Tuesday, January 11, 2011

India lifts travel curbs in three states

NEW DELHI: Mr Sandipan Ghosh, a tour operator in north-east India, has been busy sending out messages to his contacts abroad on how the government has lifted restrictions on foreigners travelling to three states there.

These states in north-eastern India - Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland - are steeped in history and ethnicity, and possess some breathtaking natural beauty.

'We are reaching out to more people - foreign agents and foreign tourists - to put across the message that restrictions are being waived,' said Mr Ghosh, chief executive of Eastern Meadows Tours.

The government for the first time in 52years waived requirements from Dec30 last year for foreign nationals who want to visit these states, in an effort that is expected to boost tourism.

Previously, foreign visitors had to get a permit costing US$50 (S$65), and had to travel in groups of four for a limited number of days.

The three states are slowly emerging from their days of insurgency but find themselves lagging behind many other parts of the country in terms of growth and development.

Insurgency in the north-east has been quelled through peace talks with different insurgent groups. In Assam, Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, the biggest regional insurgent group, was released from jail for peace talks.

Manipur and Nagaland, which were sites of battles during the Japanese advance on India in World War II, are now hoping to attract more tourists from the East, particularly Japan.

'We have received many queries from Japanese tourists in the past. But the permit system was seen as an impediment. Now that it has been lifted, we expect to see many tourists, especially from Japan,' said resident commissioner of Manipur Bhawan Rakesh Ranjan.

Among the attractions in Manipur are a sacred place for Hindus in Kaina and the Khwairamand Bazaar, which is run by women.

In Nagaland, there are tribal villages like Khonoma and Dzulekie that are famous for their waterfalls. Mizoram has the Paikhai Tamdil natural lake and the state's highest peak, Blue Mountain.

But it is early days yet. Though the government order is out, dismantling the system and changing perceptions will take time, travel agents and residents say.

Bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Bhutan, the eight north-eastern states - which include Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Sikkim - have long remained a less travelled path, even for Indian tourists.

With the permit system being lifted from the eight north-eastern states apart from Arunachal Pradesh, tour operators are getting ready to package tours.

'You don't come all the way from Europe or other countries just to look at rhinos in Kaziranga (national park)... We can blend cultural tourism, tribe visits, festivals and wildlife tourism into one experience,' said Mr Pradyumna Dutta of Network Travels, a travel agency.

Analysts believe the government's move also reflects the fact that the states are moving towards normalisation.

'Some of the north-eastern states were considered to be sensitive areas, apart from having border problems and insurgency. But I think we should consider this a process of normalisation,' said Lieutenant-General (Retired) S.K. Sinha, former governor of Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir.

For Assam resident M. Gyaneshwar, the move removes a psychological barrier about people from the north-east.

'Foreigners can now move around freely,' he said.