Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

India’s North East is a land of stupendous dimensions – colorful, traditional, modern …. The region easily meets the expectations of every type of tourist. With her varied topography, picturesque valleys, high mountain peaks, cascading rivers, haunting wilderness, the North East of India never ceases to surprise the tourists with her kaleidoscopic attractions. Nevertheless, in terms of tourism, the region needs to be properly branded in the competitive global marketplace.

When somebody who has been on a trip to this region is asked the question – How was your North East jaunt? “Unparalleled” is the answer most of the time. It is well-nigh impossible to find such diversity anywhere else in India.

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

Apart from the stunning landscape, Mainland India and the rest of the world should know that North East is an Anthropological Hotspot? Why? 200 + tribes and anthropologists consider this region to be one of the world’s most culturally distinguishable regions. These fascinating people have grown up surrounded by love; honesty and simplicity are their trademarks. Today, mainstream India envy their sense of fashion, their gorgeous hair, their fine-looking skin, and their super-cool attitude.

In order to help people of the North East so that they can continue to be kind and nice people, I as a Travel Journalist and a one-time-native of that enigmatic land feel that the region’s tribal diversity is pretty similar to New Zealand’s Maori tribes, perhaps it would pay rich dividends if India Tourism were to follow the NZ Tourism’s model.

New Zealand Tourism’s thoughtful and smart branding has catapulted “Maori Culture Tours” to be amongst the world’s most sought-after immersive anthropological tours, while India Tourism is still found to be groping in the dark.

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

Much like the Maori people who belong to many sub-tribes or “Hapu”, tribal people of NE states to are divided into tribes and sub-tribes. Hilly tribes who dwell in high mountains are blessed with a fascinating lifestyle – indulge in hunting and fishing which are considered to be their prime occupations.

Needless to say, just as the Maori’s celebrate their indigenous festivals like Pasifka Cultural Festival, Parihaka Peace Festival, Maori Kai Festivals…….the tribal people of North East celebrate Bihu, Brahmaputra Festival of Assam, Hornbill and Sekrenyi festival of Nagaland, Torgya Monastery Festival Arunachal Pradesh, Shillong Autumn Festival, Chapchar Kut from Manipur, Ningol Chakouba Festival Manipur and Kharchi Puja from Tripura are celebrated with great pomp and grandeur.

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

In the case of New Zealand, the whole nation gets involved with their traditional “Matariki” festival – paying homage to ancestors, cultural performances, and fireworks displays. I am yet to see the involvement of the government towards celebrating North Eastern tribal festivals like Chap Char Kut, Ningol Chakouba, Sekrenyi festivals for instance being celebrated pan India.

New Zealand government will celebrate Matariki or The Maori New Year as a public holiday from the year 2022, thereby sending a strong message of recognizing Maori culture. The Matariki Advisory Group, consisting of Maori experts has been providing guidance and suggestions to the NZ government on the inherent values of the Matariki festival and has even identified the dates for the festival for the next 30 years. That’s how serious the NZ government is on issues pertaining to the promotion and preservation of Maori culture.   

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East Policy” – A revolutionary policy that will ensure the region’s amalgamation with mainstream India, promises greater amalgamation of India’s North-Eastern states with Mainland India and one great way to do that is by declaring at least on the key festival of North East, like, for instance, the Bihu Festival as a National Holiday, just like the New Zealand government has done in case of the Maori tribes’ Matariki festival.  

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

Festivals apart, North East India has also emerged as one of the prime industries of rock music. While Shillong is the music capital of India and Guwahati is one of the major destinations for live rock band performances. Music and dance festivals like Hornbill and folk music and tribal dance festivals haven’t been highlighted on a pan-India basis.

I can cite the example of one of Shillong’s favorite musicians – the affable Lou Majaw. He is regarded in the Rock ‘N’ Roll circles as the “Dylan of the North East”. The 61-year-old Lou was obsessed with Bob Dylan’s songs during the 60’s decade. As a tribute to Bob Dylan, every year he organizes a concert that coincides with Bob Dylan’s birthday. Has India Tourism branded this extraordinary tribute show at the national level?

Just like the Maori people’s belief that the sky, earth, forests, and all of nature are manifestations of god as well as their conviction that the spirits of their ancestors roam around them as protectors, many North Eastern tribes have identical beliefs systems in place.  The Mizos in particular!

