Prospects for tourism

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IT is apparent that Northeast India as a whole needs a big push or a kick-start to put the economy on the path of development. Looking East provides an opportunity to overcome problems of distance from markets. Tourism provides a marketable product which does not depend on raw materials from outside. In a comparable situation of economic doldrums in the ’80s, Mexico stepped out of the traditional models of economic growth to depend on tourism as an important input. This strategy showed remarkable results. Outlining the experience, Mexico’s planning minister summed up1 that tourism was relevant because –

* Agriculture and manufacturing are location specific, but tourism can be promoted and developed almost anywhere. It is therefore an ideal tool for decentralized regional development.

* It provides infinite product possibilities – anything under the sun if properly packaged and marketed – such as culture, heritage, nature, sun and beaches, cruises, business, conventions, spirituality, adventure, sports, ethnicity and so forth. The benefits are more spread out and not centred around urban areas as in the case of most industries.

* Being a personal service it is hard to automate and is therefore labour intensive.

* The foreign import component of investment in tourism is very low. In Mexico as a whole it was estimated to be 6-8% as against 35-45% for the automobile industry. In the case of the Northeast the component would be even more negligible. The tourist expenditure within the country is almost always equivalent to cash. It therefore has an advantage over traditional exports in respect of immediate cash flows.

* The multiplier effect of tourism is very high. The ripple effects are widespread and the benefits are shared by an incredibly large number of service providers, like lodgings, food and beverages, handicraft, local transportation, guides, shopping, entertainment, photography. In the total range of services, many of the service providers are not visible at all.

These are only some illustrative examples and all the observations are relevant to the Northeast. The employment intensity of tourism in the Indian context was demonstrated by an oft-quoted sample survey of the Ministry of Tourism.2 According to this survey, for every million rupees invested, at 1985-86 prices, the comparative employment generation in some of the sectors were as follows – agriculture 44.7, manufacturing 12.6, mining and quarrying 2.6, railways 0.9, other transport 13.8, tourism 47.5, and hotels and restaurants 89.0.

Another recent survey by the Ministry3 shows the impact of tourism on local level employment – about 96% of the total income of artisan households in Kerala and 90% in Rajasthan comes from tourism related income. The study also indicates that ‘tourism plays a vital role in enhancing the standard of living of the artisan families… As regards folk artists, their average per capita income during the peak season is nearly four times that in the lean season. …Share of female employment is the highest in the lower income segment of the artisan households.’

The tourism potential of the Northeast has not been fully exploited. The Ministry of Tourism calls the region a ‘paradise unexplored’. Global tourism has been booming and future projections show that this trend will continue. The new generations of travellers who are ‘money rich and time poor’ are increasingly looking for unique experiences. More and more people are looking at tourism as less of a journey and more of an experience – a phenomenon being called the emergence of the ‘experience economy’.

For these new and growing breed of tourists the Northeast with its variety and uniqueness holds immense attraction. The rich natural beauty and its diversity, exotic cultural and ethnic mosaic, flora and fauna and the serenity of the virgin, unexplored ecosystems provides possibilities of a totally different experience for the tourists.

The rationale for a trade led growth strategy for the Northeast integrated to the ‘look east’ policy has been well explained. The landlocked Northeast, it is explained, is ideally placed to link India with ASEAN both in a geographical and commercial sense. The Northeast also has strong cultural and historical linkages with the East, which could be exploited to forge economic cooperation.

So far as tourism is concerned, such an approach comes out of India’s tourism experience of the last decade. This was a decade of good growth thwarted by continuous crisis – the Gulf war, the nuclear tests and subsequent economic sanctions, the Kargil war, terrorist attack on Parliament, the Gujarat earthquake, the Afghan war and the Iraq war, just to mention a few. The infamous ‘advisories’ issued by the national governments in Europe and USA – the countries from where most of the tourists come – adversely affected the tourism flow to India. Globally, in the first three years of the new millennium, tourism saw many ups and downs. The wars and the 9/11 incidents, as well as the SARS, adversely affected tourism growth. Nevertheless, in almost 50 years since the World Tourism Organisation started keeping statistics, tourism growth has shown negative results only three times and two of them came during the first three years of the new millennium.

One key lesson learnt during this time was that in periods of crisis, regional tourism and domestic tourism is the mainstay of the industry. Unfortunately, Indian tourism depends heavily on the long haul tourists of the West. Whereas globally the ratio of interregional to regional tourism is 20:80, in case of India it is almost exactly the other way round. The marketing strategy of the Ministry of Tourism is now identifying new markets for tourism and this search is aligned with the ‘Look East’ trade policy.

