There’s no denying the innumerable benefits touring destinations with natural beauty can have on you. Apart from verifying historical facts and landmarks, it also does wonders for your stress levels and is a perfect way to spend your holidays. Not many regions in the world can offer mind captivating beauty and ‘culturally thick’ environments like Northeast India, especially Assam. There are many reasons to visit the land of the red river and blue hills and explore its ever-growing tourism industry. From the diversity in ethnic groups, language, culture, foods, landmarks and even history, to the globally popular Assam tea gardens, large petroleum reserves, beautiful landscapes and vegetation, Assam and other Northeastern states are truly blessed with natural beauty.
For a very long time, tourism in Northeast India has been largely homogenous, leading to very few travel options, and average services. Fortunately, more entrepreneurs are daring to begin ventures that will remedy this situation. Entrepreneurs like travel expert Udit Bhanu Barthakur, who is the founder of Eastern Iconic Tours, have begun strategies that will not only put Northeastern tourism on the map but will also be a source of pride and glory for the region.
Joining the travel industry in 2015 was a dream come true for Udit. He had one goal with Eastern Iconic Tours; to revolutionize the travel industry and offer both foreign and local tourists their money’s worth when it came to travelling. He does this by including unexplored destinations that are separate from conventional routes for tourists in need of something unique.
Talking about how it all started, he says, “While pursuing a diploma in travel and tourism management, I was assigned a six-month project to serve in a luxury cruise vessel, sailing from Mumbai to Sharjah and Italy, as an assistant tour manager. When I got back to Assam, I joined Jungle Travel India and Assam Bengal Navigation to work as a tour manager/ tour guide in their river cruises which were sailing in the Brahmaputra, Hooghly and Ganges river with tourists from all over the world. These seven years, from 2009-2015, was one of the most elevated periods of my life which played a very pivotal role in shaping my tourism career and giving birth to the entrepreneur in me.”
There are a good number of tour and travel operators in the Northeast India region. So what sets Udit’s Eastern Iconic Tours & Travels stand out? “Of course, there are many tour operators and travel agents, and competition is severe. However I do not care about the competition much; I believe if you are designing your tours with a different flavour and advertise in an organized way, tourists will anyway approach you. I am quite choosy and prefer quality tours with responsible tourists. Regarding the uniqueness, I love to add some new unexplored destinations apart from the conventional tourist route as my guests many times want to experience something new. I try to club up some academic-related activities with my tours which help my guests to have a glimpse of the academic scenario of our region. The overall aim is to contribute my part to create a healthy scenario for the smooth functioning of different types of tourism in Assam and Northeast as a whole.”
Udit informs that tourism is still not an organised sector in Northeast India. There’s lack of proper infrastructure like hotels, homestays, food joints in many places, pathetic road condition in some corners, lack of wayside amenities where tourist could halt for tea, toilet etc, scarcity of professional tour guide, naturalist and so on. While he admits the overall scenario has improved over the years however it still has a long way to go.
Udit believes that the secret to getting the Northeastern tourism sector from where it is to where it should be lies in the cooperation of all tourism professionals. He says there is a need to work as a team. “It is such an industry where teamwork is important and in this difficult time, it is a must. Also, to move the industry forward, we need to look for new destinations, design some out-of-the-box exciting new itineraries and then add them to the already popular destinations,” he says.
Recalling life before COVID-19 and some of his fondest memories, Udit shares with us about the debut tour of Eastern Iconic Tours & Travels. “It was a 12-day tour across Assam and Meghalaya with a lovely couple Janet and Bryan Cupples from Swindon, England. They had a fantastic time interacting with the local people trying to know about their way of life, enjoying the traditional cuisine and folklore. The locals too loved their company. One of my esteemed guests was Rachel Fell Macdormett, professor and chair, Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures of Barnard College, Columbia University, who had travelled with her family to Arunachal Pradesh as they were keen to explore the milieu of this beautiful land. Her broad-mindedness, in-depth knowledge on the cultural sphere of Asia, curiosity to know about Assam and North East had made the tour very special.”
No matter the field you wish to venture in, and in whatever part of the world, there are often obstacles that may seek to weigh you down. Dealing with his fair share of challenges, Udit had to keep a clear head and sharpen his focus, constantly reminding himself of the reason he began in the first place. He encountered challenges like a lack of manpower, insufficient funds, demand for unique tours, catering to the diverse tastes of tourists, and many more. Understanding that he could not please every single customer, he settled for doing his best by offering nothing but quality services.
Last year’s COVID-19 outbreak was a major dilemma for business houses, especially in the tourism industry, and now again with the increase in Covid cases, tourism professionals are fighting a tough battle. “My personal experience should give you an idea. In 2020, my last tour was with a couple from the Netherlands in March just before the lockdown was announced. And the next tour I designed after that was in April 2021, after a year-long gap, for a group of 28 IRS (Indian Revenue Service) officers, who visited Kaziranga and Shillong. I must mention that we all had to test negative for COVID-19 before we could embark on the tour. Imagine how tough that was to arrange. I have some tours booked for September/ November 2021. We have to cope with the situation and maintain a positive mindset because once you give up hope, you lose everything. I am optimistic the tourism industry will bounce back in due course,” he hints.
Despite the numerous travel destinations in the Assam travel industry, most tourists opt for destinations like Kaziranga, leading to overpopulation in these areas and leaving other viable destinations often neglected by tourists. Addressing this growing concern, he says “Assam is filled with all sorts of tourism activities; whether it is culture, wildlife, adventure, rural life and so on. It is high time we explored new destinations, dig out the tourism potentials of those destinations and showcase them in front of our guests in an organized way.
“For instance, Dima Hasao is home to some of the most beautiful and unexplored destinations in Assam like Haflong, Jatinga, Dehangi, Maibang, Umrangso, Panimur, etc. Moreover, a new keyword in our tourism industry is Community Based Tourism (CBT). Choren Ahem is a CBT success story. Bodoland is also doing well as a CBT destination where the guests can have a glimpse of the rich culture of our colourful Bodo tribe,” he adds.
One only needs to catch an aerial glimpse of Dikchak Village, sandwiched between plains and hills. Due to its unique location – just 45 km away from downtown Guwahati – and its mesmerising landscape, it has been adopted by Sonapur College and is currently being transformed into a CBT destination under the guidance of the Travel and Tourism Management Department of Sonapur College in Gauhati University. As Udit says, “this and the several others are opening up new avenues, especially for tourists who fancy the CBT model”.
This tourism entrepreneur also believes in the interaction of foreign tourists with students of tourism in respectable institutions. According to him, it breaks cultural barriers and promotes cultural knowledge on both sides. “It is always a pleasure to see my guests who thoroughly enjoyed their interaction with students and teachers in different colleges of Nagaon. The last lively session was on March 3, 2020, and between a couple from Netherlands and students and teachers of the department of travel and tourism management (B.Voc) of Sonapur College,” he reveals.
There is only one destination for the highly influential tourism expert, and that is forward. As he says, “Apart from the plans to make a film by some expert filmmakers from Japan and France who want to make a film about the diversities of Assam including the folklore, flora and fauna, another plan is to start a resort with a very traditional touch but with all modern facilities, in a village near Amoni in Nagaon district, which is only 1 km away from the National Highway 37.”