Being a denizen of Mumbai, it’s not overstating to say that the North East of India is often considered inaccessible (Kolkata being the exception), mostly because of its location and distance from Maharashtra. Apart from perhaps Darjeeling, it isn’t the obvious choice of tourist travel as well.

Considering that there aren’t any tier-I cities in Assam, Guwahati, a tier-II city, over the years, has taken the position of being a pivot for all industries that have mushroomed in the state. Recently, noted airlines such as AirAsia, Vistara and SpiceJet commenced flights to this commercial and financial centre of Assam. This city also saw its first five-star hotel, Radisson Blu open this year. JW Marriott and Vivanta by Taj are to follow, which exemplifies the rising importance of this eastern hub. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t equally nervous as excited for my first trip to this side of the country, at that time.

A relatively humble airport welcomed my IndiGo (direct) flight from Mumbai. The drive from the airport to the hotel, with a backdrop of mountain ranges on either side was endearing. The driver, like the rest of the population that is not fluent in Hindi, explained in broken English that the Nilachal Hills lines Guwahati all through. The Brahmaputra river flows through the interiors of the city. Upon checking in, I quickly brewed myself some hot-water, and looked at the tea-sachets provided in the hotel room, which proudly said “Assam Tea”.

As a state, Assam has a number of prowesses that have put it in the spotlight of domestic and international trade. As the land of spices and chai, the East of India prides itself with superior quality tea-leaves (which are farmed in Assamese tea-estates), and are traded worldwide. Assam contributes to nearly 55 per cent of the country’s tea production and 80 per cent of India’s export. Guwahati, being the business centre of Assam, has been conducive to this industry over the decades. One such platform that works towards bridging the gap between the producers and the market, in-order to sustain and catalyse the state’s tea-industry, is Guwahati Tea Auction Centre. “Local entrepreneurs and Assam-based farmers realised the importance of setting up an eco-system that supported this industry in entirety. This led to the formation of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre in 1970 in order to liaison the four segments of tea trade — sellers, brokers, buyers and warehousemen with the government,” says Dhiraj Kakoti, secretary of Guwahati Tea Auction Centre.

This year, GTAC executed the sale of 117 million kg of tea to India, Iran, United Kingdom and a few CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. A number of buyers also purchase tea through us and sell it to multinational companies such as Hindustan Lever and Tata Global Beverages. Like the name suggests, auctions take place on a weekly basis where the buyers bid for the teas as per quality and demand. Since Assam holds credibility of producing the finest tea-leaves in the country, a number of electronic auctions from buyers of cities (who can’t reach Guwahati every week) take place here as well. “Apart from the traditional black tea, GTAC also prides itself with flavoured and organic tea-leaves, which perform better in international markets. India and global bazaars have begun to give Guwahati credibility for its tea industry in recent years. This can also be attributed to consecutive efforts by the government to put Guwahati in the spotlight of trade and tourism. The city is nominated in the nation’s “smart city” list, which earmarks ₹48,000 crore by the centre, to the development of Guwahati.

“It (the government) has also called for the electrification of 782 tea-estates as a part of its people centric measures this year. The state’s legislative is additionally working upon increasing the daily minimum wages of the tea labourers in the state. (There are about ten lakh labourers in the tea industry in Assam),” adds Kakoti. Skill development centres are in the process of being set up across the city, which endeavours to conquer issues of talent in Guwahati, a common woe faced by entrepreneurs and businesses who claim that the educated cliques move to bigger cities for better opportunities.

Apart from supporting the large scaled tea-industry, the government has also appointed the Department of Industries & Commerce to work towards developing other sectors that are lucrative in the region. The government body, headquartered at Guwahati, positively positions the core strengths of city (and state) such as resources, agriculture and geographical location in the global market and lures investors with attractive tax incentives. “The North East Industrial & Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP) of 2007, opened doors to a number of industries and trade that couldn’t dream of being present in this state before. The availability of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals and hydro-energy as well as its strategic location alongside China, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal makes Guwahati the driver of industrial development in the state. To name a few bigwigs here: Star Cement, Dalmia Cement, TopCem, Wai Wai noodles and Fair & Handsome have set up base in the city. These companies continue to successfully manage their Indian and international operations from their headquarters — Guwahati,” says Swapanil Baurah, commissioner of Industries & Commerce, Assam. 

Speaking of natural resources and their contribution to the city’s (and state’s) economy , it’s unfair to rule out the significance of Oil India Limited, a government undertaking, that has over the past five decades become one of the biggest industries of the North East. The company, based in Guwahati, engages in the exploration, development and production of crude oil and natural gas, transportation of crude oil and production of LPG — a key natural resource in India. Oil India Limited holds an authorised share capital of ₹2,000 crore and provides employment widely across Guwahati.

