projections indicate that the numbers could touch 50 million by 2020. Last year, Indian tourists were estimated to have splurged over $21 billion overseas. Evidently, if a part of the global spend is ploughed back into the domestic economy, it would spur employment and growth. The World Travel and Tourism Council reckons that the travel and tourism industry in India currently contributes 10 per cent to the economy. The questions to be asked are, how can we add vitality to this sector, going beyond traditional hotspots like Goa, Kerala and Rajasthan? Can the pristine Himalayas of the North-East rise to the occasion as a paramount destination? Can we draw upon the Bhutanese model of responsible tourism?

Different experiences

The rainbow region of India has a rich bouquet on offer. The spiritually inclined would be drawn to the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh or the Rumtek in Sikkim. The lush tea estates of Assam, with boutique colonial-era planters’ bungalows, would hold a special appeal for authors and thinkers. For wildlife aficionados, 55 wildlife sanctuaries in the region beckon, with Kaziranga being the most well-known, albeit the rest are undersold. The eagle-nest sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh is an ornithologist’s delight, with over 700 species.

Cultural aesthetes would be regaled by tribal festivals — a rhythmic fusion of song and dance. The hornbill festival of Nagaland has established a cult following, while the Ziro music festival, inspired by the Woodstock of yore, is drawing artists from around the world. The delightful rapids of the Siang river is a great rush for adventure lovers. Those seeking a solitary walk in the wild would discover that nothing beats the immaculate beauty of the East. Nature lovers would be delighted by the floating Loktak lake in Manipur, one of its kind in the world.

India’s misty highlands stand in enigmatic isolation, in spite of their rapturous beauty. Annual tourist flows are less than eight million, just 0.5 per cent of the national domestic tourism. The North-East, for the most part, has struggled with ethnic conflict and insurgency. The reality has altered, but the imagery has stuck. For more than a decade, the region has been an exemplar of sustained peace, barring isolated pockets of strife. Poor connectivity dissuaded even die-hard travel enthusiasts. Bad roads, limited airports and the absence of rail links were barriers for any meaningful tourism to take roots. The last few years have seen a major transformation in national highways and bridges, touching the easternmost fringe of Arunachal Pradesh. All eight States now have functional airports and the UDAAN scheme has, quite literally, given wings to new tourist avenues. The building blocks are in place. An integrated tourism strategy embracing branding, accommodation, skilling and investments is a crucial requirement.

Boosting the region

The North-East is ideally suited for curated bespoke journeys. The aura of its mystique is precisely what lends to its charm. Young Indians are experimenting. The remoter the location, the greater is its appeal. The first objective is to bring the region out of obscurity. A “Brand North-East” showcasing the region’s mesmerising appeal across digital platforms would be a good starting point. It would be unreasonable to expect each State to craft its own tourism campaign, given the dearth of resources. A regional branding campaign, backed by the Central government, should target inter-State tourism circuits. These could also include neighbouring international destinations — Bhutan, Nepal and ASEAN countries. The essence of tourism lies in folklore, music, dance, cuisine and adventure associated with places. Crowdsourcing images, videos and stories of travel on a digital platform would generate an exciting buzz.

The second constraint is that of good accommodation. It would be facile to think that big hotel chains would set up base overnight. Nor is it desirable. Tourists, seek immersive experiences in the tribal way of life. Aesthetic tribal architecture, using local material, would be far more appealing than brick-and-mortar monstrosities.

Restrictive land laws pose yet another bottleneck for investment flows. Flexible leasing regulations for ecotourism in partnership with communities would help build incentives. A government-promoted homestay programme, partnering with companies like Air BnB, would augment the accommodation pool, while providing alternate employment.

Third, in absence of credible testimonials of accommodation and tour operators, travellers shy away from the North-East. A comprehensive database of credible travel companies, with independent ranking, would inspire confidence. A massive skilling programme, backed by a venture capital fund for tourism start-ups, would seed a generation of young entrepreneurs.

The tribal way of life has always revolved around nature, forest and community. Empowering communities and allowing them to take the lead as tourism champions, would create a sustainable model in harmony with nature. The hospitable people of the North-East have waited forever to be discovered. Let us not keep them waiting for long.

The writer is an IAS officer currently posted with the Government of Mizoram. Views are personal.

Published on September 04, 2019
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