BRAND AMBASSADOR - A right step at maybe the wrong time

The debate has started on who should have been appointed our Brand Ambassador. But without going into the merits and demerits in engaging any particular celebrity, we have neglected one most important thing – Whether we need a Brand Ambassador to promote Assam Tourism? The obvious answer would be a resounding yes. But before jumping the gun, we need to deliberate on a few pertinent issues before engaging ourselves with the Brand Ambassador.

First, what would our Brand Ambassador promote? Have we prepared a comprehensive tourism road map with clearly defined short term, medium term and long term goals in place? The obvious answer to that would be a big NO. The road map cannot be prepared instantly. The Government should first engage in a detailed deliberation with local stakeholders and experts and destination managers to come up with the draft – which can then be put to various tests and analysis to freeze it, which can then evolve over time.  Among other things, this road map should first identify the destinations which are already in the world tourism map and take appropriate steps to boost up the infrastructure and skill development in these places.

Let us first try to analyse the best known tourist destination in North East India – Kaziranga National Park which boast of some very good infrastructure facilities in terms of accommodation (mainly due to private participation). But it suffers from woeful shortage of trained manpower – be in terms of service or guidance or community participation.  It also suffers from lack of clean and hygienic public toilets where visitors can go and relieve themselves respectfully. And most importantly there is not a single modern health centre in place from Jakhalabandha to Bokakhat. Doctors and health services to cater to any emergencies for tourists is of foremost importance in a destination. So our approach to destination development should be case specific. For instance if we try to analyse the amazing bio diverse landscape of  Dibru Saikhowa National Park or maybe even Jeypore Forest Reserve and the contiguous Soraipong Forest Reserve (now Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary) we will find that these destinations lack even the basic of tourist infrastructure facilities, let alone skilled human resources. The lack of any research, focus and deliberations with experts in the field, have led to the Government ostensibly spending Crores of public money in places like Merbeel Sasoni, which can at best be defined as a beautiful and serene picnic spot. We are not trying to insinuate that good recreation facilities like these should not be developed, but the issue is of prioritisation and potential of a particular destination to be a standalone tourist attraction vis a vis other nearby destinations with proven potential (in this case Dibru Saikhowa or Jeypore or Soraipong). We need to work on our strengths, which is Wildlife resources and not on Wellness Tourism, which can come much later. The reasons for sheer negligence of these world famous assets can be directly attributed to the lack of a proper roadmap. Dibru Saikhowa is decaying painfully today because we have left its development or rather the lack of it to the whims and fancies of a few officials. So coming back to the moot question – should our Brand Ambassador promote these destinations with all its glories and fallacies, or should we first put our house in order before welcoming guests?

The second important thing that we need to address is what we call in tourism parlance as CIRCUIT DEVELOPMENT. Circuit development does not necessarily mean connecting and marketing two or more destinations as a circuit. It should also encompass some very basic amenities on the roads leading to the destinations in the form of visible, user friendly, clean and hygienic Wayside amenities – equipped with user friendly toilets, food joints and information kiosks at frequent intervals of 50 kilometres or so. It is not necessary that only the Government should these things, but they need to facilitate such ventures in partnership with private ventures keeping a strict vigil on the uniformity of procedures. These wayside amenities should become a part of the publicity exercise in tandem with the destinations being marketed.

The third, if not the most important issue is inculcating a sense of tourism friendly attitude in the state – right from the roadside vendors to the taxi drivers to the stakeholders. A massive campaign needs to be undertaken to create awareness among our people to ensure free and unhindered movement of tourists. The main obstacle to this would be the call for bandhs and road blockades by any Tom Dick and Harry at the drop of a hat. This attitude of ours has led to many an advisories being circulated by various embassies prohibiting their nationals to visit our state. Moreover the fact that we always feature in the National Media for all the wrong reasons have reinforced this view. A better and quick solution to mitigate this sort of negative publicity would be to invite the various embassy people to visit the state and they in turn can be our brand ambassadors. But then again, getting our house in order before inviting them would be a prudent way to go about things.

We have to live with the fact that we feature lower than even under developed states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa in terms of tourist footfalls – be it domestic or foreign travellers. And it is all the more sad that there is absolutely no dearth of tourism assets in the state – be it wildlife, nature, adventure, agro-tourism, etc. I recall a statement made by the Managing Director of Rajasthan Tourism on how they went about their job. They prepared a plan to ensure that one out of every 100 foreigner visiting India should visit their state in the next 5 years. This should scale up to 10 out of every 100 foreigners in 10 years, which in turn should scale up to 50 out of every 100 foreigner in 15 years’ time and ultimately to ensure that every foreigner visiting India should visit Rajasthan in 20 years’ time. This is what can be called a motivated and focussed attitude to improve the tourism scenario in a state. They went about their job with the road map in place. And the Managing Director was frank enough to admit that their state does not possess a fraction of the diversity that we possess – be it our culture, landscape, wildlife, handicrafts, music, dances, cuisine, dresses, etc.

So it is high time we pull up our socks and endeavour to realise the true potential of the state. The Government should play the role of facilitator to perfection and we the stakeholders and tourism professionals should play an active role in partnering the Government to ensure that our state achieves the highest pinnacle of tourism success.

Bhaskar J Barua

Wildlife Photographer and Conservationist, Agoratoli Resort
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