The facilitation of this industry has also created opportunities to micro, small and medium enterprises, that manufacture machinery required for the operations of Oil India Limited. The Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises manages a range of activities for the MSME sectors; this includes management development programmes, consultancy to entrepreneurs, quality control and many other promotional initiatives. “A government enterprise, the ministry wholly supports Oil India Limited (and other large industries) by working closely with MSMEs that manufacture, export or trade in a wide range of equipment, accessories, plant and machinery that  assist the operations of the oil stalwart. This is a win-win situation for OIL and MSMEs as it generates abundant employment for the locals and contributes generously to the GDP of the state,” says Shirish Ashtana, director of the Ministry of Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises. Apart from Oil India Limited, the Ministry also works with the state’s tea and defence industry.

Guwahati is a cauldron of a number of trades and industries that have recognised the core-strengths of this city and region, and work in synergy with one another, most often to create advantages wholly for the state of Assam. The city has an understated vibe, and businesses have always been low-key about their operations, irrespective of their scale. The exposure in general of East India to the rest of the world is minimal. Denizens are humble and often comes across as shy. This explains why I felt quite out of place here, in the beginning. Upon my departure, I realised that the diversity and multi-faceted personality of this people and place had positively grown on me. There is no doubt that versatile Guwahati’s skill-sets will embark upon advantage India very soon.

What to see

Mythical temples, endangered animals and picturesque hills alongside the Brahmaputra river; there is no doubt that Guwahati will fascinate the most discerning traveller. This “city of temples” is known for its legendary mandirs, which envelop you in their captivating tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, amidst traditional rituals and crimson smeared idols. Start your Guwahati escapade at the Kamakhya Mandir, where you’ll find devout Indians and curious tourists queue up to catch a glance of goddess Kamakhya. The temple grounds exudes an ethereal vibrance of prayer, belief and tradition. Mornings at this temple must be avoided for the faint-hearted, as you may be witness to the sacrifice of animals as a gift to the goddess. Read page 62 of Business Traveller India’s July issue to delve into the mystical story behind this epic temple. An evening in Guwahati can be spent cruising the Brahmaputra River, with a backdrop of the panoramic Nilachal hills. Public transport ferries can be hired for a more local experience, which stop over at the Umananda temple (dedicated to Lord Shiva), situated on a quaint island in the middle of the river. Brahmaputra River Cruises organise three, five and seven day cruises from Guwahati which include wildlife tours and tribal village excursions ( Lovers of fauna and flora should set aside a day or two to visit the world renowned Kaziranga National Park, located about 200km (five hours by road) from Guwahati. Spot a Bengal tiger or two if you’re lucky, encounter Indian civets, sambars, leopards, sloth bears and capped langurs in an enclosed jeep or while riding an elephant. Kaziranga National Park is home to 70 per cent of the world’s one-horned rhino population and this massive reserve spreads across 858 sqm of lush grasslands and river-islands. Evenings in Guwahati must be spent devouring local cuisine, dining at age-old Assamese restaurants such as Delicacy and Paradise, which pride themselves with succulent fresh-water fish specialities such as masor tenga (tangy fish-curry) and gerang asam (spicy and sour fish-curry). Getting around in Guwahati can be a bit of a challenge; best to pre-book an Ola since there might not be one very close to you. Hiring a car for the day is also a good option.

Where to stay

Radisson Blu

Guwahati’s first five-star hotel, Radisson Blu is ideally located 15km from the Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International airport on the NH37 highway. The hotel’s highlight is definitely its mountainous views that could make you feel like you’re on a vacation, even though on a business trip. Radisson Blu offers 196 rooms with free wifi, LED televisions, 24 hour room service and a work-desk along with tea/coffee facilities. The hotel also prides itself with a host of fine-dining options that range from Mediterranean, Indian to pan-Asian. With eight meeting spaces that include three banquet halls, two conference halls, two meeting rooms and one boardroom, Radisson Blu is ideal for and popular with large scaled MICE events.

Ginger Hotel Inn

Ginger hotels is a subsidiary of Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL), founded by the founders of the Tata group that also operate the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces. This budget hotel is closely located to Guwahati’s tourist attractions such as the city zoo and is about 10km from the railway station. All 70 rooms of this hotel offer basic amenities such as LCD televisions, air-conditioning, min-bar and tea/coffee facilities. Wifi and laundry services are available at a surcharge. A gymnasium and a restaurant called The Square Meal (varied cuisines) are within the premises along with the popular Indian coffee chain Cafe Coffee Day.

Hotel Gateway Grandeur

A prominent three-star property in Guwahati, Hotel Gateway Grandeur conveniently located near the station and the famous Kamakhya temple. Hotel Gateway Grandeur maintains 50 rooms across six categories and features five conference rooms, the largest one accommodating about 150 people. The business facilities of the hotel are free wifi, LCD projectors at conference room, workstations and secretarial service. In-room facilities include LED televisions, mini-bar, tea/coffee maker and an electronic safe. The hotel is contemporarily designed keeping in mind comfort and luxury. Three restaurants including one specialising in Assamese cuisine called King Chilly are within the hotel premises.