By Chitra Ahanthem
Going by the fact that the recently held Sangai Tourism festival was being passed around as the “biggest and grandest” festival, it was only natural that my curiosity took me to the festival grounds at Hatta Kangjeibung. It could definitely pass off as the biggest fair or mela: from rows and rows of stalls expectedly selling the various handloom and handicrafts to indigenous food to toys and one stall that specialized in socks! One did not see any travel agency putting out stalls and taking travel expeditions. So, was it a tourism festival? That for me is the confusing question that needs an answer.
To start with: yes, the Sangai Festival has been around for 4 years now and is much “younger” than the for long popular and widely followed Hornbill festival that has been takeing place in Kohima, Nagaland every year from December 1 to 5 since 2000. Both are state government initiatives with the Department of Tourism taking the lead roles. On the face of it, the two festivals looks similar with their array of exhibitions, traditional games and cultural dance forms, the more modern bit of fashion shows and rock shows but there is a wide gulf existing between the two beginning even with the websites of the two festivals. The site of the Hornbill festival is updated daily with what is happening every day: there are links to videos and photo galleries. In contrast is the insipid site of the Sangai Festival where the write- ups are mostly copy paste versions about the state. While the Hornbill Festival has tapped into popular media like blogs and Facebook with competitions aimed at young people which would create a “buzz”, the Sangai Festival had newspaper listings for the daily programs, which were mostly in the afternoons/evenings and almost always, did not stick to the time slots. In short, no one knew what was happening.
One more major difference is the foot-fall at the said festivals and the media coverage. Manipur media reports have put it that the footfall at the Sangai Festival this year was the lowest (this despite the “grandest festival” tag). We will come back to this later but at the Hornbill festival, not only do people from all over the North East region flock to the festival but is very popular with foreign tourists and media. It has become a brand for the state to bring in more tourists and to get mainstream media attention. Given the fact that both Manipur and Nagaland require restricted area permits for foreigners’ entry, there needs to be some serious thought on why if one is presumably serious about promoting tourism flow in Manipur, why one has not been able to get even the local populace to come visiting at the tourism festival.
The Sangai Tourism festival web site does mention that the theme is to “project & showcase Manipur and promote it as one of the favorite tourist destinations, to create an ambience of communal harmony and generate a feeling of oneness”. The other question is whom are we projecting this to and how effectively? When tourist attractions points like the INA memorial, Loktak lake are still looking like military zones with security posts inside the INA compound and an Army unit around the Sendra tourist spot, whom are we kidding? Even a relatively near tourist site like the Andro Cultural Complex, the labour of love by Mutua Bahadur is out of bounds for foreign nationals. So what of the places that are located a bit beyond Imphal? There is no effort yet by the Government to start luxury buses to tourist places in districts like Ukhrul for its pottery, tribal handlooms and handicrafts and the Siroi Lily; Tamenglong for river rafting at the Barak etc to name a few. And the less said about the lack of places to stay at these points, the better.
And no, we aren’t get diverted to a counter argument of whether a “disturbed area” like Manipur then means a total shut down of tourist avenues for places worn apart by strife needs to have other things going well for them, a hope to nurture. Rather, we are lamenting about the lack of creativity and insight that can make things work given the amount of tourist potential we have in the state. Yes, the issue of security personnel at tourist places is a sore point and which needs a different approach but let us take up the issue of lodging and accommodation for tourists at places far off from Imphal since one cannot expect high standard tourist lodges to come up so soon (we know what is been happening even with Hotel Imphal over the years regarding its up-gradation and for those who do not know how the staff goes about their service delivery, one person who stayed there told me that an order for breakfast would come near about lunch time!), there is the alternative of promoting home-stays which would mean a lot of income generating avenues for the people. The Tourism Department can come up with the required training programs for potential tourist hosts and lay down norms for the home stays, which are not only popular and time trusted initiatives taken up in places that do not have hotel infrastructure like Ladakh but also in Kerala where there is no dearth for hotel infrastructure and logistics.
To come back to the lack of local foot-fall: perhaps it was the entry fee AND the parking fee. Many people were loudly exclaiming why a festival organized by a Government Department was taking entry fees. Many stall owners on the other hand were grumbling over the steep “participation fee” of Rs. 5000 leaving one to wonder how much items on display would be overpriced for exhibitors to break even and then profit. One certainly hopes that the next edition of the tourism festival which is named after an animal that is under threat of extinction does not end up getting brick bats alone from the people.
By Chitra Ahanthem