Around the Region
Whither tourism in Northeast ?
On Thursday, the ‘Times of India’ ran a brilliant piece by Rajasthan chief Vasundhara Raje on how she plans to take the state’s burgeoning industry to its third stage to generate huge revenues. Her enthusiasm was infectious , her logic undeniable, her vision redeemingly fresh. I wish the chief ministers of all Northeastern states and the great Didi in charge of West Bengal read Raje’s article carefully. I am sure they won’t, hence I am insisting they do. Tourism is an industry bigger than most manufacturing and it creates more jobs at less investment. In a remote place like Northeast, manufacturing will have many reservations to invest but with the right kind of infrastructure and initiative, tourism industry will have none.
Not that money is not made in tourism in Northeast. Government departments tasked with developing tourism may have failed but some of its officials, in league with contractors, have not missed out on money making opportunities. I am aware of few major such scandals but will not detail them because I don’t have all necessary documents. But there is one example I cannot resist giving.
As part of its campaign to promote Assam as a tourist site in West Bengal, a counter of Assam Tourism was set up a few years ago in Calcutta airport. I am told the expenses for the counter ran into several lakh rupees. But what do you find in the counter , which is rather a small one ! A table or two, a few chairs , few Japis and Xorais . I dare say all that you find there would not even cost anyone anything more than a few thousand rupees. But the bill ran into lakhs. A section of officials and contractors pocketed the bill.
This is not to say officials don’t always work. A deputationist who ran the Assam Tourism office a few years back did splendid work to promote Assam as a tourism site in Bengal. Before every festival like Ambabuchi, Bihu or Durga Puja, this official would get her friends in the Calcutta press run stories on the glory and grandeur of Assam. If one calculates the length of these articles in publications such as Ananda Bazar Patrika , the official would saved her government lakhs of rupees , that would otherwise go into paying for advertisements. These savings would be so much more than the pittance the government paid her as salary. And she did this drill year after year. But while her bosses made money on setting up the counter , this Calcutta-based Assam Tourism officer did not get enough budget to set up stalls in the Tourism Fairs. Inspite of that, with sheer imagination , she managed to win awards in such fairs for Assam Tourism. Whereas Andhra Tourism would end up constructing a Char Minar in the Netaji Indoor Stadium, the Assam Tourism would have to make do a few Japis and Xorais and some of the stuff for sale at the Emporium on loan.
The Tarun Gogois and Manik Sarkars should learn from Vasundhara Raje in how a government goes about – or should go about developing tourism. Babus are the same everywhere and it is the drive and imagination of the political leaders that makes the difference. Why cant the Assam Tourism brainstorm with local businessmen involved in tourism for a niche package to be offered to high-end tourists like overworked IT and industry executives, business leaders and foreign diplomats . People outside the region often deride Assam for its ‘lahe lahe ‘ (slow laidback )work culture.
But can’t we develop a wonderful ‘lahe lahe’ tour package that would ensure the overworked executives and diplomats a total hassle free week to 10 days rest with some lovely experience like angling in the Jia Bhorali . It would mean locating an anchor base ( some resort) that is ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’. Then just allowing the client to laze out with a few visits to places like Kaziranga (an elephant safari) and a visit to a temple like Kamakhya . If the clients pay up, small helicopters could be used to spare them the trouble of travelling the potholed roads.
There is a time in the life of everyone – surely once or twice a year – when they need to break away from the daily routine and just take it easy ( Lahe Lahe , should I say). That is where there is a market to turn ‘Lahe Lahe’ into a money spinner rather than to heap derision on the Assamese way of life.
But should we only blame the states ! No. Modi’s government has been all big talk and his tourism minister has spend more time on fixing Indian history and culture than on developing tourism.
In 2014, France and Belgium made millions by showcasing First World War battlefields on the centenary of the outbreak of First World War. I got the idea from that and suggested in two conferences that India should join hands with Myanmar to show case Second World War battlefields. If Myanmar did not fall in line, we could showcase Imphal and Kohima and the Stillwell Road to attract thousands of foreign tourists . The Second World War was both an European and an Asian war – it was won and lost as much in Stalingrad and El Alamein as in Imphal and Kohima.
“We don’t have an infrastructure to support a high tourist flow,” said one Indian government official at the Asian Confluence seminar in Shillong last year where I made the proposal. To which I said that Indian security forces have tents which could be pitched in thousands at an identifiable location on the Imphal-Kohima highway and at Ledo in Upper Assam. The local authorities should be able to provide clean drinking water, ensure basic hygiene and safe local food and provide more basic healthcare. War nostalgia tourists don’t look for five star hotels – a good tent in a war field to encounter the ‘ghosts of war’ with trips lined up for battlefields and cemeteries and topped up with relevant war films and documentaries in the evenings with drinks is enough to provide the experience.
I am sure if China can attract a huge tourist inflow into Yunnan by organizing few events around the 70th anniversary of the End of War in Asia , Northeast India could have done the same. While the huge parade in Beijing which attracted world leaders helped President Xi project China as a world power, the events in Yunnan boosted the tourism industry of the remote Chinese province. But nothing happened in Delhi.
It was Delhi’s job to accord permission and plan out the broad contours of such a festival and I am sure state government would have cooperated. It would have given the Indian military the chance of an image makeover if they were involved in the exercise as someone who could put round a basic tourism infrastructure with tents and medical teams.
I got the Kolkata-Kunming (K2K) Forum to adopt a resolution to explore joint India-China-Myanmar celebrations. But Delhi did not show any enthusiasm for what could have been a game changer event for developing tourism in Northeast.
Once someone came to see the battlefields, there would be option to attract them by the great landscape, the natural environment, the ethnic diversity and so much more. But the babudom in Delhi and their minister who has been parachuted from the 7th century to protect Indian culture did nothing. Neither did the state governments. We missed a huge opportunity of a global history landmark to draw tourists from regions near and far to the Northeast.
If such an attitude continues, we will never become a tourism region and waste funds on seminar that will only discuss our potential.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )