Tripura - the last virgin and unexplored Shangri-La of India is, unfortunately, lagging behind when it comes to Tourism, but the vital role that PR can play in promoting tourism in India’s North East can’t be denied. North East India’s inherent tourism potential and the reasons why the region has not been able to flourish in spite of its rich and diverse attractions is a matter worth pondering. PR has a lot to offer in resurrecting the tourism industry of Tripura and the North Eastern states of India and bringing this region to par with mainland India.

I myself was born and brought up in the North Eastern state of Assam and so I am familiar with the geography, culture and heritage of this fascinating region. Yet, Tripura, due to its remoteness and being a long-neglected state never presented me with opportunities. Thanks to Mr.Mihir Bhattacharjee – an ex-armed forces personnel (BSF), who exposed me to this virgin and unexplored state.

Below, are the thoughts of a man who has been burning the midnight’s oil for the betterment of Tripura, his home state – a state where he was born and raised, a state that offers stupendous cultural and natural diversity and a state that beckons today’s discerning world traveller to come on a visit and discover the hidden gems.

Conversation with Mihir Bhattacharjee, an Ex-BSF armed forces personnel and a native of Tripura

As a much-travelled armed forces personnel, you have had the privilege of being posted in different regions of India and have seen how states like Rajasthan and Goa have prospered through Tourism. What are your views about Tripura?

Public Relations or PR is a powerful tool when it comes to “branding”, and hailing from an armed forces background has meant that I have had quality exposure by way of being posted on tough assignments in a vast country like India. Being a Rastrawadi/Nationalist campaigner, I am definitely in favour of a well-laid-out PR plan for resurrecting the image of Tripura Tourism in the national as well as the international arena. Tripura is one of India’s last natural, unspoilt destinations. This region is renowned for its pristine splendour, undulating hills, valleys and myriad streams that course through it. The North East region is the most varied and at the same time, the least visited part of India.

What according to you is Tripura and the North East of India’s unique selling point?

In many ways, Tripura & the North East is quite unlike the rest of India. It is the chief tribal belt of India with a great number of tribes who speak many different languages and dialects – in Arunachal Pradesh alone over 50 distinct languages are spoken! In many ways, these tribal people are similar to the hill tribes found right across the sweep of the country at the eastern end of the Himalayas, which extends from India through Myanmar and Thailand into Laos.

You have all along been laying stress on PR as a tool to resurrect Tourism in the North Eastern states of India. Why is Public Relations or PR so important?

In the case of North East India’s tourism industry, it is a case of utter negligence on the part of the previous dispensation and ignorance of the people regarding the aspect of tourism There seemed to be a complete lack of confidence in the precious tourism assets that the region possessed in abundance on the part of the administration and the people in general. To be precise, there was a lack of awareness about the beneficial effects of tourism.

However, under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, the entire North Eastern region is witnessing unprecedented developments in every sphere. In fact, he considers the North Eastern region as – “India’s Engine of Growth” and refers to this region of India as “Asthalaxmi”.

What is basically required is a will to excel, the drive and the determination to succeed in spite of all odds. PR is a tool that can effectively reposition the North East of India as a much-preferred tourist destination. PR in tourism is oriented towards creating and maintaining an ambience whereby the travelling public at large is convinced of the advantages of visiting the concerned destination”.

In mainland India, there is a perception that the North Eastern region is remote and the level of infrastructure availability is poor. What is your take on this matter?

There is no doubt, infrastructure wise the North Eastern states lag as compared to mainland India, but that in itself should not be a cause for hindrance when it comes to the matter of tourism growth. The mountainous state of Sikkim, which is an integral part of the seven-sister states of the North East has amply demonstrated over the past decade how one can overcome all odds like – remoteness, transport bottlenecks, lack of hotels and resorts etc… to carve a niche for itself in India’s burgeoning tourism map. There is no reason why the rest of the North Eastern states can’t be a success story in tourism.

Having done his homework like a professional PR practitioner, Mihir Bhattacharjee is of the opinion that for PR to play an effective role in the tourism industry of Tripura & the North Eastern states, a complete understanding of the background is necessary before steps can be taken to modify and solve them.

In the case of North East India, what are the major hindrances that the Tourism industry is faced with?

In the case of North East India, the major lacunas that emerge are enumerated below:

  1. Adverse political events.
  2. Wrong public perception of tourism.
  3. Inadequate and improper portrayal of the North East as a destination.
  4. The role of media is underutilized.

Having identified the grey areas, the task at hand is to adopt the right kind of PR strategies for each of the specific problems that the tourism industry of the region is faced with.

Let us consider each of the problems at length and try to find out the PR solutions.

Adverse political events

The North East of India has always been a politically volatile region. There are law and order problems, but, terrorism which was eating into the vitals of North East India’s economy, has been nipped in the bud. The situation as of today is that most of the states have stable governments at the helm of affairs and the situation is fast improving.

Thus PR efforts should be aimed at disseminating information through the mass media to project a new image of Tripura & the North East of India. Tourists certainly do not want to visit a disturbed area and most potential tourists still carry the opinion that the North East is an unsafe place to visit. This negative image of the region can be changed by incorporating PR techniques.

