By Chandan Das
Initially, Nagpur-based marketing representative Binoy Bhandari planned his honeymoon for Uttarakhand's picturesque Ranikhet during the upcoming Durga Puja celebrations in October.Naga Ao tribesmen perform a traditional dance during the Ao Naga Tsungremmong Festival on August 2nd in the village of Longsa in Mokokchung district in Nagaland. The harvest festival of thanksgiving is one of several nature-related draws and activities for the region's growing tourism industry. [AFP]
But he was forced to alter his plans due to July's devastating floods, which claimed nearly 6,000 lives. Now, he plans to spend his honeymoon in Meghalaya.
Bhandari, fond of hill stations, saw the northeastern state as a good alternative. "I have heard that Meghalaya is the 'Scotland of the East' and presents a wide variety of opportunities to tourists," he told Khabar South Asia. "I have never visited the northeast, so when I cancelled my booking for Ranikhet, I decided I will visit Meghalaya – the 'abode of clouds'.
"Besides, touring the region is comparatively inexpensive and I can enjoy most of the benefits that I would have in Ranikhet," he said.
Located in the eastern lap of the Himalayas and rich in flora and fauna, the northeast is an ideal destination for eco-tourists. It is also a great place for explorers and adventurists, with trekking activities, wildlife tours and river cruises.
Increasingly, domestic and foreign travellers are visiting the region. Citing official statistics, Finance Minister P. Chiadambaram in February told parliament, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh witnessed a 41% surge in domestic vacationers, while Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura registered a 29% rise in international visitors.
"We are facing a surge of tourists, something we never experienced before," Anup Barua, representative of Guwahati-based Rhino Travels, told Khabar.
Less violence means more visitors
Industry officials say a sharp drop in violent activities carried out by separatist insurgents has contributed to the recent boom. With some militant groups hemmed in by tighter security measures, and others seeking out a peaceful avenue for pressing their claims, the northeast is starting to shake off the taint of lawlessness.
According to E Mkul Mehi, an executive member of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI), past concerns about security, the lack of modern facilities, permit requirements and restricted flight options are outdated.
"Things have started changing after the government revoked the Restricted Area Permit (RAP)/ Protected Area Permit (PAP) mandatory for foreigners visiting Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and northern Sikkim in December 2010, and (also) a sharp decline in militancy," Mehi said.
The area has long been restive, with a wide variety of movements agitating for special status. In the past, their activities were a significant deterrent to visitors.
"There are about 100 major and splinter militant groups in the northeast demanding autonomy, sovereignty and even special status for different ethnic groups," Ranjit Upadhyay, managing director of Dimapur-based Deeksha Enterprises, told Khabar.
He said the groups engaged in subversive activities like abductions for ransom, blasts and murders "to keep people from other parts of the country from visiting the northeast states".
But Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi says the various militant cells no longer wield the clout they once had, and some are interested in laying down arms and becoming part of the democratic process.
"Extradition treaties with Bangladesh and (Burma), closer ties with Bhutan, a series of ceasefire agreements with United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), Indian Mujahideen (IM) and other militant groups, and isolation of these groups restored peace in the region, thereby helping to promote tourism."
Gogoi is hopeful for an Indian northeast tourism circuit with other states, as well as countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma.
Kolkata IT software developer Abhendu Chowdhury was geared up to spend Durga puja vacations with his family in Darjeeling. But separatist agitation in West Bengal caused them to re-book a tour package for Assam.
Like Bhandari, Chowdhury has not previously been to the northeast. "I decided to visit Assam because it offers me river cruises, visits to wildlife sanctuaries and the exotic tea gardens," he said. "I want to spend a few nights on a treehouse and also pray at the famous Kamakhya Temple."