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Home Stays: The only viable option for Shirui tourism

17 May 2017
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By Sothing Shimray

Introduction: Staying close with nature and more or less with sparse population the concept of modern tourism was not in the mind of the indigenous people in the past. However, the concept of village tourism, a practice whereby the visitors stay along with the family, was an intrinsic part of the indigenous people. Among the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Ukhrul District the culture of village tourism known as ‘ram khayao’ was an essential part of its culture. The popularity of village tourism, however, died with the dawn of modernity and a shift from agrarian based society to capital based economy. Of late the concept of village tourism as practiced in the past has become just another past feature of indigenous culture with its failure to link the traditional practices with modern culture.

By Sothing Shimray

Introduction: Staying close with nature and more or less with sparse population the concept of modern tourism was not in the mind of the indigenous people in the past. However, the concept of village tourism, a practice whereby the visitors stay along with the family, was an intrinsic part of the indigenous people. Among the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Ukhrul District the culture of village tourism known as ‘ram khayao’ was an essential part of its culture. The popularity of village tourism, however, died with the dawn of modernity and a shift from agrarian based society to capital based economy. Of late the concept of village tourism as practiced in the past has become just another past feature of indigenous culture with its failure to link the traditional practices with modern culture.

Ukhrul District with its rich culture and naturally endowed landscape is an ideal place for cultural and ecotourism. The District, predominantly inhabited by Tangkhul Naga tribe, is also known as the land of festivals due to the celebration of festivals from different villages round the year. Apart from the Tangkhul Naga tribe, pockets of the Kuki tribe and Nepali settlements are found in the District. Being located at the easternmost part of Manipur, the District is also poignantly referred to as ‘land of the rising sun’. Ukhrul town is the District Headquarter. It is linked with the state capital Imphal at a distance of 84 kilometres (two and half hours drive) on NH 150.

Ukhrul, is best known for the enchanting Shirui peak and the world famous Shirui Lily, the state flower of Manipur. The village, Shirui, is located 12 kilometres from Ukhrul town.

Possibilities: Situated at a height of 2,835 metres, the Shirui peak offers a panoramic view of the surrounding areas including Ukhrul town. Every year during summer, thousands of domestic tourist climb the peak to enjoy the view and stay close to nature, or even to just  to get a glimpse of the world famous Shirui lily found on the upper reaches of this hill. The Shirui lily, scientifically called Lilium Mclinea Seally, was discovered by a British botanist Frank Kingdon Ward in 1946. The lily, locally called Kashong Timrawon, has the distinction of growing only on  this particular hill and nowhere else in the world. The lily was officially declared as the State Flower of Manipur in 1989. The Postal Department of the Government of India brought out a postage stamp in 2002 as a tribute to the beauty and uniqueness of the lily. The peak season of its bloom is May 15 to June 5. The height of the plant is 1–3 feet (0.30–0.91 m) and has one to seven flowers per plant. The weeklong Shirui Lily Festival is celebrated simultaneously, at Shirui village and Ukhrul town during the month of May every year. A national level football tournament known as Shirui Lily Football Meet is held every year at Ukhrul town during the months of October and November to boost sports tourism as well in the District.

Shirui hill with its vast forest area is also a noted place for bird watching and an ideal place for eco tourism. This sub tropical forest is the habitat of many endangered species like tragopan blythii, pangolin, hooting monkey, porcupine, and salamander among others. During winter, it is also a sanctuary for migratory birds from Siberia. The forest is also endowed with different medicinal plants and valued trees, including different species of orchids and rhododendrons.To encourage tourism, the Manipur government had proposed 100 square kilometres surrounding the Shirui hill to be developed as a National Park in 1998. However, it was rejected by the local people because of a lack of clarity from the government in its proposal which failed to factor in the land holding system that was central to their livelihood.

Apart from the nature endowed attractions, the renowned performance of the ‘virgin dance’ locally called ‘La Khanganui’ of Ukhrul during February, the celebration of Luita festival of Longpi (Seed Sowing festival) and the neighbouring villages during January and February, fairs of Hungpung during Dhareo festival in October, week-long celebration of Yarra (Feasts of Peer Groups) in all Tangkhul villages during the spring season, the archaeological cave site of Khangkhui are some of the added attractions for tourists.

Status and local perspective of tourism: The spaces of engagement between the local communities and tourism have invariably been ignored due to adequate understanding of tourism among the villagers and lack of a practical tourism policy of the state government. While the idea of tourism as a potential income generating industry is what has enthused the local populace they however seem to have failed in coming up with any tangible outcome, particularly in the absence of an empirical understanding beyond the lily and its preservation. Apart from the naturally endowed landscape, there is also the potential for the local people to use their skills in developing souvenirs or mementoes that the tourist can buy. The only thing that tourists go back with is what they click with their camera and the abstract picturesque memories of the landscape and of the Shirui lily. Shirui with a population of one thousand has practically no trained person who has worked in the tourism industry. This is a major setback for the development and promotion of tourism in the village. Aside from the Shirui Lily Week, there are no initiatives to attract tourists and villagers naively believe that tourists would queue up to visit the village. This helplessness is a sign of over-dependence on the government to improve their village and its tourism potential.

