What do tourists want?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on society and the economy across the world.
What do tourists want?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on society and the economy across the world. Both developed and developing economies have been badly hit. The marginalized groups and the most vulnerable sections have been hit hardest of all. It is in this backdrop, as the economies across the globe begin to recover, that the restart of tourism is expected to help kick-start recovery and growth in a significant manner. The benefits this will bring must be enjoyed widely and fairly. Keeping this in mind, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has designated World Tourism Day 2021 as a day to focus on Tourism for Inclusive Growth. This is also an opportunity to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that, behind every number, there is a person, whether in the city or a faraway village beside the road to a remote tourist destination. It is in this backdrop that UNWTO has this year asked its member countries, as well as non-members, sister UN agencies, businesses and individuals to celebrate tourism's unique ability to ensure that nobody is left behind as the world begins to open up again and look to the future. Celebrated on September 27 every year since 1980, World Tourism Day is also a special occasion for fostering awareness of tourism's social, cultural, political and economic value and the contribution that the sector can make towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. It is important to keep in mind that tourism is not necessarily only about rich foreigners visiting various destinations. Yes, rich foreign tourists do contribute in a big way to a destination country's overall economy. But then, domestic tourists make valuable contributions, particularly to the local communities in various ways. They stay in smaller facilities run by local people, buy things from local communities, consume local food in low-cost eateries, travel in local transport, and often interact with the local communities, in the process taking back numerous stories to relate to their friends and relatives. When facilities are good, clean, decent and reasonable, when the behaviour of people offering various services is amiable, when there is no fear of getting fleeced or cheated, then tourists will take back these positive experiences. But when the place outside the railway station is dirty, when the local bus station or taxi stand is strewn with garbage and rubbish, when restaurants (and particularly the toilets) are dirty and stinking, when taxi drivers, rickshaw-pullers, shopkeepers and hotel employees all appear to be in a mood to loot or cheat the tourist, there is every possibility of the visitors carrying back and transmitting to their friends, relatives and acquaintances all negative stories about a place. This in turn will discourage fresh tourists to visit such places. In Assam, wayside eateries, dhabas and restaurants – whether along the highways or in major stop-overs like Nagaon, Kaliabor, Jakhalabandha, Bokakhat, Moran, Biswanath Chariali, Barpeta Road – are yet to become tourist-friendly. Things are worse when it comes to taxis, autorickshaws and even the so-called long-distance luxury buses. While Kamakhya has emerged as one of the cleanest and best-maintained destinations, most other destinations abound in the garbage, plastic and polythene and all kinds of rubbish. The government of Assam in general and the tourism department, in particular, have a very important role to play in improving the overall environment of the various tourist destinations. The local authorities, including the local MLAs and MPs too, have the vital responsibility of ensuring that the various stakeholders are duly oriented about various aspects of tourism. Most important is the local products that tourists would like to carry home. Unfortunately, in none of the major tourist destinations in Assam – including Kamakhya and Majuli – tourists find any locally produced handicraft or handloom product or souvenir worth carrying home. In other states, the locally produced items not only contribute in a significant way to the total tourism revenue but also provide major livelihood and income to the local communities. This has happened even though Assam takes a lot of pride in her handloom and silk tradition. In Kaziranga, however, wooden replicas of the rhino, crafted entirely through individual enterprise, has emerged popular, though there is enough scope for improving the quality of these replicas. About publicity, Assam probably is yet to learn a lot from neighbouring Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Bhutan. All these states ran a sustained social media campaign despite the pandemic and lockdown, thus engraving in minds of people across the globe a positive picture of these places.

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Sentinel Assam