‘Restricted entry hindering tourism growth in northeast’

September 15th, 2008 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Mani Shankar AiyarNew Delhi, Sep 15 (IANS) Contrary to what the government says, tourism experts believe the restrictive system of entry to several states in India’s picturesque northeast is a big hurdle for those wanting to visit the region.”The restrictive entry system in some states in the northeast is one of the bottlenecks which projects a wrong image of the region and discourages tourists from visiting the region,” M.P. Bezbaruah, the former tourism secretary who hails from the northeast himself, told IANS.

The northeastern region, which consists of eight states, each with a wealth of natural heritage, has ironically not been able to cash in on its tourism potential, failing even in the domestic market.

For instance, despite boasting of rolling meadows, tea gardens, hills, varied tribal cultures and wildlife parks, the region gets only four percent of the five million foreign tourists to India.

The restrictive entry system, which requires special area permits to visit the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, is often cited as one of the main bottlenecks.

For these states, a foreign tourist has to travel in groups of four and go through a government approved travel agency. The permit’s validity is also for a stipulated short period of time. This is done for security reasons as many states in the northeast are border states and are home to insurgent groups.

To travel through north Sikkim, an Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required.

However, there are no restrictions while visiting Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, the minister for Development of the North East Region (DoNER), has said the permit system is not all that complicated and that tourists can travel without much hassle.

But Bezbaruah said this is one factor that hasn’t helped stakeholders like tour operators in boosting the region’s prospects.

“The restricted area permit system, some at the central level, some at the state level, would have their justification. More so, if the security is at stake. But the end result is that the tourist finds the entire process very hassling and is deterred from coming to the region,” he said.

Manoj Jalan, vice president of Purbi Discovery, a tour operating agency that has been organising tours to the northeast for years now, said it was a pity that now, when other states are diversifying into different tourism sectors - monsoon and medical tourism, for instance - the northeast was still far behind.

“The northeast is an emerging destination, with a wealth of natural beauty. To simply state a few statistics, of the total percentage of tourists that India gets, northern India gets the chunk at 49 percent.

“Western India gets 29 percent, southern India gets 18 percent and northeast India - just four percent,” Dibrugarh-based Jalan said during a visit to Delhi.

Jalan, who has been working in the sector and is familiar with the ground realities, laments that the restricted area permit is one of the constraints in promoting tourism in the region.

“We know that the insurgency problem here is a constraint. But then, which region is free of any problem? The fact is that people, even at the centre, are not aware of the ground realities here and promote a wrong image on safety issues.

“The policymakers need to take a hard look at the realities and, in association with the private sector, play an active role in promoting tourism - whether it’s tea tourism, botanical, cultural or wildlife - in the region,” Jalan said.

Bezbaruah added: “Tourism requires awareness - of the people, the policy planners and the industry - about its importance for socio-economic development for it to grow. Unfortunately, such awareness is not in strong evidence in the northeast though everyone talks about it.”

“Let’s start with promoting domestic tourism to clear wrong perceptions,” he said.

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