Shillong: We are into the second month of 2021, but it seems that in some cases, the spectre of 2020 continues to loom large. Consider the tourism sector in Meghalaya. The state, famous for its high rainfall, subtropical forests, biodiversity and mesmerising beauty, attracted several tourists over the years. Until March 2020.
Then, COVID-19 struck.
It was not until the end of December last year that Meghalaya started welcoming tourists and visitors again, with extreme caution and extensive protocols.
The pandemic hit the tourism sector of the region hard and resulted in massive loss of revenue. The state, which once saw a huge inflow of both international and domestic tourists, was left behind.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that COVID-19 and its impact on tourism hit Meghalaya the most among all northeast states. Hence, it is also understandable why the state, which depends on tourism as a source of employment generation and revenue, was keen to open its gates for tourists again. But, as is becoming common in a post-COVID-19 world, it was not going to welcome outsiders without Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
The state government has set up an entry point in Umling. Tourists need to produce a COVID-19 negative certificate and register themselves with the Meghalaya Government before their visit.
Talking to EastMojo, Director of Tourism CVD Diengdoh said, “The facilitation centre is to ease tourist entry, not hamper anyone. The protocols to follow are simple. You have to download the app, provide an ID and fill in your details. When you come to the centre, you have to scan the code and provide your COVID negative report. If you have all the documents, then it will take two to three minutes. The benefit of this is, if you go to any hotel, you can use the same app and have a contactless check-in where the hotel will read your QR code and check you in. We are making things easier for tourists.”
“The centre is not to scare anyone off, it is only to help,” he added.
Talking about the app, Diengdoh said that it is a multi-purpose app that allows checking into hotels, booking hotels, as well as finding tourist spots. He also mentioned that the app is very informative and will help tourists in several ways.
Tourist destinations like Cherrapunji, Dawki, Shnongpdeng, etc. would often remain crowded before the pandemic. But now, these spots wear an empty look. People who live in these areas have been severely affected by the pandemic. With tourism back in the state, they are a little relieved but still worried because few are visiting.
On the occasion of 49th Statehood Day on January 21, 2021, Chief Minister of Meghalaya Conrad Sangma emphasised the need to improve various sectors, including health, education, tourism, agriculture etc. Talking about the tourism sector, he said there needs to be a change in the strategy based on conditions faced. There is a need for more avenues, activities and circuits, he said.
Sangma also said that the government intends to organise art and literary festivals to attract tourists. He is hopeful of more people visiting the state from the national capital with the new Delhi-Shillong direct flight service. He said there have not been many investments in various parts of the state, and tourists also did not get an opportunity to visit many places.
What is happening at Umling? Is it permanent?
Prestone Tynsong, the deputy chief minister of Meghalaya, inaugurated a facilitation centre or the entry-exit point warranted by the Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security Act, 2016 at Umling in Ri-Bhoi district on December 21, 2020.
Several counters like pre-registration counter, registration counter, COVID-19 testing centre, infiltration centre, etc. were set up at the location.
Tourists and residents, before entering the state, must download the Meghalaya Tourism app, register and generate an e-invite/QR code. At the centre, they must show their QR code and provide their COVID-19 negative certificate with their complete itinerary.
The tourists can proceed after verification of their QR code and COVID-19 certificate. Visitors who arrive at the centre without a COVID-19 negative certificate must get tested at the centre after paying Rs 500. Those who plan on staying with friends or family have to provide details of the residents.
Earlier, while addressing the media, Tynsong said this was the outcome of a long-pending demand of the people of the state. He also mentioned that the checkpoint was a hassle-free system and the residents of the state would not face any problem.
Unlike earlier, a tourist now has to stay for at least two nights. Before the pandemic, Meghalaya would receive tourists from the neighbouring state, Assam, especially during the weekends. People from Guwahati would drive down to Shillong with their family and friends in the morning, spend their day visiting local sights and markets and return in the evening. Now, with the new rule, one has to stay for at least two nights before leaving the state.
The new system has been set up keeping in mind the safety of the people of the state. Talking about the same, Tourist Officer of Umling R. Wahlang said, “This is the new system by the government and has been implemented by the chief minister himself, who is also the minister of tourism. Even after the pandemic, it will always be there.”
Is the facilitation centre at Umling making people have second thoughts on visiting the state?
The Umling centre has, so far, received mixed reviews from the people of the state and visitors. While some are considering it to be a good move for the people of Meghalaya, others believe that entering this northeastern state is no more an easy task. Some are even confused on what exactly needs to be done before their visit, so they are dropping their plans of visiting Meghalaya and travelling to places where they do not have to provide a COVID-19 negative certificate before entering.
When asked if the new facilitation centre is making people have second thoughts on visiting the state, Wahlang said, “Yes. There are some tourists from Guwahati who want to come to Shillong for a day and return. But as per government orders, they are not allowed. If they want, they have to stay for two nights. This might not be permanent, and we might review it later depending on the situation.”
Shubhangi Sinha, a tourist from Mumbai who visits Northeast regularly with her friends and family, said, “Meghalaya is like my second home because I love the hills and visit this place. Travelling to this state now is a little problematic since there are a lot of things to be done before entering. I was travelling alone in a tourist cab with two more visitors. While I had my COVID-19 negative report, one of my co-passengers did not, so we had to wait at the centre for at least 45 minutes.”
Ranjan Kalita, a tourist cab driver, said that with tourism being open in the state, he is relieved since he is the only earning member of his family. “The lockdown made me and my family go through a difficult phase, and I pray no one has to go through such times. I am a little contended now with tourism being open again, but it will take a very long time to earn what I used to in pre-COVID times.”