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Visionary projects and policies to revamp the NE into a dream destination

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abhaymedhitawang3It is well known that Northeast India has everything, what with natural treasures both above and beneath its ground. Its altitude varies from 25 m to 5000 m above sea level and annual rainfall varies from 1000 mm to 11000 mm. It has remarkable geomorphic and climatic diversity. The Brahmaputra basin is one of the most complex in the world. In summary, the NE is rich in eco-, bio- and geo- diversity. The region has also diversities in heritage culture, dialects, history and mythological beliefs. The NE is a trapped zone since it has no seashore and only a two percent national boundary.

In the NE, there are many kinds of activities that can be promoted to boost tourism potential. Some enjoyable possibilities include jungle safari, rural safari, eco-camping, angling, boating and rafting. The adventurous kinds include kayaking, mountain biking, parasailing, hang gliding and aqua-terra. The educational or research activities pertain to geomorphology, climatology, bird watching, wild life observation, festivals, folklores, mythology, history, petroleum mining, tea, xatriya culture, ethnic cultures, arts, handlooms and handicrafts. Besides the above, there are some leisure activities for the high profile tourists. Those are long distance river cruise on the Brahmaputra and camping in tea estate bungalows with golfing, particularly for the nostalgic tourists from England, some of whose forefathers had been the tea innovators. They also derive nostalgia from the World War II cemeteries at Kohima and Digboi. The Digboi oil refinery, the tunnel rich heritage railway in the Borail Hill and old oil fields along with war shelters for the British engineers remain their locales of exploration in the NE. The first ever church in the NE was established at Lunglei, as the ABF missionaries entered the NE through the Kaladan River. Similarly, the Patkai Hill would also be nostalgic for the American and the British because of close association with Second World War history including the Stillwell road.

The NE has tremendous tourism potential due to the following.

1. The Brahmaputra, Kaziranga, Manas, Majuli, Logtok, Kamakhya, Neer Mahal, Kochbehar Palace, World War Cemeteries and the hill stations of Shillong, Cherapunji, Gangtok, Darjeeling and Tawang have received global publicity as heritage sites.

2. The Brahmaputra Valley is known for the grand festival of Bihu, the richness of Xatriya culture and the monasteries in river island of Majuli, the crowded festival of Ambubachi at Kamakhya, archaeological carvings in the Talatalghar and the Agnigarh, wild lives in the national parks and green lushes in tea-gardens.

3. The Brahmaputra Basin embraces the Valley with numerous majestic tributaries. Again the eco-friendly banks provide livelihoods to the port cities, rural habitat and mythological sites.

4. Each route to every heritage site is nestled with awesome landscapes, sanctuaries, serene monasteries, lakes, rivulets and snow clad peaks.

5. Reserve forests and tea gardens are the gems of the NE. These are endowed with endangered flora and fauna, many species of plants including varieties of bamboo, cane, orchid and medicinal herb. These are like paradise for residential and migratory birds. The landscapes in tea gardens, agro farms and historic golf courses in the midst of eco rich environment are really scenic.

6. The NE has many energy sources such as oil and gas fields, coalfields, hydroelectric power projects, an upcoming uranium project and prospective geothermal energy sources. The scope for developing biotechnology in the NE is also enormous. Kohima and Imphal are tagged as solar cities of the NE. Technologies of the region are being promoted for research and exploration as well as for boosting the tourism.

7. Most of the pilgrimage sites have deeply spiritual characteristics.

With all the above and more, we can aspire to attract numerous tourists. We need visionary projects to renovate the NE as a dream destination. We need to develop better policies to accelerate growth and productivity in NE tourism. For this, we should focus on implementing the following.

