SUBJECT :The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the tourism economy of the region. Although there are reports of places opening up, a lack of clarity on the norms for stakeholders continues to plague the industry. 

Tourists enjoy water sports at Shnongpodeng in Meghalaya.

By: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Guwahati, December 24, 2020: A post-COVID-19 stock-taking deliberation on the state of tourism in the Northeast held in Guwahati this week threw up not only the challenges staring at the nascent industry of the region but also the opportunities that could be harnessed in the shadow of the pandemic.

The discussion between private and government stakeholders, organised on December 20 as part of the two-day North East Festival, put the onus on the governments of the region to formulate an integrated policy to open up the sector for its revival.

Now that the tourism industry has to subsist only on domestic tourists for some time, the discussion hovered around ensuring hassle-free travel for inbound tourists across the Northeast.

“Travel experience changes immensely after every crisis and so will it be post Covid-19. We are all hoping for a better 2021 but forecasting possibilities is very difficult at this moment,” said Ranjit Das, the president of Assam Tour Operators Association, opening the discussion at the city’s Radisson Blu hotel.

Das observed that “when mainland India tourists think of travelling to the Northeast, they want to visit at least two to three states at one go.”

“This means we need horizontal collaboration between the state tourism departments, the tourism associations of the eight states and also the transport associations. That is why we feel that dialogue is very important at this point. We need uniform protocol for seamless travel across the region,” said Das, the moderator of the business-to-business discussion.

Tour operators from the region taking part in the two-hour-long deliberation sought a clearer standard operating procedure (SOP) from the state governments with regard to tourists.

Pointing at the constraints they are facing due to the existing guidelines meant for travellers, R.K. Sharma, founding member, Manipur Tourism Forum, said, “As a tour operator what I have been facing since the last one month or so, the time since tourists have begun trickling into the region, is lack of a clear SOP by the government on what kind of permit or clearance a visitor needs to procure for smooth travel across the region.”

He offered an example, “I have a client who arrived in Guwahati last week with all the necessary test results and documents following which she was allowed to move around Assam. After four days, she wanted to go to Arunachal Pradesh, which meant she had to do a fresh RT-PCR test to enter that state as the 72-hour deadline since her test to enter Assam had expired. She was in Kaziranga by then, but couldn’t locate any lab nearby to get the test done, and had to drive to Tezpur town to get herself tested, spend a night there to collect the report the next day to proceed to Arunachal. As a tour operator, I had no way of giving her any clear instructions as I was not sure myself where these tests were being done.”

“Since Meghalaya will open for tourists from December 21, any tourist visiting the Northeast will face the same problem as the 72-hour norm will be applicable there too,” he underlined.

Arial View of Golden hour in Gangtok, Sikkim.

In his home state Manipur, the government has lifted the need for a mandatory test since December 18. “Still, the border town of Moreh (borders Myanmar), which most domestic tourist wants to visit, is not open yet,” he added.

Tourists travelling from Assam need to drive through Nagaland to reach Manipur. Nagaland has not yet opened for tourists, though it has allowed visitors to pass through the state without a stopover.

“For a tourist, say, travelling from Kaziranga in Assam to Imphal takes over 12 hours, which is a challenge if he is not allowed an overnight halt anywhere in Nagaland. I think the government of Nagaland should think of an overnight special permit for tourists without the need for quarantine,” Sharma said.

With different rules for different states which don’t suit domestic tourists, Sharma offered a suggestion, “The governments in the region can sort out the bottleneck by issuing a common permit to a tourist or a single test that could suffice the entire circuit.”

“Such a request must be put to the Union home ministry or the health ministry by all stakeholders.”

Speaking at the discussion, R. Lalrodingi, advisor (banking and industries) at the north eastern council (NEC) under the ministry of the department of north eastern region (DoNER), batted for the promotion of tourists from within the region too to travel to each other’s states. “I think it will be also be a safe option.”

Concurring with her idea of inter-state tourism, Das suggested, “There are several good community tourism projects across the region about which we ourselves are not very well aware of. May be, the NEC should map these projects for us to be able to promote them not only within the region but to mainstream Indian tourists too. It can also hold some familiarisation fairs on such community tourism initiatives.”

Shyamkanu Mahanta, the festival organiser, prodded those in the sector and the government to focus more on high-end tourism in the region.

“I tend to get a message from the highest offices in some north eastern states that they are not getting the required value from tourism. If we promote budget tourism, it will not be enough to add value to the state’s economy, so they don’t tend to promote tourism much. Today, Indians have money, Northeast can be a high-end destination for mindful tourism. We can do with only domestic tourists. Indians no more mind paying for a calm and peaceful holiday amidst nature in the Northeast.”

He continued, “We should encourage outside investors to start high-end resorts in the region. They would add value to the region, we can give land at a nominal rate to them provided they start high end resorts.”

Later, speaking to The Wire, he said, “Land is a sensitive issue in the Northeast; but some mechanism can be worked out, say for long term lease, etc., to encourage outside investors. We don’t have so much money in the region. Such projects will generate employment locally too, plus someone who would pay so much for a holiday will not litter the place.”

Suggesting a single brand ambassador to promote tourism in the Northeast, he stated, “What we need is an integrated policy for the region.”

