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Promoting Travel and Tourism in the Seven Northeastern States of India
Exploring the rationale and possibilities of tourism in the virgin greens
chillibreeze writer — Bodhisattva Sen Roy
Need an editable PowerPoint map of North East India
The way most of India tends to view North East India is as an isolated and homogenous entity that is at best, exotic and at worst, unsafe for the layperson who is keen to explore the region. And unfortunately, officials, intellectuals, scholars, NGO activists and media persons have not been able to find a favorable solution to this “unsafe” tag. In terms of distance, Delhi is closer to Guwahati than it is to, say, Bangalore.
Yet the psychological distance is far greater. There could be various reasons for this. Perhaps, as is sometimes argued, this is a result of the protectionist policies formulated by the British, seeking to maintain the ‘purity’ of tribal heritage. Or it is a consequence of the region’s topographical isolation – after Independence it was connected to the rest of India only by a narrow corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh. It is also the unfortunate fall-out of the insurgency that has torn through this land for decades. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that today our understanding of the North East is extremely limited.
‘The media is the most powerful entity on earth. It has the power to make the
As far as the Northeastern region goes, the media tends to focus on ethnic conflicts and under-development, often neglecting the pioneering developmental efforts made in the region. In the psyche of the general populace there is the impression that nothing is happening in the region other than violence by insurgents with a focus on killings, kidnappings and extortions. The oversimplification, overgeneralization and sensationalism with which the region is reported have become a norm in national dailies. Besides the media makes us associate the region with unfamiliar cultural practices which leads us to differentiate ‘them’ from ‘us’. Even student-level interaction in major Indian universities has failed to shatter the stereotypes that surround those belonging to this region. Meanwhile, in everyday life we tend to disassociate all that is familiar about the Northeast – the fact that Arunachal has an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site; that the Brahmaputra is one of India’s sacred rivers; that Northeastern cuisine, in the form of thukpas, momos and the ubiquitous Assam tea, has become a staple across the country –which remains hidden beneath its thick forests and high mountains. An effective way of eroding this ignorance would be to go there.
Tourism is a known dispeller of cultural bias and the potential for tourism in the Northeastern region is tremendous. The Ministry of Tourism calls the region a ‘paradise unexplored’. Global tourism has been booming and future projections show that this trend will continue. The number of tourists worldwide is expected to swell to 1.5 billion and receipts from it are estimated to cross US $ 200 billion. The new generations of cash-rich travelers are increasingly looking for unique experiences. For these new and growing breed of tourists the Northeastern states with their variety and uniqueness holds immense attraction. Yet while India’s share in the world tourist influx is 44 per cent, the Northeastern region’s share is a mere 1.2 percent of that (North East News Agency, http:// nenanews.com)
The first step in enabling tourism is information. The Northeastern region has a lot to offer, from flora to fauna, from arts and crafts to festivals. There are 305 communities and out of these 106 are tribes. Not only are their habitats nestled among verdant land, but each community has also got its own distinct customs, rich cultural heritage and fascinating folklore. There is thus an urgent need to position NE as an international brand like Kerala’s “Gods own country’. Advertising its immense resources and the region’s proximity to the emerging Southeast Asian powers will also entice prospective investors to open shop here. Thus the proper packaging and marketing of the region becomes an urgent requirement.
The other major requirement for tourism is infrastructure development, specifically the development of road and rail networks, hotels, etc. Contrary to popular perception, it is fairly easy to reach the Northeastern part of the country. There are airports in Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tejpur, Jorhat, Silchar, Dimapur, Imphal, Agartala, Aizhwal and Bagdogra. Domestic air connections to the North East are provided by Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Sahara and some of the new private airlines. Important rail-heads are at Guwahati, New Bongaigaon, Jorhat, Tezpur, Dibrugarh Town, Tinsukia, Lumding, Silchar, Dimapur and Kumarghat; and there are train connections to New Jalpaiguri, Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Trivandrum. However, travel within the region is prohibitively expensive. Moreover, internal railway networks are poorly developed and road communication is arduous and time-consuming.
Another drawback for the tourist is that security concerns require Restricted Area Permits and Inner Line Permits to be issued in some parts of the region, which serves to exaggerate the inaccessibility of the region.
Moreover, there is too much of dependence on the government and too little incentive for the private sector to play an effective role. One needs to look at the example provided by Haryana and other states who have managed to boost tourism by removing roadblocks for the private sector, i.e., by reducing taxes and easing regulations. Unfortunately tourism, as a sector, is taxed the highest, a fact that only serves to hamper development.
