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Foreigners flock to Seven Sisters

- Easing of permit norms fuels tourist rush to Northeast

New Delhi, Aug. 5: They have been coming, thousands and thousands of them from across the seas, drawn by the mystique of the Seven Sisters.

They don’t want comfort; it’s the pull of remote terrain and ethnic tribal lifestyles that has fed their wanderlust.

According to the latest tourism ministry figures, the number of foreigners heading for Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, the seven states that make up the Northeast along with Sikkim, has gone up dramatically over the past year.

Manipur, for instance, has seen an increase of over 154 per cent, from 749 in 2012 to 1,908 last year. Arunachal Pradesh, considered India’s Orchid Paradise, has logged a 111.2 per cent rise. Overall, the increase has been 27.9 per cent — from 66,302 in 2012 to 84,820 in 2013 — in these eight states.

Raktim Bezbaruah, CEO of Grand Eastern, a travel and tourism agency that specialises in in-bound tourism in the region, confirmed the rush of foreigners. “Over the last couple of years, there has been a huge jump in the number of foreign tourists visiting the Northeast because of the government’s relaxation of permit norms,” Bezbaruah said.

Bezbaruah was referring to the protected area permit that foreigners needed to enter Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. The ministry of home affairs lifted the restrictions in 2010 and have now extended the relaxation till 2016.

While restrictions still apply to the whole of Arunachal and parts of Sikkim still have areas that require foreigners to apply for permits to visit them, the tourism department has simplified the process and been granting permits within a day. No such restrictions apply to Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura.

So what is the secret of the region’s allure? “The Northeast offers unique identities and a biodiversity that foreigners flock to see. The foreigners who come have very basic demands. They don’t want four- or five-star deluxe hotels. At times they prefer to stay with local residents,” Bezbaruah said.

Neharika Sahgel, of Liza World Travels, a government-approved tour operator in the region, agreed. “All they ask for are clean washrooms.”

They just want to walk through the paddy fields and experience the tribal lifestyle, Bezbaruah added.

Hundreds of ethnic communities live in the Northeast, each with their distinctive traditions.

In its 2014 budget, the tourism ministry has set aside 10 per cent of its plan allocation for the Northeast. Asked what the government needed to do to draw more foreigners to the region, Sahgel said “better roads”.

“Here, you have to typically travel seven to eight hours every day to go from one destination to another. If the roads were made better, more foreign tourists would visit.”