Meghalaya tourism: Headed for a crash
By Patricia Mukhim
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has acclaimed that tourism in Meghalaya is booming. Before he says anything more, I would request him to walk in the shoes of the common man (if he knows what that is considering that he has been a child of privilege throughout his life), and then see how it feels like to travel to Sohra, Dawki, Jowai et al on the weekends. I say that the CM should be a common man so that like the ancient king he can travel incognito to find out the plight of his subjects. And that means he should drive his own vehicle and have no entourage before or after him either of cops or camp followers. Only then will the Chief Minister know that on weekends the local people here have to content themselves with remaining indoors. They can’t think of a family outing because every space is invaded by day travelers from the neighbouring state (I don’t have to spell the name. It starts with ‘A’ and is currently ruled by Big Brother -Dada).
Meghalaya is not just any place. It is intended to provide a different experience. The environment is the selling point here. The environment is a living being, not a stone structure or a temple. Here we have resplendent waterfalls, picturesque canyons, green forest canopies and just nature. But what needs special mention are the Living Root Bridges some old and others newly discovered. Every newly discovered destination is assaulted by visitors who don’t have the faintest idea on how to value these unique resources. I am not sure if the Tourism graduates we turn out are engaged in creating narratives that give these unique spaces a more nuanced perspective.
Let’s take the instance of the Mawphlang Sacred Grove. Tourists enter the forest without understanding the sacredness of that space. ‘Sacred’ would imply a reverential silence and appreciating the ancient wisdom that made our ancestors conserve the trees inside that space without having been educated on modern environmental concepts that the forest is a feeder of catchments and nourishes rivers downstream. There is no need for the guide to give a running conversation and for the visitors to cackle on and on and disturb the peace of the place. A pamphlet that explains all aspects of the Sacred Grove can be included as part of the entry fee which I feel should be raised to a reasonably higher price. “Law Kyntang,” does not translate simply to Sacred Grove because modern man no longer considers anything sacred. Kyntang means that something is considered holy and deserving of respect especially because of a connection with a god. Are we as locals of Meghalaya even conscious about this sense of sacredness? If we did would we be drinking liquor and other intoxicants just outside the Sacred Grove? But that’s because those guarding the place have not been able to instill in visitors this sense of exclusivity. I don’t suppose that those guides are trained enough to create that feeling of awe and respect among those visitors into the Sacred Grove.
In a recent article, Albert Thyrniang rued the fact that he and his friends had to pay entry fees at the Wards’ Lake and the Lady Hydari Park (now called the Phan Nonglait Park) . Why not? Every space needs to be maintained; someone has to clean and pick up the garbage and return it to its natural shape after the thoughtless, shameless visitors have dumped all their trash here. In fact some of the places like Tyrchi Falls near Jowai charge far too less – a mere Rs 20 – for what is a spectacular waterfall that gushes down about a 100 feet tall precipice. The hills and dales, the waterfalls, caves, forests, living root bridges, forests and the cleanliness and silence around these spaces are our only tourism resources. If these resources are exploited beyond their capacity to regenerate themselves then we are actually killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Meghalaya is not meant for mass tourism even if the Chief Minister rejoices in the tourism boom judging only by the footfalls of day tourists that don’t spend their nights in homestays or hotels; use their own vehicles and return to their states by evening. All that is added to the Meghalaya eco-sphere is pollution, traffic jams (again something that VIPs like the Chief Ministers are spared of) and a lot of garbage left behind by unthinking, grossly overrated ‘tourists.’
What Meghalaya needs is ‘Niche’ tourism. We need tourists to book online stating the destinations they want to visit and also pay online. Those running these destinations should be able to handle such digital payments and also put a cap on the number of tourists per day they wish to have for the Double Decker Living Root Bridge and other root bridges. We can’t have hundreds of tourists on a given day trundling on the fragile “Living” root. Sometimes one wonders whether the locals themselves understand the meaning of “Living Root” and hence their nonchalance about the number of visitors allowed, so long as they get to pocket the money which is a pittance considering that these bridges are rare and are repositories of ancient wisdom. Without our own people understanding the value of the environment and its bountiful gifts how can we expect tourists to respect the same? I often wonder if we humans can claim the right to sell the environment and who has given us that right? No wonder nature takes her own toll by way of flash floods and landslides and what have you? The more the onslaught on nature the more is the likelihood of it fighting back.
Khasis call nature “Ka Mei Mariang” but they now don’t seem to care to exploit it to its bare bones. Everything today boils down to just one thing – MONEY. Sure we need money and we need to create livelihoods through tourism but not in the manner we are doing right now. Right now no place is sacrosanct and everything is lost out to crass commercialism which is what Mass Tourism does. And Mass Tourism is what destroys destinations around the world until people wake up and realise their mistakes and redeem what they have lost. But sometimes that realization comes far too late in the day and regenerating a tourist destination is no longer possible.
So yes, we don’t need to be told that the tourism destinations of Meghalaya are over-heated. We see it unfolding before our eyes. Tour operators and hoteliers may think this is pouring cold water on their ambitious plans but some truths have to be told and told plainly. Meghalaya has a Tourism Policy dated 2021. This Policy is generic in nature and over-ambitious. It does not spell out the meaning of “sustainability” mentioned there. So let me tell the Government what is no longer sustainable. Its when the local people dare not come out on weekends and holidays because their sights and senses are assaulted by the ubiquitous tourists. Indeed on weekends, the local populace just cannot venture out to any of the tourist destinations. They are crowded and there’s unending traffic jams along the Upper Shillong road right up to Sohra and beyond. People from Assam come on day trips in Assam vehicles and spend close to nothing in Meghalaya. People just discard chips packets and cans and bottles of juices they have bought from the local vendors.
The beautiful sights and sounds are all sold too cheap. Visitors to the awesome Tyrchi Falls in Jaintia Hills pay only Rs 20 per head to watch what is one of Meghalaya’s luxuriant waterfall whose height is nearly 100 feet. Below the waterfalls are lush green fields of rice fed by the water from the waterfall. Charging Rs 20 for such a delightful natural beauty is short-selling Meghalaya.
The Vision Statement of the Meghalaya Tourism Policy, 2011 is, “To position Meghalaya as a preferred tourist destination by taking advantage of its rich cultural heritage and natural beauty”
On the execution part the Policy says, “Tourism development will be undertaken in a manner so as to ensure sustainability and conservation of the state’s environment and natural resources. Development of tourism activities around natural resources will be done in conjunction with the relevant Government Departments and in concurrence with any laws relating to protection and conservation. Sustainable development of tourism will also help generate employment for the local people without impacting on environment and local culture. Well, nothing of this is happening.The Policy naturally says all the right things to make it look good but what’s on the ground is nothing close to what’s on paper.
There is the point on – “Wellness, Health & Herbal Tourism – Spa holidays are becoming popular these days. Meghalaya has immense potential in this segment and can be a leading player in health and wellness tourism where professionally devised programmes can be initiated and delivered like yoga centres, ayurvedic treatments, rejuvenating treatments etc. Bestowed with an abundant variety of medicinal plants, the state could promote Health & Herbal Tourism. The indigenous people with their inherent knowledge for herbal medicines and massages that provide holistic healing and rejuvenation will be encouraged and promoted. Areas and locations having valuable medicinal plants will be identified for the purpose of conducting educational herbal trails. Existing herbal medicinal centres will be encouraged in a regulated manner which shall form part of an important component of wellness tourism.
I have looked high and low and not found a single herbal healing centre!
This part is only wishful thinking on paper. The Tourism Policy needs a massive revamp!