Such a policy shift is particularly relevant and important for the Northeast. Because it is situated far away from the main entry points of tourists, the Northeast is at a disadvantage in attracting foreign tourists from the West. This is reflected in the negligible tourist flow to this region. In 2002, out of about 5.8 million visits to the states (by 2.75 m tourists), the Northeast received only about 22000. If the figures of Sikkim are excluded, all the other seven states of the Northeast accounted for only 12000 visits.

Looking to the East is fortunately a natural marketing option for the Northeast. By 2020 the Asia Pacific region will be the second largest tourist generating market in the world. The world tourism projection shows that by 2020 this region will generate 405 m of the total 1561 m tourists. These countries have continuous geographical land links with the Northeast. China is already vigorously developing tourism in its southern provinces to take advantage of this outbound tourist market of the region. These areas have cultural, historical and ethnic links with the Northeast. The tourism marketing strategy of the Northeast should focus on these links to establish a natural flow of people within the region, including the Northeast.

In such a strategy it will be of crucial importance to develop access to this region. Presently in the western tourist dominated scenario, access to the Northeast is seen as a constraint. While air access will have to be developed as a sine qua non of a tourism development strategy, fortunately, the Asian Highway Project is looming in the horizon as a great opportunity for the region. The Asian Highway, if properly planned and integrated, can completely change the tourism scenario of the region. It proposes to cover 90,000 km in 25 countries, of which 40,000 km will be international routes and 50,000 km regional routes. ESCAP, which is spearheading the project, recognizes the excellent tourism potential of the Asian Highway. It has already undertaken a survey to identify the potential and possible bottlenecks so that timely action can be taken to remove them.

Here is a golden opportunity for the Northeast to exploit. The plan of action for the Northeast with the objective of using the Asian Highway as its link to the East, could be, among others –

* The international route touches only a part of the Northeast. Therefore, integrated feeder communication links should be developed through the national and state planning processes, in consultation with ESCAP. This will require quick coordination among the states and identification of suitable implementing agencies.

* A comprehensive tourism potential survey should precede the planning of routes to form the feeder to the Asian Highway. Among other things, the routes planned should be able to serve and promote the most important tourism destinations.

* Tourism cannot be developed in a vacuum. It requires social and economic infrastructure for proper growth. As a first step to planning, a survey of the infrastructure gaps should be undertaken. Thereafter, the projects should be prioritized for their overall importance to the trade led growth strategy. A major component for tourism should be the development of wayside amenities along the Asian Highway and feeder routes. In Japan a concept of community based tourism and wayside facilities called ‘Michi-no-eki’ has proved immensely successful. Under this scheme, the facilities are community run in partnership with the private sector. The centres not only provide facilities, they also work as outlets for local handicraft and handloom products and showpiece local culture, cuisine etc. Such involvement leads not only to better economic benefits for the people, but also ensures better visitor experience.

If the very high expectations of the ‘look east’ policy unleashing economic opportunities through tourism is to become a reality, the Northeast must first make an assessment of its own comparative advantage and then plan strategy based on such assessment. The South Asian growth quadrangle of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) will also directly touch the Northeast. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has explored these growth possibilities with its South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) initiative. Under this initiative, the main tourism strengths of the region have been identified as (i) sustainable ecotourism and (ii) the Buddhist circuit.

In both areas the advantage of the Northeast is apparent. The SASEC concept of the Buddhist circuit is in fact very comprehensive. It goes beyond the traditional circuit of places where Lord Buddha lived, meditated, attained enlightenment and parinirvana. It covers places of living Buddhism like Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal (Tawang). Art, culture and archaeology of Buddhism are also integrated into the total Buddhist circuit concept. A significantly large number of tourists from the Asia Pacific region are Buddhists and, therefore, these attractions may open up interest in the Northeast.

What needs to be done? Unfortunately what is obvious is not always immediately perceived. This seems to be the case with tourism in the Northeast. Despite such obvious advantages, tourism has not played an effective role in the economic planning of the region, nor does its growth inspire any confidence. A look at the statistics shows that the unique resources of tourism have not been properly exploited. India itself is far from realizing its true tourism potential. But the figures for the Northeast compared to the national figures, are insignificant. The arrival figures of tourists both domestic and international make this abundantly clear.4





Arunachal Pradesh
































All India




The total number of approved hotels and the room capacity also shows the poor state of infrastructure.5


No. of approved hotels

No. of rooms

Arunachal Pradesh




















It is quite possible that the figures suffer from deficiencies in statistical compilation. So far as hotels are concerned, it is likely that most of the accommodation is in the unorganized sector and does not come under the purview of government. In either situation one cannot escape the conclusion that the state of affairs is far from satisfactory.