To get started, it is essential to upgrade the basic infrastructural facilities belonging to the hospitality and transport sectors. Eco-friendly type tourist help kiosks need to be set up at all important road junctions of all the NE discovery routes. The kiosk should be resourced with restroom facilities and guide maps. Roads need continuous maintenance. Basic training programs in ‘tourist handling’ is essential for registered tour operators, resort operators and taxi drivers so that safe and secure visits can be ensured. Industrious youths from heritage localities need government aided tours to place like Shantiniketan so that they can train for value addition to their heritage cultures. They also require financial aid to promote local arts and handicraft. All tourist spots need to be upgraded with attractive gates, which should be resourced with refreshment utilities, emporia cum museums and amphitheatres. More watchtowers for tourists and researchers should be set up at appropriate locations. Some tourist spots need early installation of ropeways. The built up infrastructure should not disturb the existing ecology. On experimental basis, Assam Tourism may develop policies for the people and by the people. E.g. the people dwelling on both sides of the NH-37 may be encouraged to beautify their residential fronts. The present strategic endeavor to preserve, maintain and upgrade heritage sites by ATMA is most appreciated.

Secondly, all state tourism departments should have liaison offices with basic refreshment utilities (paid but hygienic) in the vicinity of airports, main rail and bus stations with services to welcome and thank the tourists. High profile tourists may be treated with gamocha and japi. These should be resourced with counters for easy compliance of inner line permit (ILP), restricted area permit (RAP), protected area permit (PAP), parceling of handicrafts and local products, ATM, rest rooms, guide brochures, handbook and souvenir of heritage sites, etc. State tourism departments may outsource some of the above to the registered travel agencies.

Upgrading flight interlinking within the NE airports and discounts in airfare would enhance growth and productivity in the business of NE tourism. Aviation Ministry has approved chartered NE hill services with small aircraft. Besides chartered services, feasibility can be studied for reusing the British era airstrips (World War) for the exotic tourist destinations and parasailing. The Kolkata based Northeast Chartered Flight Pvt Ltd is planning to introduce chartered passenger services within the NE airports with US made nine seated aircrafts (model: Cessna Caravan 208B). Again, Port Blair is a globally known tourism hub. So, direct flight connectivity in between Port Blair and Aizwal in the winter would be another milestone in the race to boost the NE-Tourism. Feasibility study reveals that maximizing the figure of civilian flights from the NSCBI airport to the Tezpur and Lakhimpur airports will encourage more tourists to Arunachal. The Look-East-Policy (LEP) should cover these upgrades.

Mainly, the NSCBI airport is playing the role of international linkages for the NE. The premature demise of the Guwahati-Bangkok flight is unfortunate! The LGBI airport would become the complete gateway to the NE whenever it gets good links with the ASEAN metros. The existing to and fro Delhi-ASEAN and Kolkata-ASEAN flights can be routed via Guwahati (at least once in a week in the winter) to fulfill an aspect of the LEP. Against the LEP, development of three green field airports at Itanagar, Kohima and Pakyong along with the Chittwe shipyard will shortly come up. If the Guwahati-Dimapur railway is extended to connect with the Bankok-Mondalaya railway by 2020, then the NE would become a direct destination. The present scenario of the entire NE would change, if all these infrastructures come up.