Shantanu Kalita, who heads the sea plane division of Spicejet, spoke of starting a water taxi service soon from Guwahati to the picturesque Umrangshu Lake in the state’s Dima Hasao district.

“It will be a 15-seater plane, and will take about 25 minutes to reach Umrangshu. It can be a game changer provided we ensure that such high-end travellers get places for luxury accommodation,” said Kalita.

P.P. Khanna, president, association of domestic tour operators of India (ADTOI), felt the sea plane service “is a good dream” but highlighted that certain basics have to be put in place first in the region.

“Recently, I was called by a committee of MPs at the Rajya Sabha to discuss what more could be done to promote tourism in the Northeast. I suggested that connectivity has to be made better. For instance, still the air sector between Tripura and Mizoram doesn’t exist. Under the government’s UDAAN or other schemes, small airports need to be readied; we need helipads around tourist spots; there has to be tax holidays, etc.”

Khanna, who joined the deliberations digitally, like several other tour operators from within and outside the region, proffered a common bottleneck for tourists in the Northeast, “There is still a lot of difficulty for a private vehicle of one state to enter another state. This affects tourists’ movement.” He added, “Northeast has everything to make it a tourist heaven but where is its marketing strategy?”

Like Khanna, several tour operators joined the discussion digitally. Because of the pandemic, the North East Festival, which has become an annual feature in New Delhi for some years now, had to be held in Guwahati this year, and let open to public too only digitally.

Bus service from Imphal to Mandalay stalled

Another Coronavirus affected tourist feature in the region, which was expected to boost the sector, is  Imphal to Mandalay bus service. It was to begin from this April as per a bilateral agreement between India and Myanmar.

“As a tour operator, we were to start the bus service from April 7, 2020. The government issued us the necessary permits to do the bookings; a bus was bought too but it has been standing at Imphal because of the lockdown. As for the next two tourist seasons, we can’t expect foreign tourists to arrive in our region, this service will likely remain stalled for about a year,” said Sharma.

‘NEC should take a lead in high-end tourism’

While Mahanta felt that “NEC should take a lead to promote high-end tourism in the Northeast”, Lalrodingi felt the region needs to put more stress on eco-tourism and community-based tourism.

“Our motto is, every project that we back must benefit the community around the tourist spot. It must come from below to the top, not a top-down approach… the government has to start thinking itself only as a facilitator and leave the rest to private players,” Lalrodingi added.

Speaking at the discussion, Deba Kumar Mishra, tourism director of Assam, pointed out that having borders with five countries, the Northeast has a huge potential for various kinds of tourism.

“One instance is medical tourism; already people from Bangladesh are coming to Meghalaya for medical treatment; there is a similar potential for people of Myanmar in Imphal as Mandalay, their nearest city, is quite far and the connectivity is not good. There is also a potential for medical tourism between Assam’s Barak Valley and Sylhet in Bangladesh.”

Mishra highlighted that tourism in the region was hit towards the end of 2019 because of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests.

“It eased up for some time, say during January and February 2020, and then nearly for 10 months it has met a slump due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Though we are not as badly affected as some other parts of the country, the fear psychosis persists.”

Das added, “What we need at the moment is local experience with a global experience. I would like to give the example of Rutland in England, a small county, situated close to London. It has a year-long calendar of fairs, etc., and attracts mostly domestic tourists. And yet it gets 1.9 million visitors every year. We can learn from such experiences.”

With flights grounded and governments insisting for multiple permits since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism in northeast India has declined to unprecedented levels. Photo: Moroz Nataliya/Shutterstock

Razvee Hussain, Assam government’s tourism secretary, listed certain steps his department is undertaking to promote tourism, including promoting tea tourism and adventure tourism.

“During COVID time, we also reached out to the tour operators and the hoteliers though the state government’s Sanjeevani scheme,” he added. The secretary, however, didn’t give any data as to how many such stakeholders has benefitted from the scheme so far.

Sikkim tourism minister Bedu Singh Panth told The Wire, “We received 10 lakh domestic tourists last year. Due to Covid, there is a huge loss of revenue in the state. We are opening up now, tourists are trickling in, hope things would soon be better.”

He said his government too “gave Rs 5,000 one-time cash benefit to the taxi drivers affected by the national lockdown. Also, six months moratorium on the lease amount that cafeterias have to pay the government.”

“We are in conversation with the Central government to implement the Union tourism ministry’s schemes, like the Swadesh Darshan, Prasad, etc. Hopefully, they will be implemented from April onwards in Sikkim.”

Das underlined, “Domestic tourism is the need of the hour for which we need a uniform protocol for the region. All other states in mainstream India are opening up now for tourists. If we don’t act quickly, we will lose out to other states.”

Banlum Blah, president, confederation of tourism industries, Meghalaya, added, “In the last 15-20 years, we, the tour operators, worked hard to put Northeast on the tourist map. Finally, when we thought we can take off, we are faced with a huge crisis now. We seek the help of ATDOI to help us more now and also to create awareness that the region is safe for travel.”

Mahanta said all the suggestions during the discussion would be put together for submission to the NEC as recommendations from the stakeholders.