Guwahati’s Huge Potential as Tourist Destination Needs a Little Planned Govt Push
With the state government announcing a budget of Rs 300 crores for promotion of tourism in Assam, G Plus offers an introspective report and a reality check on the potential that Guwahati holds as a tourism destination by itself rather than as a transit point.
At a time when the Assam Government is spending crores to promote tourism in the state, G Plus took stock of what Guwahatians’ feel about the tourist potential of the city. Citizens of the city were asked a few questions regarding their idea of Guwahati city itself as a tourism destination.
Q. Where would you take your friends who are visiting from outside the state for a tour in the city?
The most prompt answer to this question was Shillong. Others answered Kaziranga, Bhalukpung, Arunachal and such.
Q. What about taking them sightseeing in Guwahati?
Kamakhya temple, came another quick answer, probably Umananda said another.
Q. Where else?
Guwahati is known as the “city of temples” so maybe we should visit a few temples. But not all are interested in religious places. Many expressed concern about the lack of heritage and entertainment sites.
What could be concluded was that most Guwahatians feel there is no tourist market in the city.
Amidst all controversies, the government is all set to hold the Filmfare Awards in Guwahati claiming it would be a major platform to promote tourism in the state. Further, enormous amounts are also being spent on road shows across many metropolises of the country and abroad.
But the largest city of the state as well as of the northeast, having a rich historical and cultural heritage, and being picturesquely located as an amphitheatre amidst wooded hills, remains only a transit point for tourists due to lack of tourism resources and infrastructure.
A chat with few tour operators of the city and a look at their popular itineraries showed that most had only a few temples and Pobitora on their list. Assam Tourism has however added a few other attractions to their travel guide like the Tea Auction Centre, the “scenic tanks” viz Dighalipukhuri, Nagkata or Nagpota Pukhuri, Jorpukhuri, Silpukhuri as well as Deepor Beel, Pobitora, Amchang, also the Lachit Borphukan statue, Dr Bhupen Hazarika Samadhikshetra, Sualkuchi – the silk hub, Hajo, Madan Kamdev and Tegheria waterfalls.
Bidyarnav Borah, Deputy Director of Assam Tourism, added a few more to the list like the Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, State Zoo and State Museum, and river tourism. He further said that cycling and trekking have also been introduced in many parts of the city with help from the Assam Tourism Development Corporation (ATDC).
However, a reality check of most of the above-mentioned sites is highly disappointing. Apart from the Dighalipukhuri, the other mentioned “scenic tanks” of the city are slowly degrading and requires urgent revitalization. Deepor Beel, a Ramsar site wetland, is being threatened by urbanization activities and pollution.
Talking about the Sankaradeva Kalakshetra as a major tourist attraction, Borah said, “We have been appealing to the government to set up a ‘light and sound show’ to showcase the history and culture of Assam. This would add a major attraction for tourists. However, due to various departmental shortcomings, we are not able to proceed with the project. Many a time the fund sanctioned have also been reverted.”
Ranjeet Das, President of the Tour Operators’ Association of Assam said, “We are hoping to develop Kalakshetra on the lines of Chokhi Dhani in Rajasthan, where visitors could get a feel of the Assamese culture and lifestyle. However, no steps have yet been taken.”
Archaeotourism hit by lack of professional guides
Although the city has great potential for Archaeotourism, archaeological sites are not conducive for revenue generation till date. While the majority of the monuments and historical remains are on the verge of destruction, most others are major religious sites and have not been taken up for tourism.
Historical enthusiasts and tourism experts have opined that every temple has a different story and historical/mythological background. Only the discerning eyes can see the different layers of architecture from different periods in one single monument. And to present this to the common public, the city needs good guides who could present the city in all its grandeur.
The Tourism Department provides crash courses for interested guides but the results aren’t satisfactory. Various tour operators have expressed their concern regarding the lack of proper guides for the few tourists who are interested in touring the city.
Nirmalya Choudhury, Executive Director of Jungle Travels India Pvt Ltd said, “A few years ago, we had been searching for guides and had even got the list of associated candidates from the tourism department. We tried to contact almost every individual on the list but found none who are interested in the job.”
He further said, “In other states, apart from the professional guides, students from history, museology, archaeology and tourism courses are deployed in the various sites for the benefit of the visitors. But in Guwahati we have no such provisions.”
