Homestays, Boatmen and Tourism in the Times of Corona

Meghalaya is one of the most popular tourist destinations in our country. Every year, people come here from all over the world. To say that tourism has been hit hard this year would be an understatement. More so, since a large chunk of income generation in the state from the private sector comes from tourism. It is no surprise that most of the homestays and eateries are not open. Only small paan shops and tea shops are open in the small hamlets we crossed on the way to Dawki.

Sunday Shillong caught up with people in the Shillong-Dawki road to get a glimpse of how Pandemic has affected those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the tourism industry.

Kynjai Hillside Homestay, Meghalaya Hillside Highway B&B is run by Hawson Khongsit, and is located in Siatbakon. Speaking to him, we got an idea of how the Pandemic has affected tourism in the region. The virus has hit the local entrepreneurs in the region. When asked if the Government helps them in any way, he said that most people take bank loans in order to open their business ventures. For now, they manage on their own. Their area falls under Ri War Madanlyntad.

On enquiring about marketing, Mr Khongsit said how they have tie ups with AirBnB which does the promo for them. In normal times, tourism season begins from March up to July, with June-July being peak seasons, where all of their 6 rooms are booked. 75% of the customers come from Guwahati. Tourists also come from New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore, among other places. The location of their home-stay is such that people find it easy to reach spots like Dawki, Mawlynnong and Shnongpdeng. Most tourists prefer off beat home-stay experience where they can explore traditional agriculture, music and food. Many people also come here for a spiritual retreat. The silence and the general ambience of the place is what tourists coming from the metros, cherish.

Khongsit stressed on the importance of promotion of tourism in the state. Since this industry is still developing, he feels that the Government must step in. Perhaps, the tourism department can have subsidies for home-stays. They also have the potential to generate a concrete employment opportunity for people living in the area. Tourism, he feels, should be strategic and meticulous and one that should benefit the poor people of the state.

For now, all issues entrepreneurs face here are raised via the Tourism Department and one has to register with the same. It is interesting to note that TripAdvisor is banned in some parts of the country because of issues with paperwork and regulations that are needed to be adhered to, for promotion on the website.

Our conversation then shifted to how local politics has also crippled the budding tourism sector. It is a cautionary tale of how political values can help usher in progress or become an obstacle. He hopes that the government will be able to handle the situation on ground, in a post-Covid world.

Boatmen of Dawki

Walking around Umngot River in Dawki in East Khasi Hills, we saw a few tourists. The boatmen out of job for nearly 10 months now keep looking for potential customers with a penchant for boating on the crystal clear waters of the Umngot river. Looking a bit lost and forlorn, they are also hopeful that things will improve, now that tourists can come in after months of Lockdown. Their livelihood depends on the presently empty boats, softly floating on the banks of the river. Speaking to a few boatmen, we got to know that they are earning about Rs 1000 per day with tourists slowly pouring in.

On the other side, Bangladesh is visible. A rock separates the two countries even if border identities are fluid. Under normal circumstances, hawkers also come to sell their products. They start in the morning and go back to Sylhet in the evening. It has been lockdown for them as well. A humorous banter between a boatman and a hawker ended up in the former addressing the latter as, “Aye Bangladeshi”. Both of them laughed and their camaraderie showed us how meanings change with changing contexts and topographies. Both of them are dependent on tourism and on each other, a symbiotic relationship that flows like the graceful river.

As we took a boat ride, we could see some of the boatmen take to a new trade of selling different food products like chana, chips and even beer on their boats. A few of them took to their fishing rods and it made us wonder if this has become an alternative source of income for the boatmen in 2020. As we rowed, tents were visible. A table and few chairs lay in silence, dusty, a stark reminder of how people depend on tourism.

Sunday Shillong also spoke to a young tourist couple who had come all the way from Gurgaon. Both of them work in Government sectors. As soon as they heard that Meghalaya has opened its doors, they planned a spontaneous trip. When asked how they felt, given months of Work from Home experience, they smiled and told us how they needed a break.

Next, we drove all the way to Shnongpdeng in Jaintia Hills. Mr Geneva Lamin, the Secretary, Village Defence Party (VDP), there told us that it is closed owing to the Pandemic. However, it will be open for tourists from January 5, 2021 onwards in the hope that fresh Lockdown is not declared. When asked why the place is still closed, Lamin said the people of Shnongpdeng have to be made aware of the Covid protocols and how to maintain those protocols once tourists arrive; the social distancing, masking etc, that are imperative to keep Covid at bay. Hence the delayed opening!

What Now?

Meeting people from different economic strata showed us how connected we all are as economic units. What we may often take for granted is how making a travel itinerary can make or break lives of the people here, most of whom come from poor families.

As the year draws to a close, perhaps, the citizens of Meghalaya can come up with ideas on how to help those from the marginalised sections of society. If anything, Covid-19 has taught us the value of compassion and empathy. If our economy is to bounce back, should we not come together to ensure that 2021 is a better year for those whose lives are dependent on the tourism industry?

(With inputs from Patricia Mukhim, Editor, The Shillong Times)

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