Come December and the season of cultural tourism begins with a boom in the Northeast with the onset of the ‘festival of festivals’, the Hornbill festival of Nagaland. Launched in 2002, in just over a decade, it has become a kind of role model for all the other states in the region. Cultural festivals are projected as tourism magnets that in turn are supposed to boost the fledgling local enterprises around art and craft besides the hospitality sector. These festivals therefore are often packaged and promoted as ‘a few days of music, food, fashion and culture against the backdrop of stunning natural beauty.’ The Dehing Patkai Festival celebrated in the month of January in the eastern part of Assam and Pangsao Pass Festival held in the later part of January in Arunachal Pradesh are two other festivals that in some ways have tried to emulate the Hornbill success model. Similar examples can be cited from each of the eight states in the region.
What Exactly are We Celebrating?
Celebrations amidst chaos are a twin reality for us in the Northeast. For all the cultural trance of dance and crafts that the governments promote in the last days of winter every year, there is the usual backdrop of gloom and chaos. Teachers’ striking for pending salaries or students grouping up demanding scholarships almost outside the gates of ‘happy’ tourist villages are very commonplace. Besides, as a Morung Express (English daily from Nagaland) editorial sums it up succinctly, ‘The Hornbill Festival by default reduces Naga people and culture to a state of exhibitionism and commodification – and in essence to a museum of living artifacts. What exactly are we celebrating?’ This concern and self reflection holds true in the case of all the other such tourism festivals in the region.
We live in a time where every aspect of life becomes susceptible to commodification and the whims of the market. In fact, a region like the Northeast had to cover ‘a thousand years in a life time’ (aptly put as panel title at a discussion on the region in Delhi recently). The pace of change has been very fast and often bewildering. Therefore, the region needs extra caution and sensitive handling when entering the fray of mass tourism.
Treading with Caution
Cultural tourism and cultural sustainability are often intertwined and the fear is that in a region like Northeast India where culture is seen as a volatile site of identity, the consequences of cultural projections and packaging can be terribly volatile too. Some of the predominant concerns or criticisms against the dominant trends of mass tourism are: promotion of cultural inauthenticity, rampant commercialization, lack of locally sustainable economic development, and local disempowerment. One telling example is the ritual of annual road repairing and maintenance in these areas around the festival months, which for most other parts of the year remain far below the ‘national standard.’ This is the flip side of a region’s tourism becoming too festival centric.
The fact remains though that the local people in large numbers benefit from these festivals in various ways, tourism and hospitality being only one of these different ways. A small example is the many small homestays that spring up in the month of December in and around the villages of Kisama, the site of the Hornbill festival. Some of these guest houses and homestays have become fully operational beyond the Hornbill period.
‘Specialists’ and ‘industry watchers’ are pinning high hopes on successful implementation of eco tourism and knowledge tourism in the region. Given the abundance of unique traditional knowledge systems and ecological patterns, the region indeed has tremendous potential, yet untapped, to emerge as a tourist hotspot of this kind. This is where one needs to ask whether the existing trend of tourism festivals is fulfilling this task. The question of sponsorship becomes critical here as many a times the sponsors are likely to get leverage in dictating the agenda of these festivals which might not necessarily be in the long term interest of the region. Although, as observed, the organisers in some of these festivals are holding interactive business to business (B2B) sessions on the sidelines of these festivals that looks into ways to usher in some sustainable changes in the tourism and allied sectors in the region.
Towards a New Ethic of Tourism
An UN study talks about the concept of new tourism where ‘the new tourists want to live an experience, more than simply contact with cultures, people, landscapes or places. These travellers are centred towards self transformation and constitute new ground for holistic travel experiences’ (Holladay & Ponder, 2012). This is an approach that has gained force in the world as travellers search for activities and programs that bring balance to their lives. Tourism is a holistic concept and when practised in a region as sensitive and fragile as India’s Northeast, one needs to be very careful of its ethics too. Besides many things, essentially it is an ethic of respecting (and not manufacturing) the local cultures and caring for the surrounding environment. One hopes that with the flourishing of tourism festivals, this ethic continues to be remembered and appreciated.
Written By: Kaustubh Deka