Tourism in fact is a vehicle for national and international understanding and this fact should be highlighted by the media, rather than merely making a big issue of the law and order problem.

A lot of hype has unnecessarily been generated, especially by the media regarding North East India’s law and order problem. But the actual fact is that things are fast improving. So in order to clarify this issue what is needed is a vigorous publicity campaign by the local media focusing on the improved political situation of the region, which is to be disseminated to the target markets both within the region and elsewhere in India. This will go a long way in building up a favourable image of North East.

Wrong public perception of tourism

The general public with the exception of the knowledgeable few, has not been able to perceive the fact that tourism too can be an industry, a profitable industry, an industry without smoke, having immense scope of employment generation and what is more augment foreign exchange earnings, which is considered to be so precious.

The economic and social benefits of tourism should be made known to the public so that they are made aware of the significance of tourism. The role of PR is vital in bringing about this awareness. Large-scale advertisements, especially outdoor advertisements should be carried out on full scale. The intelligentsia of the region should be persuaded and roped into the campaign towards generating awareness of tourism. Also, well-known personalities from the world of cinema, art and music should be encouraged and persuaded to play a leading role in the awareness drive.

Inadequate and improper portrayal of the North East as a destination

There have been no clear-cut policies as to how the North East of India should be portrayed as a tourist destination. Some call it a Tribal (Cultural) destination while some call it a Wildlife Destination. The role of PR here would be to highlight and project the North East as a destination in a very concise, precise and specific way.

The most viable PR option would be to tag and label the North East region as an “Active Holiday or Special Interest Tourist Destination” This is because of the fact that in the case of Active or Special Interest Tourism what the tourists demand is not luxury and high-quality products and services, but real experiences during their holidays. The demand invariably is for pleasant surroundings, usually at reasonable prices, which the North East of India does have in abundance. Also, the plus point in projecting the region in this manner would be that it is not going to cost the state exchequer much. This strategy calls for less investment and more tourist flow.

Mihir’s formula is simple – “The essential ingredient of this new form of Tourism package is the organization of recreation, which alone can enrich the Tourism experience by allowing greater integration with the destination visited and fuller involvement in the social and cultural life of the holiday destination. In the case of North East India, the PR strategy that is to be advocated would be to get the tourists involved and give them the scope of greater inter-mingling with the fascinating tribal culture of the region so that they can get a feel of their exotic culture and tradition, much the same way as the Australian Tourism industry does vis-à-vis the Aborigines and New Zealand with the Maori tribe.”

The role of media underutilized

Tripura & the North East of India is one region where commercialization has not taken place, at least not in the tourism industry. There is also less consumerism as compared to the other places of mainland India. Its culture too has remained uncontaminated and pristine. All this has meant that the various mass media in the form of TV, radio and the press – both print and electronic are not all that competitive. Also, there is less of professionalism and more of emotionalism. In the case of North East India’s tourism, the use of mass media to propagate and spread tourism awareness as well as the inherent tourism potential of this region has not been fully explored. Whatever little use has been made has been mostly unplanned and bereft of coordination which has resulted in a lack of impact as far as the general public is concerned.

According to Mihir Bhattacharjee – “The PR strategy in this regard would be to use the mass media with more regularity and the information has to be more trustworthy and credible. The use of the Internet as a medium of publicity has a special relevance in the context of today’s connected world. The rising demand for tourists and the ever-increasing supply of new tourist destinations characterize the present-day situation in the world travel market. It’s a competitive world out there and the best way to make one’s presence felt is by launching North East aggressively on the World Wide Web”.

Internet travel today is a reality. Chiefly because of the convenience of 24 hours a day from anywhere availability. Worldwide travel through the Internet has been pegged at $1,091 billion by 2022, registering a CAGR of 11.1% during the forecast period 2016-2022.

For the mandarins of Tripura’s fledgling Tourism industry, Mihir’s suggestion is visionary and farsighted. He proposes the development of a web-enabled Visitor Management System (VMS) for not just Tripura but the North East of India as a whole. He is of the opinion that this can be developed separately or can be integrated with the Ministry of Tourism’s portal.

The main objectives of this web-enabled VMS would be to make available a database of all information pertaining to the North East tourist circuits, a database of tour operators and transportation facilities, a database of accommodation and other tourist infrastructure (services and facilities) to the interested/potential tourists and information seekers, e-postcards, etc.

In addition to this, a database of tourists would also be captured. The VMS would also be a helpful tool to monitor visitor management by systematic collection of data. Over the longer run, the system could take the shape of a portal through which tourists can book lodges/ hotels as well as pre-book their entry to the tourist circuit.

The future ahead

There is no doubt that the entire North East region’s tourism industry is growing and evolving out of the shadowy past. There will definitely come a time when the whole of North East India will reverberate with global tourists. If innovative PR solutions like those mentioned above are implemented in letter and spirit – a tourism revolution is on the cards and it could be a “Game Changer” for not just Tripura, but the entire North East.

But how soon this turnaround comes depends entirely on the pace of progressive reforms being practically applied at the grassroots level.