By Chitra Ahanthem
“Is Manipur tourist friendly?” happens to be a very popular question doing the rounds in the virtual sphere(read internet, and particularly social networking sites). Those saying “Aye” point towards the emergence of a fancy hotel in Imphal that looks like a 3 star hotel and even has a behind the scenes bar with drinks served in open spaces (Manipur being a dry state besides having the moral guardians on prowl means all other hotels also serve guests in their room with inflated bills); the setting up of tourist parks around the state and plans for hotels on the card. Those shouting out “Nay” to the question points out to the lack of footfall of tourists to the state despite the lifting of the PAP for foreigners; that the filth in the city keeps away people and that it is better other people do not see how much of dirt Imphal town is living with anyway; that law and order is a big turn off for people to visit the place.
To begin with: we must first look at what the Tourism department has set its visions on as part of the “Incredible India” brand. On the national domain, the “Incredible India” brand and media campaign is pitched on the unusual sights, sounds and experiences of India: its people, places and culture. The media advertisement campaigns are full of colour and there is a dedicated handbook along with a web site, brand ambassadors, tourism festivals etc. The problem with the Tourism department in Manipur is that it has not broadened its own horizons. Unlike many other states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or even our next-door neighbours like Assam and Meghalaya, there is no separate buzz being created to highlight Manipur. Tourist information on the state is left to a few insipid web sites and annual calendars that decorate Government department offices.
A genuine reason for not pitching the state may well be the fact that infrastructure for tourist footfall is not up to the mark at all. Apart from the one fancy hotel and its bar, the Government related hotel in Imphal is notorious for its total unprofessionalism: room service and the in house restaurant never ever give service within time (some guests that I had recommended the hotel to stay in came back with feedback that a breakfast order would be served at lunch time, lunch at dusk and dinner immediately after dusk!). The guest-houses at certain places that I know of (Sendra for one) are falling apart while the matter of whether civilian guests are allowed to stay there lies unknown. If there are other guest-houses anywhere else, we are none the wiser about them.
The setting up of tourist parks here, there and everywhere is mystifying: at least for me. They have been set up with huge costs but with what purpose? All they seem to attract are Manipuri film crews and youngsters with cameras in tow. Will we wake up one day to see a surge of tourists going to these “eco-parks”? But when people do not come to the state, how can they go to the said parks ever? If they came, what is there in the parks here that they have not seen in parks in their own home state? Are there indigenous crafts stalls around the parks? No. Are there decent food stalls near the parks (apart from the perennial dark roomed “Fast food” places)? No. So? Who goes? Sadly, not even many local people head to the parks (apart from film crews and young people dating).
Yet, not everything is lost for the state has great potential that needs to be strategically thought of and implemented. The 9 districts of the state have their own unique locations and the gifts of nature: greenery, hills, meadows, small lakes and water falls, peaks and places for sighting birds. Every community in Manipur has their own colourful festivals and dances which can be pitched for tourist tours (think the boat race in Kerala or the Rathyatra festival in Puri, Orissa that brings in thousands of tourists). More pressingly, there has to be support systems in place for receiving tourists and ensuring that they have experineces that they will recommend to other people. Yes, hotels and transport facilities in the state are practically non-existent at present. It would be mistaken to be content with good places to stay in Imphal only: every district should have facilities for private stays in hotels. Or there should be well oiled (read, run efficiently) Government tourist lodges in the districts. There needs to be conversant tourist guides (does the Kangla Fort even have a guided tour for tourists who are interested?) as also setting up Government approved vehicle rates. This is mainly because most out of Imphal travel is taken either by the NGO community or media people who come in from outside the state who hire privately managed vehicles. End result? Inflated travel costs for the common folks!
Tourism in the state is in its infancy given the lack of support systems. But all it needs is for out of the box options and rising up to the challenge. The Tourism department needs to also think of bringing in other people and agencies (the Churches can be brought in as an integral partner in the districts as providers for home stays for a fee given the lack of accommodation facilities). They would do well to also study neighbouring Nagaland and its famed Hornbill festival to begin with: how it is pitched and what it comprises of; how the state works with different stakeholders (bloggers, travel writers, photographers) to ensure maximum visibility. The world of possibilities are endless given the range of places, festivals, food and culture that exist in the state and all that is needed would be concerted efforts for the Tourism Department to think a bit unconventionally.