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Is there any special road map for leveraging tourism in the state?
A roadmap for Meghalaya tourism is the need of the hour, especially in these times when tourism is going through a major inflection point. It is important that a proper long-term road map for tourism be conceptualised by the government in consultation with experts from the industry as well as different stakeholders.
Besides a tourism road map, the government needs to work on a pan-Meghalaya rural master plan and invoke by-laws regulating construction in the rural areas, including towns and even villages and forest areas. Laws to restrict construction within a certain distance from lakes, rivers and streams are the need of the hour to preserve environment as well as to reduce pollution. The government must also enact a balanced law curtailing highrises around these eco-sensitive areas and to ensure maintenance of adequate green coverage per land holding. For example, in many of the coastal areas, construction is prohibited within a specific distance from the coastline and height of buildings cannot exceed 33 ft, that is the average height of coconut trees.
Does upscale tourism for niche clients appear on your road map?
Meghalaya’s major USP for tourism is its pristine nature. However, in the absence of an intelligent road map, excessive tourism could be a major detriment to sustenance of our USP that is our quaint villages, rivers and streams, groves, lush meadows and the quiet and serene countryside.
Exotic locations have limited carriage capacity and therefore it is important to determine the carrying capacity of our different rural destinations in terms of the amount of tourism these destinations can cater to. One way of maximising our potential in terms of tourism while minimising the threats of overwhelming the local eco-system and ecology is by catering to lesser number of tourists but creating the destinations in such a way that they attract the high-spending tourists with high per capita income, especially in the fragile hotspots.
Places like Shillong with large carrying capacity may be planned to cater to the larger masses and facilities may be built accordingly in and around the city.
Subsequently, major towns like Nongpoh, Jowai, Nongstoiñ, Williamnagar, Baghmara and Tura can be developed as tourism hubs to feed peripheral rural destinations where development of infrastructure may be regulated as per their respective carrying capacities.
What are the main hurdles in the way of tourism growth in the state?
The major hurdle that we face today is the lack of adequate infrastructure in terms of world class amenities and facilities. The lack of an airport where Boeings and Airbus’ can land is another major handicap. Accessibility is non-negotiable in the modern era. Perhaps a high speed modern luxury rail network on the lines of the Euro rail could be planned between Shillong and Guwahati airport to bridge this lacuna.
Which are the new sites which you think have the potential to be tourism hotspots?
Almost every part of Meghalaya can become a tourism hotspot. But to get there, we need to ensure that the current emerging hot spots such as Umiam, Shnongpdeng, Dawki, Mawlynnong and the areas in and around Cherrapunjee are planned, regulated and developed intelligently. Thereafter, other locations will emulate these hotspots and growth will be organic.
Now that law and order has been restored, how do you plan to promote Garo Hills?
The potential of Garo Hills is tremendous. They have Balpakram National Park, Siju Bird Sanctuary, the Nokrek Bio-reserve that can attract nature lovers and tourists with special interest.
However, Garo Hills still needs a lot of marketing and publicity for tourism to grow there. The silver lining is that the road infrastructure in the districts there has improved over the years. But a lot of marketing and confidence building measures still need to be undertaken along with infrastructure development in terms of places to stay.
The Centre has a special fund for religious tourism. How are you utilising it? Which sites have you identified under the category?
We have not yet studied the provisions of this special fund.
There are some Hindu religious sites too in Meghalaya. How are you planning to leverage those?
The Hindu religious sites such as Nartiang and the Mawjymbuin in Mawsynram have potential in attracting religious tourism .
The Shivlings being promoted at Mendipathar, which are maintained and looked after by Garos, who are Christians, for Hindu pilgrims from across the state border has not only a tourism potential but can be promoted as an example of communal harmony.
How well are you equipped for restoration and preservation?
The responsibility of restoration and preservation of heritage sites and structures, rivers, streams and forests is largely a state subject and I hope that the government is looking into this as an important objective and mandate of theirs. Civil society and the community at large can play an important role and partner the government in this regard. After all, the people are the primary stakeholders of all state assets and nature’s gifts.
Nartiang, for example, has been neglected for years and is now in the midst of an imbroglio. How do you plan to solve this case for bigger gains?
This is beyond the ambit of an NGO like MTDF.
Over the years we have seen the state’s reluctance to heritage. The city could have been a fantastic heritage site. Has the forum thought about urban heritage?
It is important to evolve and enact a concept plan to restore and protect the various heritage sites and structures around the city. Shillong’s heritage is an aspect that sets it apart from most other towns and cities. We hear that the government has a plan to improve and restore the beauty of the Shillong Golf Course. We also need to look at decongesting the city by building more parking facilities, walking paths and more green spaces, parks and open areas for people of the city to utilise and for tourists to visit. We need to recreate the feel of Shillong being a hill station and associate the city with parks and trees rather than cars and concrete structures.
What will be your broader message while promoting tourism in Meghalaya?
My broader message while promoting tourism will be to sensitise our people to understand that the real asset of the state is its pristine and unmatched nature. The more we preserve it the more valuable Meghalaya will be as a tourism destination.
What exactly is the role of the forum? Does it have the muscle to move the right chords in the policymaking process?
The Meghalaya Tourism Forum played a major role in brand building Meghalaya and Shillong in particular at the turn of the century during a time when the state was emerging from an era riddled with socio political upheavals and turmoil for over two decades. We also played an important role in promoting the concept of tourism and its importance in livelihood creation and overall development of the state amongst our people as we realised that the people had to first accept tourism rather than look at the visitor as a threat and with suspicion.
Today the forum is embracing itself to help promote the concept of sustainable tourism as a means to promote and safeguard Meghalaya’s position as an upmarket tourist destination for the discerning and conscientious visitor. We also see responsible tourism as an important vehicle for facilitating preservation of the environment and as a major growth denominator for the development of the state as well as a major livelihood provider going forward.
Meghalaya can become one of the best places in the planet to live in and to visit if we put all our resources together at this crucial juncture to promote Responsible Tourism and organic agriculture.