There is much to be done. If tourism development is not taken up with some urgency and in a planned manner it is quite possible that instead of tourism providing an economic push, in a liberalized atmosphere, the region may suffer from a reverse flow. In tourism, as elsewhere, if the goods cannot meet the competition, the outflow may overtake inflow. Some of the areas in which action is to be taken to make tourism an effective tool of development have already been mentioned. By way of illustration we can mention a few initiatives urgently needed at the macro level.6

Unfortunately, despite its comparative advantage in this area, tourism is not perceived as an important economic activity. The first task of the governments should be to create awareness about the place of tourism in general and of sustainable tourism in particular, in the socio-economic planning of the region. But such awareness creation efforts can start only when the governments themselves are convinced of tourism’s importance and provide it due priority in the planning process.

Most of tourism planning in the region appears to be ad hoc. It is essential to move away from such an ad hoc approach to draw up definite plans of action, charting out the future directions clearly. Every state must bring out a pragmatic tourism policy, not couched in general terms but clearly defining an implementable action plan. It should indicate the government’s commitment to sustainable tourism, the place assigned to tourism in broad development planning, the role of government and other key players. The policy should identify the organizational pattern to implement the policy and a system of monitoring and accountability.

A tourism policy would remain on the wish list of the tourism department alone unless it reflects total government commitment. Tourism being a multi-dimensional activity, depends on the involvement of many other agencies for its success. Other departments like roads, culture, forest and so on, can play an important role in the development of the total tourism product. For achieving maximum coordination, institutional arrangements should be put in place.

Domestic tourism plays a key role in Indian tourism. Against the average ratio of about seven domestic tourists for every foreign tourist in the total picture internationally, the ratio for India is about 100:1. In absolute terms the figure of total domestic tourists is about 300 million against three million foreign tourists. The Northeast has a insignificant share of this huge number of tourists who contribute to employment and income generation in other states. Movement of domestic tourists will gradually improve the image of the place and the demand created will lead to development of essential infrastructure. This process will then facilitate movement of foreign tourists.

Tourism planning for the Northeast states, whether aimed at the domestic or the foreign tourist, would be most attractive and cost effective if based on an integrated NE perspective. The attractions of the different states, rather than competing, should supplement each other and enhance the total attraction of the region. Unfortunately this vital necessity of projecting the totality of NE tourism suffers from two fundamental inadequacies: First, poor internal communication between the states. The road communication is arduous and time consuming. Air communication has of late improved, but is not yet tuned to tourism requirements. Coordinated planning of tourism for the NE is possible only when internal communication by air becomes efficient and reliable.

Second, the lack of an organizational setup. There is no organizational setup that can harmonise action for projecting NE tourism as a whole. Prospective tourists who wish to visit and sympathetic entrepreneurs who want to market the NE find it exasperating to draw up an integrated schedule for the whole region. There is too much of dependence on the government and too little incentive for the private sector to enable them to play an effective role. If tourism in the NE has to grow, a common platform of all the states, involving the government and non-governmental agencies, should be immediately formulated.

These are only a few illustrative areas where action has to start on a priority basis. The action agenda is long because the Northeast has a lot to catch up with. Human resource development, creating institutional arrangements for people’s participation, looking at ways to harness greater resources for tourism, creating public-private partnerships are some of the issues which will demand attention as tourism grows.

‘Even a five thousand mile journey must start with the first step,’ says an old Chinese proverb. There is a long journey ahead for the Northeast as it tries to look eastward. A beginning has to be made soon.


1. Antonio Savignac, quoted in Indian Tourism Beyond the Millennium by M.P. Bezbaruah, Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 1999, p. 125.

2. M.P. Bezbaruah, op.cit., p. 123.

3. Ministry of Tourism, Tourism Statistics, 2002, p. 117.

4. Ministry of Tourism, 2001, op.cit., p. 56.

5. Ministry of Tourism, 2001, op.cit., pp. 59-84.

6. The following section draws heavily from the author’s presentation, ‘Sustainable Tourism and Economic Development of the NE’, at a seminar organized by ICSSR, NEHU in Shillong, October 2003.