Further, the Assam State Museum has a rich collection of various epigraphy, sculptures, natural history, arts and craft, folk art, anthropology, stenography, and even Asiatic journals apart from sculptures, figurines, and artefacts from various eras excavated from the region. However, the displays have not been upgraded for quite some time and artefacts not appropriately exhibited. Also, lack of informative and qualified guides is a point of major concern.
Choudhury suggested in having more engaging activities within the museum to attract tourists. Citing the example of museums from other parts of the country he suggested having similar innovative exercises like instant coin making through metal stamping, tying traditional headgears and wearing traditional clothes for photographs and such. These would also serve as good sources of earning revenue for the museum.
Adventure tourism in and around the metropolis possible
Given that Guwahati is bordered by the foothills of the Shillong plateau on the south, the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary on the east, and has many other hills within the city limit along with the Deepor Beel and the Rani Forest Reserve, there is immense scope for adventure tourism. In recent years, many prominent tour operators and adventure enthusiasts have set up cycling and trekking trails to attract tourists as well as local adventure seekers.
Natventure, an adventure tourism company has been promoting nature tourism in the northeast based on cycling, trekking, caving, and camping experiences. Supuraj Gogoi and Jitu Pegu, founders of the organizations say, “Adventure tourism is still in the infancy stage here in Assam though we have immense scope given the variety of terrain and climate. We endeavour to bring out the adventure possibilities of the region and facilitate the same.”
Jitu however added, “Our on-field experience has made us realize the serious lack of infrastructure at places that are frequented by adventure tourists. The need for better roads, better lodging facilities and supervision of the same have to be emphasized.”
Similar initiatives have also been taken up by many other operators of the city. Rongmon Tourism Society has been exploring the potential of tourism at Deepor Beel and its periphery. Their itinerary includes birding and boating at Deepor Beel, rock climbing, trekking at Rani Reserve Forest, rural and eco-tourism at Chattergoan village and the Thiyapani waterfall (a 40 minute walk from the village). They have also undertaken beautification projects around the wetland and the nearby forest as well as tribal areas.
Emphasizing on the beauty and diversity of the area, the agency’s travel guide reads. “It will provide the tourist an opportunity to know about the life of the indigenous people in rural Assam.” Apart from providing participants with a socio-cultural scenario of the people of rural areas, eco camps are also set up to engage the local communities under the Home Stay concept of the Assam Tourism Department. “It has the potential to generate tremendous tourist movement and business potential, given the area has the advantage of being the gateway to Guwahati as the airport is located nearby.”
These are just two of the many organizations that have been working for the upliftment of the city and its surrounding areas as an excursion hub. Although initiatives are being taken, lack of proper infrastructure has been a major setback in this regard.
When asked about the expectations from the government, Supuraj said, “Marketing our products in an attractive manner and that too with official collaboration will help to convince travellers, especially those from overseas, about the quality of our services. Besides, we expect the government to work on the infrastructure aspect as well.”
Heritage walks in Guwahati can be a distinct tourist attraction
In October 2019, the Assam Tourism Development Corporation started a new initiative by the name “Guwahati Heritage Walk” so that tourists could get to know about the culture, heritage and history of the city. Jayanta Malla Baruah, Chairman of ATDC, inaugurated the tour for visitors. The walk started from North Brook Gate of Panbazar which then proceeded to Cotton College, Latasil, Jorpukhuri, Uzanbazar, Chattrakar Devalay and ended at Raj Bhawan. The primary objective of the tour was to showcase the heritage sites in Guwahati to domestic and foreign visitors early in the morning. However, after the initial walk, the project has not been functional.
Nirmalya Choudhury has presented wonderful ideas on various walking tours that could be undertaken for tourist. “The Brahmaputra riverfront market in Fancy Bazar has been an old trading hub. Their contribution to the city’s economic glory can’t be overlooked. If proper information is collected on their past and efforts made to collect old photographs and memorabilia of their early trading activities, the place could also be included in such heritage walks.”
Choudhury and Ranjeet Das have also thrown across the idea of preserving heritage homes in the city. Many others have mooted similar views.