At the same time, the entire region has enormous potential for tourism that needs to get tapped: Extremely high rates of literacy, particularly in states like Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur (which are above the average national literacy rate), low density of population (the population of the region is 3.79% of the national population while its geographical area is about 8%), reasonably high standards of health and salubrious climate, are important strengths of the region. The fact that the people of these states are conversant in English makes it even better equipped for international tourism
19.39% of India’s land area is estimated to be under forest cover. As compared to this, the North Eastern region has 64% forest cover, an ecological asset, for which it has been identified as an ecological ‘hot spot’ of the world. The relative inaccessibility of the region has helped preserve its pristine natural beauty, its great variety of flora and fauna, from wild orchids, diverse varieties of bamboo to rare medicinal plants, as well as the the rare one-horned rhino whose only habitat is in this region. Hence the fashionable concept of eco-tourism would find easy acceptability here. It must be a two-way process in which tourists and the tour operators help to strengthen the environment while that very environment and the locals provide them with resources and support for an enjoyable holiday.
Apart from its natural beauty the North Eastern region has tremendous diversity in terms of culture and lifestyle. However, this very variety could act as a deterrent. The region contains so much variety that it is difficult for prospective tourists to decide where they want to go and what they want to see. It falls to the tourism industry, therefore, to create specific itineraries, or packages, aimed at particular clients. The town of Shillong, for example, has the potential to become another Mcleodganj or Dalhousie. Its laid back charm and colonial architecture, cafés and young rock bands, and the pleasant walks on its outskirts would appeal especially to young travelers or honeymooning couples
There is also great scope for developing adventure tourism, be it river rafting and angling in Assam or trekking in Arunachal. Those looking for an adrenaline rush will find plenty of things to do with their time and money. Another possibility is to develop pilgrimage tours. There are innumerable Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples in the area such as the 400 year old Tawang Monastery and the medieval Kamakhya Temple. Spiritual tourism is known to draw droves of tourists from various parts of the world.
Besides these the colorful festivals of the region can also be promoted in a big way. For instance, Assam’s Bihu festival and Tea festival, Chapchar Kut of Mizoram, Lai- Haraoba of Manipur and so on have a lot to offer to tourists in terms of sheer novelty , with colorful costumes and mesmerizing songs and dances. Another kind of tourist – fashion or product designers for example – might find a tour of Mizoram’s craft centers more appealing. The state’s sarongs and shawls and cane and bamboo designs are exquisite.
The benefits that can be had from tourism are also manifold. Being labor-intensive it can generate employment and ensure that benefits are shared by a large number of service providers; lodgings, food and beverages, handicraft, local transportation, guides, shopping, entertainment, photography and so on. Moreover tourism enables decentralized regional development. In the Northeast, the diversity of needs and aspirations of individual tribes makes decentralized development particularly important. Tourism also ensures that development is not urban-centric.
Keeping these factors in mind, the Ministry of Development of the Northeast Region (MoDONER) is taking active interest in tourism and has accorded top priority to this sector. It has been working on the development and upgrading of various tourist facilities like Tourist Accommodation, Wayside Amenities, Budget Accommodation and the Beautification and Refurbishment of Historical Monuments/Monasteries. In the year 2005-06, 10 per cent of the plan of Rs. 786 crore was earmarked for development of tourism in Northeastern Region. There are also plans underway to make the Northeastern region the gateway to and from the rest of India for traffic coming to and from East Asia. This will be possible with the building of the Asian highway from Malaysia via Thailand and Bangladesh to India, which will pass right through the North Eastern region
Even as we discuss it, another issue we tend to overlook is the clubbing of the region under the umbrella term of Northeast, which is basically a colonialist categorization that denies individuality to its diverse groups. Instead we tend to homogenize the region just as we sometimes homogenize the peninsular area south of the Vindhyas as South India. Tourism will serve to bring about an acknowledgement of the diversity of the peoples and cultures within the Northeastern region.
For instance, Arunachal, the remotest outpost of the Northeastern states, with its picturesque mountain peaks, swift rivers and verdant valleys, is a great destination for city dwellers wanting to soothe their frayed nerves. The state is divided into five river valleys: the Kameng, the Subansiri, the Siang, the Lohit and the Tirap. It is home to many rare and endangered species of wildlife, over 500 species of birds and numerous varieties of orchids.
