MG Marg in Gangtok is a pedestrian zone that resembles a European boulevard square with high lampposts, benches, flowers and cobbled tiles tourists stroll on leisurely. The street has become glossier over the years, but retains an old-world charm to remain the showcase of Sikkim’s brand of tourism.
Tourism drives the economy of Sikkim, a Himalayan State with less than 600,000 people. When the Sikkim Tourism Policy and Eco-Tourism Policy were initiated in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the tourism sector had already contributed 4.6 per cent to the State’s gross domestic product and provided direct employment to about 40,000 persons. By 2012, tourism became the largest service industry in Sikkim. In 2014, Indian Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the Department of Commerce, Government of India, noted that the service sector – primarily tourism – contributed 9.6 per cent to the investments in Sikkim.
Today, Sikkim attracts the most domestic and foreign tourists in Northeast India. Assam, a state with better connectivity, recorded 10,782 foreign visitors compared to Sikkim’s 16,518 in 2005. The arrival of foreign tourists in Sikkim almost doubled to 31,698 in 2013 while Assam’s figure increased marginally to 17,638.
How? The answer lies in smart and innovative fusion of rural, village and pilgrimage tourism in the Eco-Tourism Policy and the latest Sikkim Organic Mission. These interventions promote sustainable development that empowers local community and generates alternative income and source of livelihood. The involvement of key stakeholders such as local communities, NGOs, government departments like tourism and civil aviation and human resources development, tour agents, and tour operators in planning, implementation, coordination, and monitoring and the integration of tourism in college and university curriculum has been a model in revenue generation and enhancement in human resources pool.
Take the homestay concept, for instance. This Sikkim Government effectively tweaked the Central government’s Indira Awas Yojana, a housing scheme, to develop village and eco-tourism. Under this scheme, local beneficiaries were mandated to build an extra room and toilet, thus providing a homestay for tourist and monetary benefit to the locals. “The homestays facilities have become a major income multiplier for the rural population,” says Ashi Pem Pem, head of Department of Tourism in Sikkim University.
But tourism in Sikkim is still at a nascent stage despite becoming a major economic activity and revenue earner for the government. Unplanned and inadequate infrastructure, lack of human resources and restrictive policies such as Inner Line Permit and Restricted Area Permit are irritants.
Straddling the environmentally and seismically fragile Eastern Himalayas, Sikkim is caught between the demand for rapid infrastructural development and need to strike an ecological balance. Road projects being executed lack quality, and are haphazard with little or no attention to the health of the mountains that are prone to monsoon landslides. The conditions often delay the completion of the projects.
Similarly, though the focus of eco-tourism and village tourism is on sustainability, regulating rampant and unplanned construction in around Gangtok and upcoming towns is a major challenge. The demand for good accommodation and basic amenities for an ever-increasing flow of tourists has put the physical environment of Gangtok and villages such as Lachen in North Sikkim or Pelling in West Sikkim under immense pressure.
The other challenge is in the development of human resources that include manual labourers and professionals for the tourism industry. In 2011, Sikkim had only 1,200 trained individuals. The State Department of Tourism and Civil Aviation in its 2011 report projected that by 2015 the industry would require 17,513 skilled persons. Despite the initiative taken by the HRDD for developing skills resources, the State still has a serious dearth of skilled workers such as plumbers, electricians, and masons.
Sikkim suffers from restrictive policies too, like most northeast states. Multiple entry permits such as RAP to visit certain places like Nathu La and North Sikkim are a dampener. Visit to these places requires permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Defence, State police, the State’s tourism department and its adventure cell.
The infrastructural handicap and restrictive paperwork have affected Sikkim’s attempt at developing the Buddhist circuit. The 2010 Tourism Policy as well as the Tourism Mission 2015 laid out a detailed plan for overall tourism development in the State with a special emphasis on pilgrimage tourism. But it has not helped Sikkim come anywhere near Bihar in recording Buddhist tourist footfalls.
Sikkim, according to the Union Ministry of Tourism’s 2012-13 report, has the potential of being connected with other Buddhist sites in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
Lakhs of Buddhist pilgrims from Sikkim, Bhutan, Darjeeling and Kalimpong travel to Bihar for pilgrimage, but there are no regular bus services between these places and Bodh Gaya. This underscores the gap between policy statement and implementation.
The Government of India had recently agreed to open Nathu La for pilgrimage to Mansarovar from this July onwards. This will benefit Sikkim, but a similar initiative for tourists from selected countries to travel to India through this pass would be worthwhile. This will complement the existing border trade at this pass, thus boosting the economy of Sikkim and China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Likewise, the bonhomie between New Delhi and the Karmapa could help the latter return to his seat in Rumtek Monastery and fill the vacuum – after the Dalai Lama – in providing spiritual guidance to millions of Buddhist faithfuls. In such a scenario, Gangtok can be next to Dharamshala in terms of importance.
There is an urgent need to strengthen the existing tourism policy while preserving the ecology of the State. Is Sikkim ready for it?
(Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew teaches at the Department of International Relations, Sikkim University, Gangtok This is an abstract from the presentation on “The Potential of Pilgrimage & Buddhist Tourism in India’s Act East Policy: A Study of Sikkim Tourism” delivered at the ICWA in February 2015)