Tourism: A potential that North-east cannot ignore
By John S. Shilshi
Among the small states of North-east region, Sikkim emerged as one of the favourite destinations for tourists across the country. In terms of annual tourist intake, it has surpassed Meghalaya, known for attracting domestic tourist over the years. Dubbed as the cleanest city in the country, this picturesque state has become popular even amongst citizens, whose knowledge about the rest of North-east is abysmally low. They may fumble to correctly name the capitals of other States, but not Sikkim and its capital Gangtok. Even residents of faraway states like Gujarat, Maharashtra or Rajasthan have some basic knowledge about the state.
In addition to those God-given natural beauties, Sikkim has lots to offer in the form of eye-catching Buddhist monasteries built several decades ago. Opening of China-India trade route in Nathula had also propelled Sikkim further as sought after destination. Incidentally, large part of North Sikkim is classified as forward area, therefore dubbed sensitive from security angle. Hence, the process to obtain permission to visit them is quite lengthy and cumbersome. But this has not deterred people from visiting. Tourism sector therefore, is the mainstay of the state economy, and both urban and rural populations are benefited in more ways than one. Importantly, the state government keeps roads reasonably connected despite challenges thrown up by heavy rainfall every monsoon.
For cash crunch states in the region, Sikkim’s success story in tourism is very much replicable. Most states in the region are endowed with natural beauties and rich culture that can be gainfully showcased. For example, likes of Tawang and Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, Loktak lake, Siroi Hill and Yuko valley in Manipur, and many exotic places in Nagaland, are destinations that could attract tourists just as Cherrapunjee and Kaziranga do. Life-styles of different communities in the region, including the food and festivals are also menu for tourist tastes. Though all north-east states share common border with neighboring China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, none of the border points apart from Moreh in Manipur, are developed well enough to attract tourist attention. Even then the curiosity to see these points in its present conditions could be motivation for many domestic tourists.
However, in order to boost tourism, states must improve their security situations and avoid making news for the wrong reasons. Reports about bomb blasts, killings, communal tensions, bandhs and blockades are all fodders for scaring away people. They are negative indicators to potential tourists as places considered unsafe would normally be avoded. Secondly, the process of issuing permits to willing visitors needs to be simplified and made more user-friendly. A timeline for completing such applications should be made mandatory so that applicants know the approximate time when permits could be expected. In fact, the time actually is ripe for all state governments to consider doing away the mandatory requirement of obtaining permissions, at least to Indian nationals. Even for foreign nationals, the procedures should be made more systematic, if not simplified. The public too should avoid using ILP as an issue to score brawny political points.
Make no mistake – native Sikkimese, particularly the Bhutias and Lepchas share similar sentiments that most communities in the North-east have. They are very much concern about possible distortion in state demographic profile and dilution in culture on account of heavy influx from other states. However, this sentiment has never come in the way of the state receiving tourists. The state government, through an institutionalized mechanism ensures that tourists interests as well as locals concerns are taken care of adequately. I recall an instance where in one of the inter-Ministerial meetings to discuss extension of Restricted Area Permits to north Sikkim; the Chief Secretary articulated the state government’s commitment to monitor movements of everyone who entered Sikkim. He also explained how they did it, with facts and figures and convinced the meeting to arrive at a favourable decision.
In other states of the region however, such fears and apprehensions are not handled with pragmatism. They end up succumbing to pressure, which are not only hurting state economies but a disservice to many who could earn their living out of tourism related economic activities. Until now, most state governments remain contented with showcasing their culture and tradition in some mega events in Delhi, or annual festivals held within the states. But those God-given natural beauties and their uniqueness have not been sufficiently exhibited for the outside world’s appreciation. It is time tourism efforts take of in the region happens not only on papers, but on ground as well. For it is an area that a region like the North- east could ill afford to ignore.
In this age of technology when the world is literally shrinking, the objective must be to let the world come and see and not vice-versa. In a region handicapped by absence of big industries, tourism surely is a handy alternative for sustaining economic growth and reducing unemployment. Besides, state governments must ensure accessibility, connectivity and facility so that private operators could step in to push the extra mile. Commonly perceived notion about the sector being less beneficial for people in helm of affairs, hence the neglect, must end. The region, the people and their histories are best learned when seen and experienced and not so much through reading of books. If Sikkim could do it, there is no reason why the rest would not.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer, now a strategic Analyst on internal security. Views expressed are personal)
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