Policy makers, stakeholders and other supporting agencies should brainstorm to promote NE tourism along with their own marketing. All natural resource exploring organizations in the NE should sponsor some events along with exhibitions to attract more tourists. This effort will provide advertising benefits to tag their branded products and this would promote their trading scenario as well as our heritage sites (e.g. International Conference on Gaseous Fuel, Feb ’08 and also in Feb ’09 in Goa organized by the OISD and sponsored by IOCL, ONGC and GAIL). For this, Sankardev-Kalakhetra type institution along with a trade centre is also required in other important tourism hub (say, a Bhupen-Bishnu-Jyoti Kalakhetra at Tezpur) to showcase the NE heritages. State tourism and rural development departments should have innovative policies to secure and promote traditional arts, handicraft and handloom products with regional level talent search drives. The ITFAA (International Trade Fare Association of Assam) is taking initiatives by organizing trade fairs to promote and market local handicraft, grains, fruit products, tea etc tagging as “Made in NE India” along with the GI (Geological Indication) certified products. Now ITFAA is targeting the ASEAN markets. The FASS, an NR-NEI organization is initiating various drives to make the NE self-reliant. Similarly, the SSA and the AUS are also helping the rural people to become self-reliant. For effective implementation, the aid sectors like FINER, NEDFi, CII, etc., need to frame transparent policies. Now potential is high to upgrade the border trade at Champai, Moreh, Nampong and Nathu-La. The upcoming gas cracker project will lead to the establishment of more downstream industries. So, from now onwards, we need to frame-out policies to target the ASEAN market. As per the initiative taken by the Indian ambassador in Yangun, the Manipur Government is planning to organize the first ever Manipur State Tourism Fest along with Best of ASEAN Expo in Nov ’09 at Moreh.
For global publicity and marketing, pioneer advertising is the main tool to pace up the tourism business. The publicity sectors of all the tourism departments of the NE states including all tour agencies may redesign their web pages and should keep good linkages with other important websites. Any comment on a heritage site by great persons may also be incorporated, say - M.K. Gandhi compared the Agnigarh with the Thames’s viewpoint in London. The model web pages of Jungle Travels India Pvt. Ltd, Brahmaputra Cruise Pvt. Ltd, Purvi Discovery Pvt. Ltd. and Assam Bengal Navigation Pvt. Ltd. can make the tourists aware of package tours. The web page should contain an e-brochure. The colorful e-brochure of BCPL is a fantastic example. The web site, www.kolkatabirds.com displays educational information about birds found in the NE region. The weekly documentaries in TV channels like Yatra in the News Live and Rupahi-Asom in Guwahati Doordarshan are taking role as encouraging tour guides. A video documentary on total xatriya culture along with its ongoing practices is a much awaited. Similarly, important books on NE documentary (history, culture and heritage) would be on that line if there is e-conversion. A one hour video documentary by Martin Bank has produced the true stories of the Kaziranga NP in a global forum. Similarly, the Jaw of Death, a video documentary on the KNP is a good example. Hoardings with video clippings about package tours need to be displayed in each international airport of India. The thrilling aqua-terra adventure is organized in the Dihang (from Tuting to Pasighat) and the Kameng (from Bomdila to Bhalukpong) have received positive reviews from foreign experts in water sports. Nat-Geo presented a 50 minute long documentary on it.

Proper coordination among different stakeholders will play a big role in boosting NE tourism. Our tourism departments along with travel and resort agents of the eight sisters and the NE Regional Tourism Department should have better coordination. All the NE-DARSHAN packages should be well designed with enjoyable itineraries. Long distance river cruise on luxury vessels on the Brahmaputra is taking good pace now. Steam safari will come up soon in the Borail and Patkai hills as the TOURFED is taking initiative.

The following travel agencies are keeping good coordination with the state tourism departments. They are doing their best to attract more tourists to explore NE India. It is advisable for them to acquire a toll free number. They should earnestly accept the opportunities to improve their rankings.

1. PDPL, Dibrugarh and Kolkata, e-mail: purvidiscovery@vsnl.net and purvi@sancharnet.in.
2. JTIPL, Guwahati and Kolkata, e-mail: info@jungletravelsindia.com and jti_tours@rediffmail.com.
3. ABNPL, Guwahati and London, e-mail: AssamBengal@rediffmail.com.
4. BCPL, Guwahati, e-mail: bcplcruise@gmail.com.
5. Rhino Travels, Guwahati, e-mail: tourinto@rhinotravels.com.
6. Wave Travels, Tinsukia, e-mail: wave_ecotourism@yahoo.com.
7. Assam Times Tour and Travels, Jorhat, e-mail: timestravel@yahoo.co.in.

The tourists who love environment, spirituality or traditional cultures are classified as quality tourists. Effectiveness in programs of environmental awareness depends on the growth of tourism. Progress in socio-economic and environmental domains depends upon attracting more quality tourists. More inflow of backpackers may destroy the social values as well as the environment.

–A. Medhi, Numaligarh