There are places of worship and pilgrimage such as Parasuramkund and the 400 year old Tawang Monastery as well as sites of archeological excavation like Malinithan and Itanagar. The crafts of Arunachal, ranging from weaving and basket-making to mask-making and wood-carving reflect the deep sense of aesthetics that resides in its people.
Known as the ‘Switzerland of the East’, Nagaland has as its highest peak, the Saramati at a height of 12,600 ft. The cultural diversity of the state is awe-inspiring with around 16 Naga tribes, each possessing unique cultural identities. The traditional ceremonial attire of each tribe is in itself, an awe inspiring sight to behold; the multi coloured ‘spears’ and 'daos' decorated with dyed goats hair, the headgear made of finely woven bamboo interlaced with orchid stems, adorned with boar’s teeth and hornbill’s feathers, elephant tusk armlets, etc. Kohima is the major tourist attraction in the state. The Second World War Cemetery, State Museum and Zoo are a few places that can enchant any traveler. Kohima also offers a variety of exciting excursions that lead to the village of Khonoma, Japfu Peak, Dzakou Valley and Mokokchung
Assam has its Bihu songs and dances, the Kaziranga Wild Life Sanctuary where the rare one-horned rhinoceros roams at will, silks such as paat and muga which rank amongst the finest in the world, the State’s tea which is enjoyed all over the globe, and the Shrine of Kamakhya which draws thousands of devotees every year.
The attractions of Manipur include its superb panorama of evergreen hill ranges, the Loktak Lake, the I.N.A Memorial at Moirang, the Siroi Lily found only on the Siroi Hills, exquisite handloom and handicraft products, the "Nupi Keithel" or women's market at Khwairamband Bazaar, and of course the famous Manipuri folk dances. Among the interesting tourist destinations are the gold-domed Shri Govindajee Temple, the Saheed Minar, the Khonghampat Orchid Yard, the Khanghui Cave at Ukhrul, the Kangla Park and the two Second World War cemeteries.
Literally called the ‘Abode of the Clouds’, Meghalaya is known for its exotic flora and fauna, its whispering pines and babbling brooks that break into waterfalls and of course its colorful people – the Garos, Khasis and Jaintiyas. The rugged yet snow-free terrain makes it an ideal destination for trekking. Cane and bamboo crafts are practiced almost in all the villages of Meghalaya. The bamboo here, which is not found in other states, stays green even after it is dried.
Tripura, the tiny, land-locked state, offers plenty of attractions for the tourist, be it the magnificent palaces of Ujjayanta and Neermahal, the hill-station of Jampui, the splendid rock-cut carvings and stone images of Unakoti, Debtamura and Pilak, or its glorious Hindu and Buddhist temples. It also has vast natural and artificial lakes and a variety of wildlife in sanctuaries like Sepahijala, Gumti, Rowa and Trishna. As in the other states, song and dance forms an important part of life for the Tripuris. They are famed for their unique musical instruments such as the Sarinda, Chougpreng and Samu. The Garia dance is a very popular dance among Tripuris.
The Land of Peace and Tranquility – Sikkim -- has become popular with tourists, especially Buddhist pilgrims and those on the lookout for ancient monasteries. Its stunning landscapes, with green pastures, tranquil blue lakes, holy caves and the lure of the almost extinct red pandas, make for a veritable paradise for tourists. Tourism has flourished in the region over the past few years due to the intelligent packaging of the various pursuits open to visitors, from monastery and rhododendron treks to white water rafting in the sparkling Teesta and Rangeet rivers. The opening of the Nathula Pass on July 6th 2006 connecting Lhasa in Tibet to India is expected to give a boost to the local economy, though the financial benefits will be slow to arrive. The Pass, closed since the 1962 Sino-Indian War, was an offshoot of the ancient Silk Route, which was essential to the wool, fur and spice trade
Last but not least is Mizoram, a land of lush green valleys, home to the Mizos, literally translated as “highlanders”. Towns like Champai, Lunglei, Bung and Paikhai boast not only of scenic beauty but also of rich fauna and flora. The Mizos are hospitable, sociable and love music, singing and dancing. Moreover at 88 percent, Mizoram has the second highest literacy rate in the country.
With so much to offer it’s a pity that we continue to see this part of the country as an undifferentiated mass and don’t consider it an essential area to visit. To change this attitude, the Government, media and NGOs must make a united and concentrated effort to familiarize the rest of the world with the Northeastern region and vice-versa. It is not enough that we know about momos and wraparound skirts or that they know about Bollywood. The exchange has to be at a people to people level without the intrusion of mental barriers.
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