It is to be mentioned that no known initiative has been taken by the government of Assam to protect the heritage homes and homes of prominent personalities in the state. As such, many buildings have already disappeared and what remains are mostly in dilapidated condition. Interested Guwahatians have expressed concern over the issue.
Nirmalya Choudhury has cited the examples of preserving and exhibiting prominent buildings in Kolkata and in Europe and said that the government could provide support to the families in the preservation of such ancestral properties.
A few tourist experts have said that these homes could be converted to heritage hotels and cafes so that revenue could also be generated for maintenance.
Although immense possibilities of converting Guwahati into a tourist attraction have been given more research and development needs to be done before the ideas are further developed.
Could tea tourism be a possibility?
Assam has been synonymous with tea ever since Briton Robert Bruce claimed to have discovered it in 1823. With more than 800 major and 60,000 small tea estates spread across 3,00,000 hectares, Assam has the world’s largest concentration of tea plantation.
However, these tea estates are concentrated mostly in upper Assam and other places far from the main metropolis of Guwahati. As such tea tourism has not been included in the tour guides of Guwahati.
Experts and tour operators have come along with the idea of such possibilities. Choudhury suggests guided tea tours to the tea business houses across the city where visitors could be educated on the many different varieties produced and given a taste of the same. Also, tea tasting tours could be introduced within the city as is already present in the tea estates. The tour could be ended with a visit to cafes serving varieties of Assam Tea as well as local delicacies.
In this aspect, Guwahati has no known eminent and affordable tea lounge. The Guwahati Tea Auction Centre is one of the busiest tea trading facilities in the world located in the capital area of the state. They had set up a lounge, called “Chai Bar” last year that houses a tea restaurant that offers different varieties of tea like Assam Orthodox, Crush Tear Curl (CTC) second flush, specialty teas, autumnal and other varieties. But the high pricing has been a setback for tourists who wish to enjoy a cup of the famous produce.
Guwahati has major potential for River Tourism
Guwahati is a major river port city as the mighty Brahmaputra flows through the very heart of the city. As such, experts and tourists expect to see much potential in river tourism. However, not much is developed in this aspect. The Ministry of Tourism, in answer to a question by Queen Oja regarding the development of the Brahmaputra as a world-class showcase/benchmark project to spur river tourism development across the nation, in the Lok Sabha in July 2019, stated that “Development and promotion of tourist destinations and products including river cruise circuits and implementation of tourism projects is primarily the responsibility of the respective state government/union territory (UT) administrations. However, the Ministry of Tourism provides central financial assistance (CFA) under relevant schemes to state governments/union territory administrations and to central agencies for various tourism projects including cruise terminals and cruise vessels, subject to availability of funds, submission of utilisation certificates for funds released earlier and adherence to the scheme guidelines.”
However, no such known project has been undertaken by the government to date. The only eminent cruise offering such tourist entertainment is the privately owned Alfresco Grand. It offers evening tours daily across the river where visitors could enjoy a magnificent sunset and even a two-hour long dinner cruise that also showcases live cultural performances and historical documentaries.
A few other such cruises have also been newly established with the old ‘Jolporee’ cruise being revived into operation.
Debajit Kumar Borah, Director of Brahmaputra Cruise Pvt Ltd that owns the Alfresco Grand said, “With development of the infrastructure, Guwahati could be set up as the country’s river tourist destination. I would also like to appeal to the government and ATDC that any development done along the riverfront like the city beautification projects must be done in consultation with the stakeholders of such tourist and river-based businesses so that even we could benefit from the same.”
Tourists and tour operators have equally applauded these activities but have expressed the desire for more such cruises.
There is also equal potential of beach cricket, beach volleyball, water rafting, canoeing and wind surfing, kayaking and aero sports like ballooning, paragliding and hang gliding as are already been presented in the Brahmaputra Beach Carnival that is organized in collaboration with the Assam Tourism Development Corporation (ATDC).
Lastly, the city along with the state have every scope of emerging as a major destination for MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions, or meetings, incentives, conferences, and events) tourism wherein large groups, usually planned well in advance, are brought together for a particular purpose.
As the government is spending crores in hosting the Filmfare Awards in an effort to correct the image of the state as a safe destination for tourists, a little effort on the development of infrastructure and promotion of the already present tourist activities would go a long way in retaining brand “Awesome Assam.”