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We pioneered long distance river cruising in India: Jahnabi Phookan

Jahnabi Phookan, director, Jungle Travels India and Assam Bengal Navigation Company and senior VP, FICCI FLO articulates on the tourism business in the North East, the challenges and triumphs in the tourism sector and more.

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Jahnabi Phookan, director, Jungle Travels India and Assam Bengal Navigation Company and senior VP, FICCI FLO articulates on the tourism business in the North East, the challenges and triumphs in the tourism sector and more.

How would you like to define your journey in the travel industry?

It all started with a dream to bring tourists into the jungles of Assam and the name Jungle Travels was born. My husband Ashish was then a tea taster with the premier tea broking firm J Thomas & Co. I was a journalist, trained in Indian Institute of Mass Communication IIMC and Indiana University. Neither of us had any qualification in travel & tourism. All we had was the passion to succeed and showcase our region to the world. Looking back to our 30 years, it’s been an incredible journey to do what we do and loving every day of it.

In 1989 we set up shop from a wing of a residential home, tucked in a quiet bylane, with a monthly rent of Rs 1000. My husband’s cousin with some experience in travel (unlike us) and two delivery boys were our only resources. We branched out into outbound in 1990 as we soon found that inbound was a very seasonal business in Assam with the Kaziranga National Park open for just six months. That was 30 years ago. 15 years later, in 2003 , we pioneered long distance river cruising in India with our first vessel ABN Charaidew under our sister company Assam Bengal Navigation. This year, our fourth ship ABN Charaidew 2 has started on the River Brahmaputra in Assam alongwith Charaidew 1. ABN Sukapha and ABN Rajmahal cruise on the River Hugli and River Ganges.

What according to you were the primary challenges?

Starting out 30 years ago, the challenges for me was societal. Working outside the home in conservative Assam was quite unheard of and a lady in the travel profession was rare. Ticketing offices were basic and the staff, clerical. Ashish and I were surprised to find that in 1989 there were no IATA agents in the entire Northeast (including Sikkim). Kolkata was considered the only source for international bookings. International ticketing was such a closed world then. In 1994, the then iconic American Express Travel Services ventured into the Northeast seeking a franchise partner for their card member services. They chose us as their representative from the Northeast and it was this tie-up which helped us penetrate the sacrosanct world of the IATA agent and get the accreditation which no Northeast agent had managed till then.

In 1996, Jungle Travels India became the first IATA agent in the entire eight states of the Northeast. This recognition is a matter of great pride for us as the airline industry finally saw that there was a market beyond West Bengal that they needed to reach out to and the Northeast finally came into its own. From 2000, the outbound business was again revived. Deciding to market the Northeast themselves, instead of being sub agents to mainland India players, we were the first agents to attend travel shows abroad. The inbound business began to pick up. The key was quality people and we invested in retaining people from good families, like minded and well educated, at the executive level. JTI was also the only travel agency of the Northeast to be awarded The National Tourism Award for Excellence in Innovation in 2004. This was for the pioneering climb of Mt Saramati in Nagaland.

Can you share the story of your home-grown cruise initiative?

It is a matter of pride for us that our sister concern, Assam Bengal Navigation Company, was to pioneer long-distance river cruising in the country with their first ship, ABN Charaidew on the Brahmaputra in 2003. We were to put India on the international river cruising map of the world. ABN went on to add a second river vessel ABN Sukapha and started operations on the Hugli and the River Ganges in 2007.

Our third vessel ABN Rajmahal built to sail upto Varanasi, was launched for Hugli and Ganges in 2014. She is the first ship to sail beyond the ghats of Varanasi, which is possible only in the monsoon months of August and September. Our fourth vessel Charaidew 2 was launched for sailing on the Brahmaputra from January 2019. This is our 15th year of operation. Since our inception, we have tried for permission to carry passengers through Bangladesh (so far, only our vessels had sailed through with crew) and with the MOU finally signed with Bangladesh, that will soon be a reality and will open up the high-end river cruise tourism between our countries.

What are the bottlenecks the industry is facing to develop tourism in the North East?

To my mind, credit must go to the Ministry of Tourism for the “paradise unexplored “campaigns as well as to the Centre for the developmental thrust and focus they have given to the Northeast. Air connectivity is tremendous now, the domestic inflow has improved, and awareness of our region has grown hugely.

Are there any areas of positive development, which you would like to highlight?

We are committed to our creed of eco-tourism as the only sustainable development model and economic generator for our region. We feel vindicated when we opened up tourism in the hitherto troubled region of the Manas National Park. That was way back in 2003 when my husband Ashish approached the Assam Govt to open up their 16-room lodge at Manas National Park, which had only lodged the CRPF for years. Restored at great cost, and renamed as The Bansbari Lodge, we opened up the Manas National Park to foreign tourists for the first time after 20 years of insurgency.

This foray into opening up Manas National Park to foreign tourists by us led to a spurt of domestic tourism as well, roads were improved, and gainful employment opportunities was created for all. This is the essence of tourism that we have always stood for. We were awarded by the Assam Govt for this contribution to the economy. In 2008, our upscale jungle lodge in Kaziranga National Park, The Diphlu River Lodge, opened to rave reviews and is the only certified Eco Lodge in the state. It was indeed a testimony to Diphlu River Lodge that in 2016, when the Royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Assam, they chose our lodge to stay for their two nights in Assam. Diphlu River Lodge’s comfortable cottages on stilts, simple bamboo bridge to cross the paddy fields, home grown cuisine, all created with natural resources and staffed by our own human resources was therefore appreciated as a living example of sustainable tourism. To my mind, unfortunately, Kaziranga National Park’s growing popularity has not seen the comparable rise in sustainable tourism standards that she deserves to have.

Is the Northeast a gender sensitive work place?

Women in the Northeast have equal opportunities at the workplace. Women are hardworking, honest and sincere. In our companies, we have women representation at every level, from managerial to office help. Women are working outside their homes in every strata of society here.

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