Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can tourism in Northeast India take off on a sustainable note?

As we entered the conference room, conversations in Axomiya and Garo buzzed in the air. Taking our seats we looked around and found an interesting assortment of officials from the North East Council (NEC), Ministry of Tourism (MoT), Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) and Transport department. Also present were the president of the Association of Tour Operators of North East India (ATONEI), president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) and other tourism stakeholders. Journalists sat with their pens ready, as the arrival of the Hon’ble Minister of Transport and Tourism, Government of Assam was eagerly awaited.

Finally, the workshop on ‘Making North East Tourism Ready’ began. Organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in collaboration with DoNER, ATONEI and NEC, the workshop was chiefly aimed at discussing an Integrated Master Plan prepared by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for NEC, for strengthening tourism circuits in the North East Region (NER). The technical sessions highlighted the tourism potential of the NER, the importance of developing infrastructure for promoting tourism, destination promotion, skill development and capacity building.

Experts spoke about the impediments to tourism in the NER, namely lack of infrastructure, skilled manpower, a common tourism master plan and most importantly, marketing! The master plan drew attention to different factors related to tourism. It talked of improving air and rail connectivity for tourists, of utilising intangible resources like local art and craft to draw tourists (something called ‘cultural tourism’), of specific destinations of tourism potential (lakes, wildlife reserves and more) in the 8 north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. It also harped on the various management-related issues to be faced during the implementation of the master plan.

I listened carefully in anticipation of another issue that loomed large and formidable in the background. But it never came. Had nobody really thought about it? Or had it simply been brushed under the ‘development’ carpet?

What about the environmental impact??? Hello??? Had that been taken into account at all? Everybody kept singing praises of the Northeast being the "unexplored paradise", about how “Nature and Culture” are the biggest “Unique ‘Selling’ Proposition” (USP) of the NER. Well, how do you expect tourism to thrive or even exist, if you don’t safeguard your first USP?? Other disturbing thoughts shot through my head. ‘Selling’? Was all that unique biodiversity and ecosystem really on sale? But before I went all philanthropic, I stopped and dragged my whirring mind back to hard facts.

This is the reality of tourism development. On one hand, it offers employment opportunities to local people, sound infrastructure and amenities, and recognition of local culture and traditions. And perhaps, this is what the Northeast needs. But not at the expense of its natural heritage! A balance is imperative. And for this, the long hike needs to start on the right foot.

The TCS project team which prepared the master plan claimed in passing that the plan had been made in consultation with concerned “tourism stakeholders.” It is left to wonder who these ‘stakeholders’ are. It was also stated that they have “tried to keep communities as the central focus.” If that was so, then where were the environmental issues, considering that the people of the Northeast are deeply respectful and protective of their natural treasures? Tourism cannot function in a vacuum, without the engagement of the local communities - the principal stakeholders of tourism, anywhere! They cannot be reduced to the status of a “tourism attraction”, along with “nature, wildlife, biodiversity, culture, heritage, religious and intangible resources…” as the master plan puts it.

I sat and watched tour operators being pleaded with to bring their businesses to the NER, for the tourism industry to resort to “aggressive marketing” as they called it. But then what about standards of sustainable tourism? Had any been set before the bandwagon arrived? How could an open invitation be sent out before their house was in order? For example, was there an effective waste management plan in place? What about measuring the tourism carrying capacity of each state and tourist destination? Did the local people really want big numbers? During the workshop, there was a proclaimed preference for “quality tourism” rather than numbers, but does quality have to mean the provision of air conditioned comfort, showers and flush toilets in biodiversity hotspots? It’s like enabling your tourist to view a rhinoceros from an air-conditioned elephant back! Is this truly ‘experiential tourism’?

The only two organisations at the workshop with this concern were the Ecotourism Society of India (ESOI) and WWF-India. Clearly outnumbered, we raised questions and elucidated issues that could not be ignored. Together, we recommended the establishment of Green Tourism Standards, an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of every area in the NER being developed for tourism before the implementation of the master plan, close collaborations and consultation with local and other conservation NGOs with a scientific understanding of the eco-region – all to help tourism in the Northeast make a sustainable start. And to stay that way.

We walked out of the conference room, in nervous anticipation of the future of the biodiversity and culturally-rich Northeast, with tourism gradually slipping into the driver’s seat.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the unexplored Northeast India on the threshold of tourism development turned out to be a pioneer of responsible tourism in the country right from its inception?

Voices from the Northeast:-

“It is great to know that there are plans to introduce large-scale tourism in the Northeast. While this will benefit the region immensely I think this should be implemented gradually. We take great pride in our culture, our land with its lush green cover, crystal-clear lakes and cascading waterfalls. Caring for it is second nature to us. There are local myths and lores attached to many places; stories that people revere. Visitors to the Northeastern states should be sensitized to this fact and demonstrate equal respect for the environment around. It breaks my heart when I see the Umiam Lake in Shillong littered with the remains of a weekend picnic revelry by a tourist party! Also, one must collaborate with the locals in order to make tourism a sustainable and responsible exercise.”

Janusa Barbara Sangma
Shillong, Meghalaya

“When you think of opening up one of the planet’s mega biodiversity hot spots to tourism, the key operating principle to bear in mind is that of ‘balance’- a balance that will enable the fulfillment of human needs along with the protection of nature. All our lives: social, cultural and economic are cocooned within the ecological circle, if we are foolish enough to tamper with this outer all encompassing circle, it will be at our own peril!

Those inscrutable dark forests and pristine blue rivers, all abounding with life are the wealth of the NE and we cannot ravage it for myopic gains. We have to find a way to keep our natural capital intact and reap dividends from the interest.”

Mita Nangia Goswami

1. Gombu-Latso, Arunachal © Pijush K. Dutta
2. Satyr Tragopan, Sikkim © Basant Sharma
3. Local communities in Sikkim © Basant Sharma
4. Cyananthus lobatus © Basant Sharma


  1. Being an upcoming responsible tour operator of Assam, and not part of any association or such thing, I believe there is obviously a need to focus on tourism in Northeast India, but off-course not at the cost of harming the communities and environment. The dark side of tourism is most operators are profit based and seldom wish to participate in responsible measures, until there profit making is threatened. It is good that a plan has been sanctioned, but it is disheartening to know that not much focus has been put to ensuring the promotion of conservation and sustainability. It is for people like us, WWF, Ecotourism society, to act as a balance between tourism and nature. I urge like-minded people to come up with an action plan which will ensure limitations to tourism. Actions such as proper waste and plastic management need to be taken. Eco-regions should be studied to determine the threshold of tourism activities they can sustain. It is important that from the beginning responsible tourism needs to be focused on and should be a part of the plan. It northeast India can pull of ecotourism properly, it will surely be a beacon of light in the tourism industry, and will benefit more. Imagine a paradise with eco-lodges, proper waste management, cultures, wildlife etc. Tourism can play a big green role if all is implied well, and can well make the region the Costa Rica of Asia.

  2. A very well written blog. How could TCS prepare a tourism plan without the association of WWF, Aranyak etc who are working to preserve the environmental treasures of NE?

    I agree with the blog writer that tourism has to keep in mind the "USP"-the bio-diversity of NE if it has to succeed in the long -run.

  3. I agree and duly recognize the concerns articulated.More brainstorming is really needed to hammer out a policy, a policy which ensures tourism growth without throwing these concerns to the wind

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