From glacial lakes and national parks to an abundance of flora and fauna, the eight states comprising the north-eastern region of India are endowed with the beauty of nature. And yet they are rarely on an average tourist’s agenda. We find out why.
Dragon fruit in Nagaland. Lady’s slipper in Meghalaya. The Bugun bird in Arunachal Pradesh. The north-east has it all. From Assam’s Kaziranga National Park to Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, the eight states comprising the north-eastern region of India are endowed with the beauty of nature. The sprawling fields of dragon fruit carefully cultivated by the women of Nagaland, the lady’s slipper orchid found in parts of Meghalaya and the new bird species discovered in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh are enough to beckon visitors to the north-east. Climbing the hills to come face to face with the charming Changu glacial lake at an altitude of 12,000 feet in Sikkim or driving to Cherrapunjee from Shillong would be a bonus. However, in spite of the abundant advantages in scenic beauty, north-eastern states are rarely on an average tourist’s agenda.
The figures speak for themselves. According to India Tourism Statistics, the north-east recorded 77.13 lakh domestic tourist visits during 2016, which was 0.47% of the total domestic tourist visits within India. The number of foreign tourists during the same year was 1.38 lakh, a meagre 0.55% of the total foreign tourist arrivals in the country.
There are several factors contributing to low tourism growth in the north-east. Connectivity is one. The international airport in Guwahati, Assam, remains the major entry point for the region. The other state capitals are many hours away by road. “The Shillong airport was built 40 years ago, but there has been no major expansion since,” says EB Blah, a tour operator in Meghalaya and president of the North East India Tourism Confederation (NEITC). “There is a flight from Kolkata to Shillong, but for those who arrive in Guwahati from other metros, land route is the only option,” adds Blah. “About a third of the visitors coming to Guwahati are Shillong-bound. Therefore, we need more direct flights to Shillong from metros,” he adds. While Nagaland has an airport in capital Dimapur and Manipur in Imphal, the airport in Arunachal Pradesh is farther from the tourist favourite, Tawang. In Mizoram, after the collapse of Jet Airways, the only flight from Delhi arrives via Guwahati.
Bracketing the north-east with West Bengal has also not helped. “Many people still consider Darjeeling as part of the north-east,” says Arijit Purkayastha, CEO of Koyeli Tours & Travels. “That gives out wrong signals,” adds Guwahati-based Purkayastha. “The bread and butter of north-eastern tourism is domestic travellers,” he explains while emphasising connectivity hassles. “Yet nothing much has happened to the north-east in terms of air connectivity,” he adds.
Agrees National Award-winning Assamese filmmaker Utpal Borpujari: “Despite recent efforts by governments to remove misconceptions about the region, in the rest of India, there is a lack of information about the north-east,” he says, adding, “There is a gap in information. There are many people who don’t even know which are the eight states of the north-east,” he adds. The lack of proper tourism infrastructure is another reason slowing progress. “We don’t have many tourism professionals in Mizoram,” says Martha Lalzirthangi, a first-year master’s student in tourism management at the Jamia Millia Islamia central university, Delhi.
Then there are misconceptions. As Elina Satapathy, managing partner of 7Sisters Holidays in Imphal, Manipur, says: “People’s perceptions about the north-east are strange. They always ask questions like: ‘Is it safe to travel in the north-east?’ ‘Is it safe for women?’”
Besides its natural hotspots, the north-east has distinct geographical advantages, giving the region huge potential for tourism development. The north-east shares border with five countries—Bangladesh, Tibet Autonomous Region and China, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. The region is called the gateway to south-east Asia. Indian citizens do not need a visa for a land crossing to Myanmar in Moreh town of Manipur if they return the same day. Another big advantage is its remarkable diversity. There is a different language and food habit every 50 kilometres. Also, Meghalaya’s capital Shillong is dubbed the “rock capital of the country”. The north-east’s folk music, dance and handicrafts are considered great works of art.