The Mizo tribes worship spirits, both ancestor spirits as well as the deities of the village. They believe that the destiny of the universe is in the hands of one god – “Khazangpa”. He lives in the sky, punishes evildoers, and gives handsome rewards for good deeds. Their age-old tradition of offering water to the holy spirit in their small-sized cups and the ethereal scene of lighting butter lamps have captivated the hearts of a million tourists.

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

So fascinating is their lifestyle that the Ao Nagas, after marriage, the bride and the groom leave their family of orientation and establish a new family. The Ao Nagas do not practice polygamy. As a family unit, they live in complete harmony. If a younger member of the family quarrels with a senior person of the family, it is believed to be ominous not only to the family but also to the village as such.

The ‘Morung’ or Bachelor’s Dormitory plays a vital role in the social life of the Ao Naga village. Most ‘Morungs’ are fine work of craftsmanship. It serves both as a guardhouse as well as a clubhouse. The women are forbidden to enter inside a ‘Morung’. The young boys are admitted into the ‘Morung’ every three years to get trained practically in order to become perfect men in all spheres. The similarities with Maoris are telltale!

Then again, Māori arts like music, dance, wood carving, weaving and even those awesome tattoos they wear so religiously have become very noticeable and contribute hugely towards New Zealand’s cultural enrichment. What is more, most of these traditions have been passed on from generation to generation.

Did you know that the Khasi people of the North East are blessed with Mongoloid features and incidentally were the earliest Mongolian invaders in this part of the world? They speak the Austric language, which to my knowledge is largely prevalent in Cambodia, Java, and Nicobar Islands. The most remarkable feature of the Khasi social system is that it is matriarchal, which is not found in any other tribes of North East India.

Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

In places like Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, which is where some of the highest snow-clad peaks are positioned, standing like sentinels, the tribal people like the Monpas and  Bhutias’ belief in Buddhism is rock solid and if you can strike up a conversation with an elderly Monpa, you will be mesmerized with their discourse on “Reincarnation of the soul”.

For instance, legend has it that the Old Monastery in Ralang in Sikkim, dating back to 1768 AD was blessed by the 9th Karmapa with grains of rice brought from Tibet. One of the greatest festivals of the Kagyupa Buddhists – “Pang Lhabsol” wherein Mount Kanchenjunga is worshipped is celebrated with great zest and fanfare. 

It is about time to wake up and do something tangible for North East. Observing the tremendous tourism potential in North East, the Union Ministry of Tourism has come out with an innovative plan to promote North East as a single tourism destination and has set a target to double the tourist outflow within the next three years.

“We will promote North East as one destination with aggressive marketing strategy and tourist packages. The Ministry is pumping in close to Rs.1200 crore for 14 projects in the eight states of the region. While individual North Eastern states will continue to promote themselves with their own brand entity and tag line, we are working on the intercountry packages besides thematic packages like Wildlife tourism, eco-tourism and adventure tourism for North East India.”

According to Reshmi Verma, Ex-Secretary, Ministry of Tourism
Tribal Tourism In India’s North East & New Zealand’s Maori Tourism Model

The manner in which the New Zealand government is selling the uniqueness of “Indigenous Branding”, using the Maori culture in the crowded global tourism markets is phenomenal and rightfully finds an echo in the words of  Philip Klap – Maori Business Relationship Manager thus  –

“Indigenous branding can be a big plus in the United States and some European countries, like Germany. There is spiraling worldwide interest in things indigenous especially in tourism and in upmarket food stores where people can spend more and will take the time to look at the branding and ask what it means”.

The world of tourism is changing and the demand for authenticity is the prime driving force for today’s discerning traveler.  Gone are the days of hotel-sightseeing-back to hotel stuff.  In today’s evolving tourism marketplace, travelers are keen to purchase an experience, not a product. India has to learn how to present the country and culture in all its diversity.

Ultimately northeast is a full package of adventure, diverse culture, and lovable people. The global tourism industry needs India’s North East to prosper and bloom.

The prospect of being surrounded by the “Mountain People”, the quintessential tea estates spread like a finely woven carpet along the hillsides, breathtaking views of the snowy Himalayas and down to the swollen rivers in the valley bottoms is something that the discerning world traveler aspires for! Nothing compares to that ethereal sense of escaping to the North East from the heat, humidity, and hassle of the Indian plains! 

Images: Subhasish Chakraborty

Subhasish Chakraborty

Travel Journalist

Subhasish Chakraborty has been working as a Travel Journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international In-Flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathy Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a Consultant.