Why Northeastern States fail to utilize their Tourism Potential?

Shillong: It’s been termed “Paradise Unexplored” but poor internal communication between India’s northeastern states and the lack of connectivity to the region are the major hurdles tour operators face in promoting it as a tourist destination, an expert says.

“Northeast tourism suffers from two fundamental inadequacies: poor internal communication between the states and poor connectivity. Travelling by road is arduous and time-consuming,” Madan Prasad Bezbaruah, honorary permanent representative of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, told IANS.

Even so, in its effort to market “virgin” tourist destinations in the eight landlocked northeastern states, the union tourism ministry has evolved the “Paradise Unexplored” marketing tagline to woo foreign travellers but tour operators are not impressed.

“Frankly, the northeastern states are yet to see the light of infrastructure development to open the flood gates for tourists to explore the unexplored paradise,” said Tsering Wange, a tour operator from Arunachal Pradesh that is popularly known as the Land of the Rising Sun.

“I have been in tourism industry over the last two decades in Arunachal but many of the visitors lamented on poor connectivity (both internal and external)”, he told IANS.

“A tourist visiting a particular state would like to visit as many spots in a day, but in the case of northeastern states, a tourist has to spend at least three hours for a 60 km drive from one spot to the other,” Wange explained, stressing on the need to improve the road connectivity.

Robert Gili, tour operator from Geneva who participated in the just-concluded third edition of the Northeast Tourism Mart in Shillong, said the industry in the region is still at a nascent stage but could boom if the basic infrastructure is in place.

“The first thing that the Indian government needs to do is to develop air connectivity within the northeastern states. A tourist travelling from Zurich to Shillong won’t be happy travelling for more than 24 hours by air and road to reach his destination,” Gili told IANS.

“Each state in the northeast has its own beauty and story to share, but if we want the people in the region to get tourists all the year round, then the government must be serious in creating infrastructure on the ground,” he added.

Fascinated by the northeast’s diverse ethnic culture, French tour operator Sebastien Bonnis said the Indian government should enable connectivity between major international airports and those in the northeast.

“My clients won’t like to travel (by road) for several long hours after flying from Paris to Guwahati via New Delhi. Tourists like to be comfortable. At least the Guwahati should have access for international airlines,” Bonnis told IANS.

Nivaran Nongmaithen, a tour operator from Manipur, said: “The northeastern states could be one of the leading (inward) tourist destinations for Southeast Asian countries provided the infrastructure improves.”

“The civil aviation ministry has elevated Tulihal (Imphal) to an international airport but there have been no international flights which connect it with any of the Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, marketing tourism in the northeast has not yielded results as it should have,” Nongmaithen told IANS.

“If the government is really serious about promoting tourism, it should develop and also improve the existing road infrastructure across the region besides reducing the government formalities for tourists (to complete),” he added.

He also batted for relaxed customs and immigration requirements at Moreh, a trading point in Manipur bordering Myanmar.

“If the government issues tourists a single entry visa on arrival at Moreh, I am sure they would spend time not only in Manipur but would also venture to (neighbouring) Nagaland. It will be a win-win situation for the people of both states,” Nongmaithena said.

Underscoring the need to improve road connectivity to enhance tourist infrastructure in the northeast, union Tourism Minister Shripad Yesso Naik asked the state governments to ensure timely utilisation of central funding and completion of projects.

“The improvement in connectivity will have a positive impact on the development of tourism and trade in the northeastern states,” he said at the tourism mart here earlier this week.

He also said that the Narendra Modi government has recognised tourism as a “priority sector”, which would prove to be a game changer for the development and promotion of tourism in the country.

“I request the northeastern states to recognise the role of the entire country in promoting tourism. Together, we can all drive this key sector and make it one of the true pillars of Indian economy,” he said.

Until September 2013, the tourism ministry had sanctioned 57.6 percent of its funds for the northeastern states.