Government initiative, a mere lip service: Tourism was accorded industry status in Manipur in 1987 and series of plans have been initiated to make tangible long term future gains. The State government has a targeted plan for the development of human resource, infrastructure viz. hotels & restaurants, places of interest, publicity and marketing as a pre-condition for the development of the tourism in Manipur. From the financial aspect, funds have also been invested for the development of tourism in Manipur. The annual budget of the State and central government has a sizeable fund earmarked for tourism. However, the initiative seemingly remains just a mirage, with no tangible result or success due to absence of realistic implementation. Among others, it is found that there is a palpable absence of co-ordination between Tourism Department and other departments including the District administration, local bodies’ viz. Autonomous District Councils, Village Councils and civil society organizations. The State government identified Ukhrul District for rural tourism with a plan to support home stays and develop community-based tourism. However this remains a mere plan, as the Manipur Tourism Department failed to coordinate with local bodies. Effective methodology needs to be evolved and implemented to forge co-ordination of various departments and organizations directly and indirectly associated with tourism.

In Ukhrul District, absence of a District Planning Board is one main factor which has caused stagnation of overall development as well as that of tourism. It was found that even the District administration does not have a concrete list of places which have tourism potential thereby making the tourism policy of the government a mockery.

Ukhrul District virtually does not have any trained tourist guides. Consequently, there is no one to satisfy the inquisitiveness of tourists when they arrive at places of tourist interest. The Department of Tourism’s move to train tourist guides did not yield good result as the benefit seldom reaches the villagers. Those who got the opportunity to undertake the training left the profession midway, as they found it to be less paying because of the poor inflow of tourists to the District.

There is also an absence of financial and other incentives offered by the government. Benefits must reach all people; it needs to move beyond the district headquarters.

Even though the Manipur government takes due cognizance of Shirui as a potential tourist destination, nothing tangible has been done for the improvement of Shirui as a resourceful tourist destination site of the state. Shirui has one Tourist Rest House at its foothill which was constructed under the International Fund for Agriculture Development of Ukhrul District Community Resource Management Society (UDCRMS) in co-ordination with North Eastern Council (NEC) to boost tourism for sustainable earning of the local people.

The state government’s major initiative, so far, to enhance tourism at Shirui is the construction of Tourist Destination Centre, a rest house equipped with a mini shopping centre but the construction was abandoned midway. The Government has not been able to generate any revenue so far from tourism in Shirui tourism, nor have the local populace. The Government blames poor tourism growth in Ukhrul District to the presence of militants. However, deeper research has empirically shown that the presence of militants is a cover for the numerous follies in the government’s plan to enhance tourism.

Mungleng Vathei Development Society (MVDS), a government registered society based at Shirui village, which looks after the Shirui Lily is responsible for visitors in the village but the income generated is negligible. The visitor record maintained by MVDS indicates more than a thousand domestic tourists during the lily blooming season alone every year. But the irony is that apart from Rs 10/- per head which is charged as entry fee there is no source of alternative employment that has been thought about or encouraged. In the entire village, there are about half a dozen small shops and tea stalls with nothing attractive for the tourists.

In the absence of a co-ordination system, free and independent tourists including backpackers are the most common visitors at Shirui. Prior to 2013, due to the existence of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) whereby foreigners needed special permission to visit Manipur and some other north eastern states, the visit of international tourists were small in number. However after the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India lifted the imposition ostensibly to boost tourism, there are records of some international tourists visiting Shirui.

The recent Tourism Policy of Manipur 2014 is also found to be more supportive of some sections of society, primarily the industry and not the people, as it is one that adopted a top to the bottom approach. Tourism projects are found to be most meaningful to communities when they themselves initiate the plan and are supported by the government, run on their terms and suited to their needs and priorities. But when policies and plans are developed top-down, and brought to the community only when permission or approval is sought, it makes a mockery of ‘community participation & decision making’.

Tourism Scenario

Tourism activities at Shirui peak began around 1983. Two adjoining villages - Lunghar and Ngabum lie around Shirui peak. Shirui-Kashong is a picturesque village, covered in greenery and enveloped by clouds, giving it a magical atmosphere. The cultural and traditional customs of its inhabitants fit perfectly with the landscape. But often, places that are naturally beautiful are ruined when they are discovered and visited in large numbers by outsiders.

Village authorities, women groups, and youth clubs have been integral to their way of life. Local governance and decision-making are mostly in the hands of village authorities. The Shirui Youth Club has played a strong role throughout in reviving traditional practices. However, during the time of heightened conflict in 1964, it became non-functional. At present, there are 350 youth members, from within and outside Shirui.

