Meghalaya: Of overheated tourism destinations

Patricia Mukhim

Those interested in reading up on Tourism, particularly students and teachers of Tourism Departments in colleges and universities would have come across the terms “overcrowding”, “overtourism” or “tourismphobia”. These terms will be unbundled a little later but I am sure readers would already know what I am alluding to. Those who have visited Mawlynnong, the famed cleanest village and Nohwet where the Living Root Bridge is located know these are tiny hamlets that have now become overcrowded with too many footfalls and uncaring tourists.  They are loud and disrespectful of the ambiance which is otherwise a paradise of serenity. In the daytime the village descends into tranquility as mothers put their babies to sleep. The little huts are not sound proof hence loud tourists are like irritants. The villagers feel the intrusion into their peace and sanctity.

Mawlynnong is now over-heated and there is no way to reverse the cycle. Day travelers from Assam now land up in those Winger buses, spend a few hours and return. There is very little that is available at Mawlynnong which tourists can buy and carry back with them. Mawlynnong as a tourism product is under-priced; hence it does not attract high paying tourists who look for more undiscovered, offbeat destinations. There are tour promoters for such locations and they do good business even while the tourist feels she has had a great time. I have several friends that are tour promoters but who also believe in responsible tourism. Even they are wondering how long tourism in Meghalaya can hold out.

Take for instance the Mawphlang Sacred Grove. I visited the grove last week just to spend some precious time with nature but that was not possible. There were strings of visitors and of course the tour guides did a fabulous job of explaining every aspect of the grove such as the tree that bears the rudraksh seeds and the name of the other trees inside the forest. But one does not enter a forest to chatter. You can do that in some café. But the bulk of Indian tourist who has probably never seen a forest does not know that a respectfully silence is what forests demand – more so a sacred forest. The sound of birds chirping each producing their own tunes were lost on the garrulous tourists. What’s the point of coming to a forest and miss out the sounds of nature. The reason is because there is no pamphlet that explains how tourists should behave when they enter such a place. They are only told that they cannot carry back anything from the forest. That really does not explain the sacredness of the Mawphlang forest. And on New Year’s Day or other such occasions there are locals who come from the city and drink and make merry just outside the forest and leave their junk behind. I am surprised that the Shnong and the Sordar have not made this place out of bounds for bibulous persons because they actually destroy the sanctity of this sacred grove, even though they may be paying Rs 300 to be there. Tourism is just not about making money; it’s about conserving culture and retaining what nature has bestowed without choking it to death.

There are do’s and don’ts followed by people in countries like Norway for instance. They encourage tourists to come outside of peak times of the day, and the season to lessen the footfalls. Alex Dichter, a senior partner of McKinsey & Company consultancy, had produced a report on managing overcrowded tourist destinations. He says curtail the arrival limits and adjust the pricing so that destinations get quality tourists without being overburdened. Those that come would be people interested in the culture and customs of people here and not the type who just want to fill their smart phones with pictures of exotic locations without taking back any learning.

Dichter proposes one solution to the problem of too many tourists. He says, “spread them over a larger area.” Meghalaya is not the only state reeling from overcrowding of tourists. Other countries too face similar challenges. The Niagara Falls on both sides of the borders (US and Canada) is choc-a-bloc with visitors. Barcelona is at breaking point too. So Dichter says that while there are neighbourhoods that are overwhelmed, there are others that can handle more tourists. The problem is with our own promotion campaigns. We promote only a few sites and the most obvious ones. Tourists should be dispersed by trying to pull them to less popular yet attractive destinations. If such destinations are not there then it’s important to develop one. For now even Laitlum is overcrowded and the locals now avoid these crowded destinations. A time will come when nothing will be available even for a quiet family picnic. We would have sold every inch of nature as if it belongs to us.

Alex Dichter’s report on managing overcrowded tourist destinations, produced by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and McKinsey & Company attempts to understand the nature of the problems at hand, and to identify specific solutions which can make a real difference. The report highlights five types of problems (a) alienation of local residents (b) constrained infrastructure (c) diminished tourist experience (d) damage to natural resources (e) threat to cultural heritage. The solutions proposed are practical. They include smoothing the visitor numbers over time, spreading visitors across sites, and adjusting pricing to balance supply and demand, regulating accommodation supply and limiting access and activities. This helps develop a system to enable destinations to understand their specific situations and early warning signs. The problem is that there is no one here to read the signs and respond accordingly.

It is time for the Government to rope in an independent agency to make a heat map data and study which destinations in Meghalaya need to pull back. The problem of overcrowding should be based on an analysis of tourism data as well as research on specific destinations and interviews with tour operators, tourism authorities, hospitality providers, transport managers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities, and think tanks. It is imperative that local tourism managers work with all public and private stakeholders to develop a coherent plan to create and manage tourism growth that puts people and communities at its heart. This is the only way to sustainable tourism and it will have positive impacts not only for those who host tourists but also provide memorable experiences for the travelers who choose to come here.

an example of a European country that is overheated is Venice. The locals complain that its capital is being overrun by visitors. In May 2018, the city council erected pedestrian gates across main entrances. When the crowds get too thick, the police close them down and limit access to locals who possess a special pass.

Amsterdam is facing a similar problem in having to deal with curious, noisy tourists. The locals are fatigued by having to put up with stag parties where tourists mix alcohol and cannabis and leave their litter behind. In fact, tourism in Europe has taken an ugly turn. In July 2018, protesters attacked tourist buses in Valencia, Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona (where one piece of graffiti read: “tourists go home, refugees welcome”). Hence the word, “overtourism”, is coined to describe the consequences of having too many visitors.

I had said this before but it bears repetition. The double decker living root bridge at Nongriat is already feeling the heat. So too the living root bridge at Nohwet. The roots that are plaited to form the bridge are all frayed and stones and cement are being used to hold the roots together. Obviously this is a bad practice.

Thankfully a young man – Morningstar Khongthaw has emerged as the saviour of these bridges. In 2016 he started rounding up a few volunteers to safeguard these root bridges. He has very aptly stated that the root bridges conceived by his Khasi ancestors should not be reduced to mere tourist attractions. He explained that the ancestors made these bridges for practical needs to cross streams and rivers. Now they are just a spectacle with people trampling all over them with their shoes on.  Khongthaw has been working to preserve the bridges by fixing the old ones and building new ones. Working under the banner of Living Root Foundation, since 2018, Khongthaw is a glimmer of hope in a society where greed has overtaken need and where only a few tour promoters actually understand and practice responsible tourism. A good number of destinations run by the locals have now lost their character.

But this is bound to happen when the State has no Tourism Policy worth its names and no guidelines on conserving tourism sites. Also, Meghalaya should learn from Sikkim where West Bengal taxis are not allowed into the State. This would help the transport operators of Meghalaya to also earn their livelihoods from transporting tourists.

We still have a long way to go but by the time we understand what tourism actually means we would have lost out.