By Patricia Mukhim
Very few local people would want to venture out to any of the tourist destinations with their family members for a relaxing weekend. The reason? Every tourist spot is over-crowded with tourists from Assam. The number of Assam registered vehicles every weekend has gone beyond count. And the State of Meghalaya with a Government that boast of a ten-billion dollar economy does not even know how to handle this crisis which could actually lead to the destruction of the tourism industry – the only clean, green, non-polluting, non-invasive and employment generating industry. Why can’t those in the Government think that if tourism is killed it is equivalent to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, for, as of now there is no other industry that is possible in the foreseeable future – what with extortion from every quarter, particularly from so-called pressure groups that cherry-pick issues and with each one contesting to prove who is more patriotic than the next.
On Saturday last while returning from the Umiam Lake area after a tree-plantation programme, a group of us saw tourists parking by the roadside and cooking Maggie noodles on a gas stove and other utensils they had carried along with them. Just about 500 metres away were roadside stalls that also serve Maggie noodles amongst other things but the Assam tourists were just not willing to spend an extra buck on food. With me was Roma Nongpyiur who retired as a senior officer from Government of India Tourism Department. We both stopped to talk to the tourists and asked them why they came all the way and grudged the little that they needed to spend on food. The tourists gave some wishy-washy replies but they were not the only ones. All along the way from Umiam Lake onwards up to Sohra we will see such people spreading their wares and eating by the side of the road.
The other aspect is that unlike Sikkim we in Meghalaya have lost the battle of using local cabs to ferry tourists to different destinations. This of course is an organic industry and should be an entrepreneurial venture by someone with a good business plan but we don’t have such an entrepreneur, sadly. Those behind the wheels in the Assam vehicles drive like crazy; stop wherever they please and don’t seem to care if they create a traffic jam. They are arrogant and insolent to say the least. Sometimes we hear of tourists being beaten up in some distant part of Meghalaya. With the attitude that tourists display, one is no longer surprised that they would be roughed up by locals who resent the intrusion and the arrogance both. It actually takes two to tango.
On Saturday last, I took some guests to the Arwah Cave. The number of visitors there was mind blowing. Does the Tourism Department not understand that there is a carrying capacity beyond which any destination will collapse? Why can’t there be a limit to the number of visitors to the cave? Each visitor is paying Rs 50. If there are 500 visitors, the collectors are actually raking a cool 25,000 bucks a day and believe me on a given day there are more than the above cited number.
Go to the Kynrem Falls on the Shella-Sohra road and the number of tourists there too is mind boggling and there is no one to collect any tourism fee there. So, it’s a free for all show of a magnificent waterfall. The only visible structures there are small shops selling Uncle Chips and other predictable knick-knacks along with betel nut and leaves, cigarettes et al. We have not learnt to add value to our tourism assets.
Let me now come to the Mawmluh cave which is now made famous after it was selected by UNESCO as one of the first 100 among the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), Geological sites in the world and for geological dating – the Meghalayan Age. This 7 km long cave is a like a fairyland inside. I had the joy of being part of a caving expedition along with the faculty of Martin Luther Christian University in May this year. While there are a group of young men as tour guides at Mawmluh and they are courteous and knowledgeable, they need to learn to tell stories to interested and curious visitors. Cavers of course have to rent a suit, helmets with lighting facilities and gumboots. At some point the climb is high and I recall a guide telling me to put my weight on his thigh so I can climb up to the next level of the cave. There are places where the opening is narrow and we had to crawl on our stomachs and at other places we had to wade through waist length water. It’s one of the most interesting learning curve and a memorable expedition – my second after Krem Kotsati which was led by our local speleologist Brian Kharpran and his team. The Mawmluh cave is currently being polluted by the waters flowing from a drain cum canal adjacent to the near-defunct Mawmluh Cherra Cements Limited (MCCL).
Many are of the opinion that the MCCL establishment which has stopped producing cement for over decades, should now be converted into a multi-purpose performance centre cum museum where the geography and history of the Mawmluh cave could be narrated to visitors before they actually enter it. A tour operator said that would fetch more employment than Government continually pouring in money into a dead project just to pay salaries.
Bansan Lyngdoh, a tour operator who has set up camp sites and homestays for tourists beyond the Mawmluh cave at a place he calls the 100 waterfalls is now teaming up with the Tourism Department of the Martin Luther Christian University to create awareness among the youth, women and the local dorbar of the area on how to conserve the cave even while it is being thrown open to tourists; the number of footfalls per day that will make it sustainable for the long run and also to inform tourists about respecting what they are stepping on and what they are touching inside the caves. A story book for children in Khasi and English, explaining the geological formation of the caves – the stalactite and stalagmites and the lives inside the caves such as fish and bats are explained in an easy readable format with illustrations by noted artist Carreen Langstieh is in the offing. This is a value chain that’s needed for every tourist destination. The locals should be the primary stakeholders and not just a few tour operators. In fact, the locals are the best conservators of their piece of paradise.
Meghalaya is truly a beautiful part of this earth and even those of us who see these sights and sounds all the time cannot but be overawed by the sheer beauty of nature. But as usual it is us humans who are also nature’s worst enemies. We are the worst polluters and irresponsible vagrants. It is important for the Tourism Department to come up with strict rules and regulations. Tourist destinations cannot exceed their carrying capacity. Meghalaya is not for mass tourism. Mawlynnong is one such destination which has lost its charm. Nongriat too is getting overcrowded and the Living Root Bridges will soon crash if the number of visitors per day are not restricted.
Granted that the Tourism Department cannot do everything especially enforcing rules and regulations but each destination must strictly implement the rules that dictate the carrying capacity of each place per day. We don’t want to reach a point where like in Italy and other places in Europe the locals get so sick and tired of visitors that they stone them. Too much of everything is bad and over-tourism will kill Meghalaya’s tourism prospects.