The region also offers varying tourism products such as tea tourism, wildlife tourism, adventure tourism, eco-tourism, ethnic culture tourism, river cruises and religious tourism. The opportunity to promote war memorial tourism is also opening up with new museums planned. “Important battles of the Second World War were fought in Nagaland and Manipur,” says Borpujari, who shot his 2016 documentary, Memories of a Forgotten War on World War II heroes, in the north-east. Military experts consider the Battle of Imphal and Battle of Kohima between the Allied troops and Japanese forces as significant events that altered the course of World War II. The war cemetery in Kohima bears the famous epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today”. In Moirang, near Imphal, there is an INA memorial to remember the soldiers who fought in Manipur with Japan to free India from the British.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the authentic villages and festivals draw tourists, mostly from abroad. “Ninety per cent of tourists who come to Arunachal are from Europe, the United States and Japan,” says Oken Tayeng, head of Abor Country Travels in Itanagar. Tawang, which houses the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world after Tibet, remains a favourite with Indian and foreign tourists. But he rues that the arrivals are very slow because there is no correct tourism policy in place. “Maybe it is good, as we don’t want to become a Goa or Manali. We want to observe and make the right policy to sustain nature,” he adds as an afterthought.
The region and the Centre are waking up to the need for a sustainable tourism policy for the north-east. In early April, the influential Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI) launched its Northeast Chapter. Tour operators, festival organisers and tourism officials from state governments attended the launch held at a five-star hotel in Guwahati. The next step is a travel mart to attract buyers. “We will organise business meetings between buyers and sellers, and familiarisation trips for buyers,” says Purkayastha, who was named chapter chairman. Last year, 16 tour operators from the region came together to form the Northeast India Tour Operators’ Association (NEITO). One of its first decisions was to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Australia-India Travel Promotion Council to promote tourism in the north-east.
“Domestic tourism is not only about going to Kerala, Rajasthan, Goa and Uttarakhand,” says Shyamkanu Mahanta, who organises the Northeast Festival in Delhi and the Rongali festival during Bihu in Guwahati. “We would like to see the north-east on the map too,” adds Mahanta.
“The north-east tourism circuit extends up to Thailand,” says Ranjeet Das, president of Tour Operators’ Association of Assam. “Myanmar gets a million tourists a year. Even if we get a fraction of that, it will be substantial,” he adds. Tour operators like Manipur’s Satapathy are expecting visitors to the region on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of World War II. “There are various programmes to commemorate the Battle of Imphal by observing remembrance events to coincide with the actual date of battle (starting from March till June),” says Satapathy. A Peace Museum will be opened in Imphal on June 22. Built near the famous Red Hill, where the British and Japanese fought a fierce battle, with financial assistance from Japan’s Nippon Foundation, the museum project is overseen by the Manipur Tourism Forum.
Tourism growth is vital to the economy of the north-east. “Tourism in the north-east hasn’t had a significant impact on the economy as a source of livelihood,” says Bhaskar Phukan, managing director of Assam Tourism Development Corporation. A few young people are slowly entering the sector as entrepreneurs. The Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE) in Guwahati, an autonomous organisation under the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, has so far trained 180 young men and women to help them set up their own ventures in the sector. “We have now one entrepreneur in adventure tourism, mainly rafting, another who has formed a cycling tourism group, and another in Bodoland who serves meals on betelnut leaves,” says IIE director Abhijit Sharma.
The central government is chipping in too. “The north-east is the next frontier for growth of tourism in the country,” says Suman Billa, joint secretary, Union ministry of tourism. “The region has a lot of pristine products not trampled by mindless development. Tourism here is basically centred around environment and community,” adds Billa. “As per government norms, 10% of the country’s tourism budget is to be spent in the north-east. But we spend 20%… Tourism can be an engine for economic growth and prosperity in the region,” says Billa, whose ministry is encouraging domestic travellers to visit the north-east. Central government employees are allowed to avail the LTC scheme to travel to the north-east by converting their additional home town travel for a trip to the region. The ministry has also organised many international tourism marts in the past in the north-east. Last year, the mart was held in Guwahati where 150 “high-quality” buyers attended the event. The ministry also took a delegation of India-Japan Business Council to the travel mart. “The tour operators of the north-east showcased their products to the Japanese members of the delegation,” says Billa. “Among the delegation was the tourism commissioner of Japan who is equivalent to our tourism secretary,” he adds.
Another initiative is the ambitious Asian Highway project, a four-lane international expressway to link the north-east with south-east Asia. “The Asian Highway opens a completely new route,” says Billa. “It will revolutionise travel.” The tourism industry representatives in the region feel if air connectivity to the north-east improves, it will benefit tourism. “Scores of planes fly over the north-east to everywhere. Why don’t they stop here to help us?” asks Shillong-based tour operator Blah. “We can help international tourists come to other parts of India through the north-east.”
(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)