Since 2000, the Shirui Youth Club has been tirelessly protecting the Shirui peak. The youth are in-charge of monitoring and maintaining the Shirui hill ranges. Among the steps that the youth club members have taken up to protect the lilies, are – checking the visitors, guarding the site as volunteers, putting up barbed-wire fencing around the site, levying a fine of Rs 50 for every lily plucked, and Rs 500 for every lily plant uprooted.

The Youth Club has been assigned with handling, registering and welcoming tourists during Shirui Lily Week festival (21-27 May). A Committee has been formed to manage Shirui Lily Week. They receive Rs 2 lakh from the Directorate of Tourism, Government of Manipur, besides local contributions, being the only other source of funding for the week-long festival. The theme of 2015’s festival was “Burn Calories, not Forests”. Activities during the festival include essay and painting competitions, flower show, folk song and dance exhibitions, indigenous food stalls, and pork-eating competition.

Every visitor to Shirui peak has to pay an entry fee of Rs. 10. Visitors are checked, and a deposit of Rs. 50-100 is taken for cameras, plastic bottles and packets. The hard work of the Shirui Youth Club has borne fruit and after a gap of nearly 11 years widespread flowering of the lilies can be seen again. The resource centre at Shirui peak is the only accommodation facility that provides shelter with the ability to house 50 occupants.

Village Tourism, a way forward: In the absence of the required infrastructure viz hotels, tourist lodges or tourist destination centres at Shirui, the District’s most potential tourist site, village tourism, a synonym of Rural Tourism, is the only way to boost tourism and generate sustainable revenue. Home stays in the village in which villagers would provide local style of accommodation in their own homes or in selected places and through which tourists can experience the daily routine and rituals of the local peoples in the village and culture has huge potential. It would mean villagers operate the tourist facilities and services and receive direct monetary benefits from the tourist.

The system of village tourism which is the by product of local ingenuity is unique in a sense that it is supply driven rather than demand driven. Shirui village with a strong customary village authority, women and youth organisations has got great potential to develop the system of Village Tourism which is also an inherent part of its traditional custom. Government support is no doubt inevitable for development of village tourism in spheres which are beyond the reach of the villagers viz road, tele-communication, electricity, watch towers or other infra structural development that needs technical know-how and resources. However small scale development works such as drinking water, local trail improvement, improvement of hygiene and sanitation, development of local entertainment units, development of local skills can very well be done by the villagers themselves from their community fund and voluntary contribution. The village themselves can also take the initiative of letting their youth be trained in the field of tourism through encouragement and exploring avenues through contacts.

The most important feature for Home-stays is that it also ensures that women actively take part in the given tourism opportunity that promotes a sustainable community development as women are most affected when there is unchecked tourism growth. Instead of being employed in a star hotel with minimum qualifications and training, female ownership of homestay in their own secured areas in a large way secures women's avenues for income generation and involves them in mainstream development.

The Tangkhuls have an indigenous cooking and preparation method of curry called ‘hao hamhan’ a preparation that has become hugely popular as evidenced in some metropolitan cities of India. This kind of indigenous preparation including the locally brewed rice beer could be a local food variety which needs a streamlined approach to boost the tourism industry. Just a few miles away from Shirui lies the village of Longpi which is famous for its black pottery. Its usage expands beyond decorative right into the kitchen. There is an impending need to sustain the livelihood of the artisans.

Almost 90 percent of the people of Ukhrul District are under agrarian economy. Therefore agriculture tourism with the innumerable terraced paddy fields at Shirui village should be made an added attraction for visitors from cities. It is also inevitable for the villagers to maintain the general appearance of the village through concerted planning to give the village a pleasant picture.

It may be mentioned here that women are at the threshold of all these activities and the importance to experience the local sights, sounds and flavours with the womenfolk shall necessarily remain the domain for any form of tourism envisaged in this part of the world.

To let the world know about the existence of village tourism facilities, the management committee should maintain a website and bring out a coffee table book and make it available in different tourist places or hotels across the country. On top of that the management needs to have contact and network with tour operators.

There needs to put in place a policy for home-stay regulation emphasized to encourage the micro-economic sector in the rural areas; preserve the ecological sustainability; generate self-employment and economic growth in the rural communities. It can also address to build up the quality life of indigenous people of the village area and make capable to access the benefit through the tourism industry, to increase the use of natural and human resources of the rural areas for rural development; to expose the rural culture and nature to the outside world; to protect environmental degradation; to decentralize the national income and centralize the local resources in the national economy; and to promote and improve local agricultural and other industries.

The State government should take the onus of providing the local people the opportunity for advertising at tourism festivals not only within the state but outside the state as well including at the international level. Only then meaningful development of tourism can take place at Shirui.

(The writer is Ukhrul based journalist. This article was originally published in a dossier titled "Corporatizing Tourism in Manipur", published by Indigenous Perspectives and Equations 2017.)

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Imphal Free Press