Tourism Economics: Not just Wanderlust
Travel is not only about scenic delights but also about experiences – human, communal, cultural, ecological and even spiritual. It is about being in the ‘unfamiliar’, letting the mind wander in the lanes of natural and man-made surroundings. It is about interacting with people, understanding them, building bonds and creating what we know today as ‘global village’.
Sadly, in this Covid-19 world we are all living, the travel industry has taken the roughest fall. It is, no doubt, a no-brainer; but what is being ignored is that since the industry revolves around keeping tourists happy and equipped with whatever they need during their time away from home. It has close connection to the hospitality industry, the transport industry, the food and beverages industry, the entertainment industry and more. One fall thus has had a domino effect, one which will continue to keep down the economy unless we pull up our socks.
In our twenty-first century world, travel is not a luxury of the affluent; it is a way of life. Which is why, tourism is not merely about international or high net worth Indians and their high value spending; it is also about wanderlust-filled youth, middle-class, and even low-income families whose spending are volume-heavy and worthy for the economy.
Therefore, for those who think that a swift restart of the tourism sector in the country should be last on the list of public policy priorities, I say that we dare not miss the woods for the trees. We must, in fact, take the ‘travel bubble’ leaf out of New Zealand-Australia’s book – both of which, after slowing the spread of Covid-19, have given primacy to reopening their borders and introducing ‘safe tourism’ between the two nations.
Speaking from personal experience as an industry professional in the northeast for donkey’s years now, I know how significant each cog in the tourism wheel is, especially in northeast India where the sector is valued because of the communities it supports and how it honours Incredible India’s ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’mantra. I know of several tourists who, to this day, keep in touch with their tour guides, tourist drivers and other travel industry professionals with whom they would have bonded with during their trip. I also say with great pride that 99 per cent of our industry professionals are invariably marked ‘Excellent’ on Feedback Score Sheets. Such is the 24-carat worth of the tourism industry here; besides, of course, the fact that it fuels and grows many other areas of the region’s economy.
Northeast India’s tourism sector is about the holistic experience that we offer. It is about an ‘awesome’ experience of our land, culture and cuisine and, most significantly, interactions with professionals whose best efforts make a tourist’s visit memorable. It is about the chauffeur-guide who escorts the tourist, the vegetable and the meat sellers who provide ingredients for their khana, the mahout who takes them on the elephant safari, Jeep drivers for game-viewing, the chef who cooks up the perfect meal, the hospitality executive whose smile and warmth makes the tourist feel at home, the amateur bird-watcher who enlightens on an endangered species, the crafts person whose handicrafts and handlooms become the dazzling souvenirs to carry home – and so much more that cannot be listed here. It is how we hold up to the world the best of the best image of an Incredible India, and a more Incredible Northeast.
Today, as lockdowns are being lifted and countries are reopening intra-travel, we can at least begin to prepare for the ‘new normal’. Our marketing efforts can be on communicating the safety of our tours. Our pricing can focus on domestic travellers. Our emphasis can be on short local tours and road trips – at least until the fear of using other modes of transport dissipates.
The cooperative Australia-New Zealand ‘travel bubble’ plan expects to go a long way in the economic recovery of the two nations in the post-Covid world. For India’s Northeast too, the essence of the plan can be our shepherd. The region’s tourism industry, with the proactive support of respective state governments in terms of policy and finance, can start promoting its own ‘zonal travel bubble’. And, it is only one of many more such recovery plans that hold promise for leveraging tourism rupee to support industry professionals and dependent communities.
Our region is a treasure trove of sights, trails and stories – all of which are hidden along known and unknown paths. With 2020 set to pass as the year of ‘staycation’ and ‘near-cation’, travel could be confined to what many will think, like I did decades ago during my Barapani trip, in the backyard. Take for example two little-known treasures that await discovery in Assam itself – the bell-metal craft village of Sarthebari and the Hargilla Army village of Dadara, where women sing and weave to conserve the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork. It is a beginning on good wheels, an idea for repairing our world.
The tourism industry needs to survive. Ideas are aplenty. What will finally work though is clarity of policy and a hard core financial package – both of which need to be initiated by the government.
[The author is the Chapter Chairman of North East, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI. The views expressed in the article are his own.]