Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
If any particular sector of the economy was hit the most by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the tourism and hospitality sector, as shutdowns to prevent the outbreak and the resultant closure of economic activity for few months brought the country to a grinding halt. And since the first lockdown of March 2020 till date, the tourism industry is yet to regain its past momentum and quantum, given the prevalence of the virus in varying degrees in the different states.
Fortunately, the spread of Covid 19 is relatively lesser in the North East as compared to the regions like Maharashtra and South India, where the number of cases and the detection of newer strains pose a greater threat. This is why, in South India, different regions have put different restrictions on the movement of men and materials and for this reason, economic activity has not picked up to the pre-Covid levels. But in the Northeast, the situation was always under control, with few scares of the virus running amok.
The previous two waves of the pandemic, and the prospect of a third wave looming large across the country, combine to clobber the tourism industry on which the North East depends for jobs and livelihood. The hardship for the seven sisters can be easily understood as the tourism sector is worth Rs 5000 crore approximately per annum. All this has been totally lost for the past two years.
But, going forward, there is some good news, as the tourism sector is beginning to reopen – albeit trifle slowly given the Covid appropriate behavior that is the need of the hour. Let us, in the overall interests of the region and the people, err on the side of caution.
Over the last few years, the central government has given special attention to tourism in the Northeastern region as it can be an alternative to European locations, especially for the regular travellers on holidays. The centre has identified the potential of the Northeast to offer adventure sports, scenic beauty, and climate to domestic and foreign tourists. But, despite having the choicest destinations in Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, they could not utilize the opportunities as adequate support was not forthcoming from successive governments at the centre.
But over the past few years, fast track development of infrastructure – connectivity and transport – has opened up the North East to tourists from India and abroad. Under the North East Road Development Scheme, the connectivity issues are getting resolved. Recent data from the region indicates that the domestic tourist arrivals were on the rise, barring the two Covid hit years.
The state governments in North East are also trying to sell their respective regions as locales for filmmaking. A central government initiative to set up a Film Studio in Sikkim and the opening up of Film and Television Institute in Arunachal Pradesh are steps that will eventually add to the tourism sector, one way or the other. Medical tourism can be another potential stream that these states could concentrate on to cater to people from across the border say from Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal.
Why the tourism and hospitality sector needs the holding hands of the government are because it was the first sector to be shut down and the last to open – even now, hospitality and tourism sectors are operating at less than optimal level, both on account of Covid guidelines as also lesser demand owing to the uncertainty posed by the pandemic.
There is no doubt that if exploited smartly, the tourism and hospital sector have the potential to earn substantial revenues for the states. But more importantly, the livelihood options tourism brings to people from remote and inaccessible areas is well worth the effort. But yes, the entire Northeast can do with a focused and systematic hard sell of the region as an aspirational place to visit. What is needed is an integrated approach to promote tourism in all seven North-Eastern states as a single branded entity, in the overall interests of the people of the region.
Although the foreign tourists are high spenders, it is often the smaller spending domestic tourists who oil the engine of the economy in these parts well oiled and running efficiently. For sure, the Northeast can be the destination for mindful tourism – and especially domestic tourists have now graduated on to be spending for peaceful holidays amidst serene surroundings with unalloyed nature for company.
In fact, a small section of the Indian working class, used the lockdown to lockdown, work from home opportunity in a manner that could form the template for the future. There were many youngsters and middle aged, people who took the opportunity presented by lockdown to hop into their personal vehicles, and park themselves in remote and yet accessible by internet places and work from there.
My own cousin, who works with a big American Corporation from India, spent one month each in all the five other southern states – he himself is from Telangana and is so kicked up with this work mode as he intends to do a North East journey on and for work.
If we take up adventure tourism, the market potential is huge, at least close to Rs 2000 crore as per rough estimates.
In Assam alone, places like Dima Hasao, Bogamati offer huge potential for adventure tourism, but to exploit that what the state needs is a business-savvy marketing mind, that can add more zing to the staid tourism department that often appears to be out of tune with the current day requirements, in the day and age of technological innovations and advances in social media marketing to boost tourism. The focus could be on domestic tourism as is also shown by numbers that the Indian is travelling far and wide, within the country and outside, for rest and recreation.
But yes, all these are possible, if and only if, we are able to contain the second wave and take full precautions and prevent any more major outbreak of the pandemic.
Covid is over, but problems of the North East linger on, laments a friend who is into organizing tours and hikes in the North East, selling the concept and product across South India, digitally and otherwise as well.
Sikkim has already opened for tourists, while Assam and Nagaland are planning to withdraw restrictions now, as the positivity rate has taken a dip. As also the increase in the number of vaccinated, is giving each state in the region confidence that they would be able to face and overcome any other waves. Today the situation is different in that people by and large are aware of Covid, appropriate behavior, and how important it was to protect themselves and those close to themselves.
For the present, we as a society are also not doing too badly.
Our pace of vaccination, as well as quantum, have gone up considerably, raising hopes of being able to contain any future aggravation of the pandemic.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman