Even though Northeast India is bestowed with spectacular gifts of ture which offer enormous potential for a thriving tourism sector, the attention the region receives from domestic and foreign travellers is far less than it deserves. But why has this sector, billed as the sunrise industry for the eight NE States, failed to achieve the desired results so far? Reasons are many, first and foremost the lack of honest and positive thrust by policymakers in developing the necessary infrastructure to support growth of tourism in the region. Except Sikkim, which has put a lot of emphasis in developing basic infrastructure and promoting it, no other State in the region appears to have any clear-cut policy for making tourism the mainstay of their economy. It is beyond doubt the Northeast has the potential to emerge as an enchanting destition of the ‘Incredible India’ initiative, yet for some strange reasons, the region still has not been able to carve out its space in the tourism map of India. Take for instance, the case of Assam, with its capital city Guwahati called the Gateway to North East India. The State has five tiol parks, oil town Digboi where the first oil well in Asia was drilled, the famed one-horned rhinoceros, tea gardens, mighty Brahmaputra considered the only ‘male’ river in the country, and many other potential attractions besides. But tourism in the State is primarily centred on World Heritage site Kaziranga tiol Park. Secondly, Assam with its central location in the region could have acted as a bridge to give a much needed push to tourism in the other sister NE States, but sadly the initiative seems to be missing on the part of the government in creating necessary infrastructure.
Dispur’s focus appears to be on building a tourism brand image sans the content. The appointment of Bollywood diva Priyanka Chopra as brand ambassador at a whopping cost to promote Assam tourism defies all logic, when the government has largely failed to build the necessary ecosystem for tourism industry in the State. It appears the potentialities for developing tourism as a stable source of revenue are not matched by proper planning. Recently, the State government accorded industry status to tourism in its newly announced ‘Tourism Policy of Assam 2017’. That a tourism policy has been framed for a richly endowed State like Assam seven decades after Independence, speaks volumes of the apathy and neglect the sector has hitherto suffered from. Private participation in the sector remains minimal. Barring a few tour operators, tourism industry is maged by the unorganised sector, which fetches very little revenue for the State exchequer. Assam should aspire to be a tourism hotspot in the region by building effective and tangible information centres, facilitating movement of foreign tourists and developing a trained manpower to guide tourists. It is good that the Assam government will offer substantial subsidies to those investing in tourist infrastructure like lodges, hotels, resorts and floating restaurants; further, community participation and job creation have been made focus areas under the new tourism policy. Awards will be handed out for best tourism infrastructure, start-up, innovative project and facilities, along with categories like best women entrepreneur, warden and photo jourlist. But awards have the tendency to be reduced to inconsequential give-aways, apart from getting politicised. And it is debatable how much returns Dispur will reap from cash incentives to filmmakers shooting tourism films in the State. It remains to be seen whether the star power of Priyanka Chopra alone will be enough for the State government to push its ‘Awesome Assam’ campaign in the coming days.
Even in neighbouring Meghalaya, with its capital city Shillong dubbed the ‘Scotland of the East’, the priorities of the State government appears to be misplaced in developing tourism. The Congress-led government there has spent nearly Rs 2.2 crore on a Bollywood movie ‘Rock on 2’ for tourism promotion, when Cherrapunjee — the wettest place on Earth so popular among tourists — still does not rate very highly when it comes to tourist satisfaction, with basic facilities like proper toilets and clean eating joints missing. Surely, developing tourism infrastructure instead of spending taxpayers’ money on some Bollywood movie would have guaranteed better returns. Much has been spoken about the enormous untapped tourism potential of other NE States like Aruchal Pradesh, Manipur, galand and Tripura. But, all these remain on paper with all the States plagued by connectivity issues in terms of rail, air and road links. Barring a few TV commercials celebrating the culture, cuisine and pristine beauty of Northeast region, nothing much has been done to improve the connectivity and accessibility to major tourist centre in the region. Successive governments in New Delhi promised a lot but delivered little on the ground to promote tourism in this region. The NDA government under Swadesh Darshan has identified 13 thematic circuits for development, with North East India circuit also among them. The sooner this project materialises on the ground, the better it will be for this employment-starved region. Tourism has high potential for inclusive growth and development in the Northeast, and must be tapped to the full by focusing on the right priorities.