Meghalaya agitation leads to drop in tourist footfalls

There has been a sharp drop in tourist footfalls in the picturesque northeastern state of Meghalaya - which literally means abode of the clouds - over the past two months in the wake of an agitation by more than a dozen political and other pressure groups on stopping "illegal immigration" from Bangladesh.
For now, Meghalaya is "not on the minds of travellers" opting for a visit to the wettest place on earth in Sohra or to Asia's "cleanest village" of Mawlynnong bordering Bangladesh, said Richard Rynjah, a tourist taxi driver.
Meghalaya, with a population of just three million, is experiencing a series of shutdowns, night road blockades and picketing of offices from Sep 2 after the breakdown of talks between the government and the agitating groups on the inner line permit (ILP) issue.
Several cases of arson have been reported in the East and West Khasi Hill districts and more than 50 pro-ILP activists have been arrested. The agitations, in the form of shutdowns, picketing of government offices and night road blockades have had a major impact on the state's serenity, which has been unblemished for the last few years.
The Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum (MTDF) had even cancelled off its annual Autumn Festival - one of the biggest events in the state calendar attended by tourists from India and abroad coming in over the years. The Forum has been organising various programmes including Guinness World Record attempts to promote the state. Over a dozen pressure groups have been insisting that the ILP, a British-era law otherwise a mechanism to prevent the influx of "outsiders", a term that applies to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as well as people from other parts of India. The ruling Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance is however firm in opposing such an "archaic" step that it feels will hinder the state's economic development by blocking investments.
Even Indians from the rest of the country currently require an ILP to enter northeastern states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. "The agitations over the ILP have severely hit the tourism industry in the state and the tourist flow is down by 70 percent since the agitation started," MTDF chairman Robert G. Lyngdoh told IANS. "Implementing the ILP would adversely affect Meghalaya as a tourist destination," Lyngdoh said, adding isolation is not the answer to the issue of influx as there are ways out to tackle this.
Quoting official statistics, the MTDF chairman said in 2009-10, close to 600,000 tourists visited Meghalaya. During the same period, 58,000 tourists visited Mizoram and 22,000 Nagaland. Rishot Khongthohrem from Mawlynnong said the tourism inflow to Asia's cleanest village has been adversely affected as footfalls have declined because of the uncertainty prevailing in the state due to the ILP agitation. "Mawlynnong village depends on tourism but the number of tourists has fallen. It is affecting our livelihood," he said.
Echoing Khongthohrem, tribal villagers in Sohra - formerly Cherapunji - the wettest place on earth, claimed that there has been a drastic fall of tourists visiting their region in the wake of the ILP agitation. "I won't say that there have been no tourists visiting Sohra. A handful of them visit Sohra but rush back to Shillong due to the agitation. There is a sense of fear and insecurity and tourists do not want to get caught in the crossfire," food vendor Doreen Sohkhlet said.
However, ILP-protagonists said that the agitation has nothing to do with the decline of tourists to the state. "We cannot say that the agitation has resulted in the decline of tourists in Meghalaya since there have been no records on the inflows in the past years. We cannot come to the conclusion of a connection between the agitation and the inflow of tourists," said Sadon Blah, a spokesperson of one of the agitating organizations.
Blaming the Meghalaya government for its failure to play an active and positive role in promoting tourism, Blah said: "The unregulated inflow of the migrants in the guise of tourists might provoke a change in the demographic structure of the state in which we the minorities (Khasi, Jaintia and Garo - the indigenous people of Meghalaya) might become fit for tourists to visit us in a museum."