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India

Part 4: Adventure alternative

With a fast-growing reputation for some of the world's best whitewater, anti-dam activists say Arunachal Pradesh should look to eco-tourism for income.

The relative isolation of its many indigenous tribes means that — for now — their cultures are still mostly intact. Television and the internet aren't banned here, but in many villages – out of range of broadcast signals, cell towers and, sometimes, electricity — they might as well be.

Read Dam Nation Part 3: Cultures in danger

Even in modernized areas you can still catch a glimpse of local hunters armed with bow and arrows, witness dramatic costumed dances associated with animist festivals and sample local delicacies like fried caterpillars and boiled rat — if you're so inclined. And, unlike anyplace else in India, you can do it virtually alone.

Foreign tourists weren't allowed here at all until 1992. Only in 2008 was the maximum stay increased to 30 days from 10, and a special permit that costs $100 is still required. For those reasons and more, fewer than 20,000 foreign tourists and a few hundred thousand Indians from elsewhere in the country (including business travelers) have visited Arunachal Pradesh since 2008. Moreover, the vast majority head straight to Tawang — which boasts the largest Tibetan monastery outside Llasa — ignoring the rest of the state.

In other words the state is a rare, unspoiled gem in a region suffering from careless, breakneck development. There are no pestering touts, no postcard shops and no backpacker cafes. But the trouble is that there are practically no roads or hotels, either, which is why the state's tourism potential mostly lies untapped.

While the economic benefits of tourism are unlikely to match dam revenues, advocates argue that the state could dramatically improve earnings from visitors, while preserving the pristine environment and local culture. Moreover, tourism dollars go directly to locals, while dam revenue goes to the government to use for projects like schools, if they actually do so.

In 2011, 64,000 foreign visitors brought nearly $50 million in for Bhutan — which boasts pristine blacktop highways and posh hotels like Aman Resorts' five Amankora lodges. In contrast, though no financial statistics are available, 5,000-odd foreign tourists most likely brought in significantly less than $5 million for Arunachal Pradesh — which a tourism consultancy report described as having only 36 hotels, but “none of any star quality.”

Read more: Old problems plague new India

Along with all the dams, the government of India is finally funneling money to develop tourism infrastructure in the state.

But some locals complain that the projects envisioned by the bureaucrats are not geared to Arunachal's ecological and cultural strengths — as exemplified by some $600,000 earmarked for a convention center in Mechuka, a remote small town near the disputed border with China.

 
(Scott Ligare/GlobalPost)

“All the politicians, all the bureaucrats, all the big shots, directors, they want a bigger margin,” explained lodge operator Pulu, who has tried and failed to get funding for indigenous tourism projects.

“If they go to the center to put a proposal, it should be 5 crores, 3 crores [$1 million-$600,000]. Once that fund comes, there is nothing of Arunachali architecture or Arunachali culture related," he said. "These are concrete structures, nothing to do with the ambience, nothing to do with Arunachal. How can you sell a product like that?”

For paddlers and other adventure tourists, though, Arunachal's weaknesses can easily be turned into strengths with a little promotion and the addition of a few bridges and all-weather roads, travel professionals believe.

Hotels or no, Outside Magazine featured rafting and kayaking the Siang River among its best adventure trips in 2010. It made National Geographic's Ultimate Adventure bucket list this year.

Birders, trekkers and paddlers are catching on, too, according to Ozing Dai, the local tribesman who started Donyi Hango Tours & Travels 18 years ago and now handles permits, lodging and logistics for River India and other adventure companies. Over the past five years, his business has nearly doubled, with almost all of the increase coming from the state's whitewater.

“The Upper Siang is widely regarded by some of the world's top kayakers as one of the most fun, challenging and rewarding sections they've ever run,” said River India's Stevenson. “For tourists, the opportunity to participate in a multi-day expedition down a river that has huge beautiful white sandy beaches to camp on is unparalleled.”

The question is: For how long? Better book your flight.

Back to the Dam Nation series landing page.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/india/120411/dam-nation-arunachal-pradesh-adventure-tourism-part-4