Feature story

On the rebound

A rural community in Nagaland is working to get its ecotourism business back in the game after a pandemic-induced body blow

For residents of Dzüleke village in Nagaland, Covid could not have come at a more inopportune time. Home to a fledgling ecotourism initiative that had become a near-perfect model for sustainable development and rural transformation, things were looking up for Dzüleke. Then the pandemic hit. Tourist arrivals dropped to zilch in a hurry and revenues dried up.

“Covid has affected our lives badly,” says 40-year-old Kevisono Meyase. “It has prevented the tourists from coming to our village and it has affected our incomes. This was not how it used to be.”

Ms Meyase and other residents of Dzüleke are part of a Tata Trusts-supported initiative that has planted the village on the tourist map of Nagaland and India. Located about 40 km from the state capital Kohima, the village had made the most of its picturesque setting to pull in tourists and travellers.

The popularity is well deserved. Dzüleke boasts a plethora of delights to entice and enthral visitors, from adventure options and nature trails to immersive living experiences. The pristine beauty of the place is its biggest draw and this has attracted people from Delhi and Mumbai, even from far-off Germany, France and Australia.

Dzüleke, which gets its name from the river that goes underground once it reaches the village, is home to about 30 households belonging to the Angamis, a Naga ethnic group. Agriculture, the mainstay of the population, enabled the residents to survive but this was never going to be enough.

Dzüleke’s artisans are a big part of the immersive experience that the ecotourism initiative offers visitors

Tourism began here, about 10 years ago, following a period when the local village council banned the hunting and trapping of wild animals in the nearby forests. As a result, the region became home to a rich variety of wildlife and this began drawing the attention of bird and animal lovers, botanists and trekkers, researchers and scientists.

With a view to capitalise on Dzüleke’s tourism potential, the village council set up the Dzüleke Eco-Tourism Board. The idea got a boost when the North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA), an associate organisation of the Trusts, stepped in with support in 2014.

“Nagaland offers huge potential for tourism due to its natural and scenic beauty, and a sense of mystery about the local culture,” explains Sentimongla Kechuchar, state coordinator with NEIDA. “We decided to help develop a community-based ecotourism model to enable the rural populace to participate gainfully from tourism activities.”

NEIDA’s objectives were two-fold: ensuring that the local community benefits from tourism, and preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the region. The villagers, with no prior experience of managing an ecotourism project, had to be formally trained to handle the demands of the unfamiliar business.

The ecotourism venture began with training programmes for the local people. A group of youngsters and village elders were sent to Yuksam in Sikkim to learn from a similar community-based ecotourism project, and another set off for the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam to be trained as guides.

The villagers were educated on how to establish homestays and the training included hospitality management, housekeeping, English classes, cooking, and workshops on sanitation and accounting.

Asa Meyase, a bamboo craftsman, has found new customers for his products through the ecotourism venture
Asa Meyase, a bamboo craftsman, has found new customers for his products through the ecotourism venture

Equity and equality are hardwired into the project and it ensures the initiative’s long-term sustainability. Each participating family benefits equally from Dzüleke’s growth.

Working with the community, NEIDA set up the Dzüleke Development Fund, and managed by the Dzuleke Eco-Tourism Board, to provide financial stimulus for the project. A tenth of all income from tourism-related activities goes into the fund, thus creating a sustainable model for community development.

Dzüleke welcomed more than 11,000 visitors from near and far in the 2015-19 period. The benefits were quick to accrue. “Previously, I had to depend solely on agriculture but that changed after I became a part of the ecotourism initiative,” says Ms Meyase.

Tented accommodation in open grounds enables tourists to bond with nature

The non-tangible benefits that the initiative offers have also been a big draw for Dzüleke residents. “More than the income it provided us, I liked interacting with the tourists. I’ve learnt so much about different cultures and places and my communication skills have also improved,” says 24-year-old Keoviko Khate.

All of that was before the pandemic brought the world to its knees. Dzüleke could not escape the Covid shadow as tourism ground to an abrupt halt. But the folks here are not a lot that can be kept down for long.

Egged on by NEIDA, Dzüleke’s villagers have used the lockdown period to improve and expand their tourism infrastructure. “Our experience over the last six-odd years has taught us of the need to improve, diversify and increase hosting facilities in the village,” says Ms Kechuchar.

The community has renovated two tourist huts, constructed a treehouse and two outdoor sheds, and also developed a new picnic site. “I have constructed another room to accommodate more guests,” says 58-year-old Sotuno Angami. “I’m confident that once restrictions are lifted tourists will flock to our village as they did in the past.”

The pristine beauty and pastoral life are a big draw for tourists