TOURISM AS AN EXERCISE IN PEACE BUILDING.
When Northeast Indian travel outfit Help Tourism turned its attention to Assam to explore sustainable tourism opportunities, it didn’t take long to zero in on Manas National Park. In areas surrounding the park, a violent insurgency had raged for many years between the Indian government and members of the Bodo tribe, who wanted sovereignty and recognition. One of the main groups involved, the Bodo Liberation Tigers, agreed to lay down their arms in 2003.
When it came on the scene, Help Tourism found a national park crying out for help. Indeed, Manas National Park had suffered greatly during the years of insurgency: its wildlife stocks decimated by rampant poaching and its fauna ravaged by illegal timber felling. These had continued even though the park had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger in 1992.
But Help founder Raj Basu says when he approached locals he discovered them not to be terrorists, but rather, a band of very organised and determined people. The Bodos already had disciplined political and arms programs in place, and were an organised force, albeit one now without a cause.
“All we did was to divert their focus to tourism,” says Basu. “We didn’t have to change anything in their setup.”
Now, the Bodos successfully manage tourism operations in Manas National Park. “We have tigers and rhinos coming back, and other endangered ecosystems are being restored.”
The Bodo experience is a shining example of just how tourism can help alleviate conflict in once-dangerous areas. It gives rise to hope that building a healthy and sustainable tourism industry can even help bring about peace in troubled areas.
Of course, however, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. While avoiding conflict-affected countries entirely might leave visitors with somewhat narrowed travel options, even the hardiest travellers might baulk at the prospect of taking in the sights in a place where violence is rife.
India’s eight Northeastern states have their fair share of strife: ethnic tension in Nagaland, insurgent and counter-insurgent violence in Manipur among them. Additionally, Silk Road trade routes that brought outsiders and outside influences to the region broke down after World War Two, making the area yet more isolated, which has helped keep visitors away in droves.
But the Northeast has a lot to offer people seeking unique experiences. There are vast national parks teeming with endangered wildlife, jagged snow-capped mountains and stunning lakes. There are dozens of tribes, many with their own languages and customs. There are festivals, WW2-era sites, and religious attractions such as Buddhist stupas. And there are vibrantly coloured butterflies and birdlife that would make an ornithologist weep.
“There are many places in the Northeast that are beautiful but unsafe, let alone safe for tourists,” says Sanjoy Hazarika of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research. He cites Manipur’s Loktak Lake as an example. With its floating islands, Northeastern India’s largest freshwater lake is home to the endangered brow antlered deer, which has already been declared extinct once, in 1951.
“It is exquisite, but it is not safe to travel there,” says Hazarika. Just 53 kilometres from the volatile, strife-afflicted capital Imphal, the lake is just too close for comfort.
However there are regions and states that are peaceful, but suffer from being lumped in with the general perception of the Northeast as dangerous. Meghalaya, for one, is a state that has managed to avoid major armed insurgency. Arunachal Pradesh, despite being the centre of India’s geographic tensions with China, is another that is largely peaceful, according to Hazarika.
But there is the danger that peaceful communities feel ignored, for the very reason that they are peaceful, with authorities and NGOs targeting their attention – and funds – towards those that are conflict-ridden.
“They are asking, what incentive do we have to be peaceful?” says Mirza Zulfikar Rahman, the co-founder of sustainable travel outfit GypsyFeet Travels. The two-year-old company works on a model of engaging with local communities.
“We go to villages and ask people how they would like to showcase their village to people from outside,” says Rahman, who focused on the Northeast while studying for his MPhil in international relations.
“What we are doing is getting peaceful communities involved in tourism,” says the 28-year-old. “In that way, we are investing in peace.”
Could tourism be used as a way of bringing peace to troubled regions? Rahman says this is possible, but only in tandem with dedicated government action in other areas.
“You have to address the core concerns of the people: for there to be more development and a sense of autonomy, which the Indian government is in a sense failing on.”
“Tourism will help bring about development. But in places that have been in a spiral of violence, you need to intervene to reduce this.”
While the link between tourism and peace building is spoken of in positive terms, it is difficult to find specific examples where tourism has been used to help end a conflict. Mostly, there are well documented cases of where genuine efforts to rebuild tourism industries have been installed once arms have been laid down. Rwanda benefited from this after its civil war and later genocide in the early 1990s, when authorities moved to expand tourist attractions away from the national park that housed both mountain gorillas and armed guerrillas.
In Sri Lanka too, while tourist numbers remained fairly buoyant throughout its long-running civil war, significant development is taking place to woo more visitors, such as the building of a second international airport.
There are a few ways that tourism can help facilitate or maintain peace. When visitors arrive, they bring with them money that is pumped straight into the local economy. With lack of income and opportunity at the core of many a conflict, the funds that tourism brings can help eradicate the cause. Then there is awareness. Tourists can’t bring peace, but what they can do is bear witness to the conditions and realities in a region, spread the word, and perhaps share their own knowledge and experiences to their hosts. Also, with strangers around, experts believe it is less likely that violent acts will occur.
And things are looking to get easier for tourists. The antiquated system of making foreign visitors get a protected area permit to visit areas in the Northeast was this year lifted in three states – Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram.
“Most of the government projects related to tourism in Assam and in the Northeast are about engaging the youth and bringing them into a more productive role,” says Rahman.
“The government isn’t saying it outright, but tourism has the potential to bring misguided youth who’ve taken up arms into mainstream society.”
Raj Basu agrees that the key to harnessing tourism to keep a region conflict-free is to engage the youth. Help Tourism’s project at Manas has about 1 000 young people engaged in conservation tourism in the area. The company is now working in two other areas in the Northeast: a location on the India-Bangladesh border and an area in eastern Arunachal Pradesh.
“There is great youth in [eastern Arunachal], they were getting into conflict or migrating away, so that can be stopped to a large extent,” says Basu.
The best way Help Tourism has found to do this is to motivate locals to take pride in their own region.
“When they see travellers speaking well of their rivers, their birds, their traditions, their culture, they feel pride. And this contributes to bringing back a peaceful atmosphere.”