Every tourist destination seeks to find its unique selling point, something that will attract visitors year on year. It could be its natural beauty or its historical significance. Yet there is a village in Meghalaya, a state in north-east India, that brings in hordes of tourists just for its cleanliness. Yes, the village is so pristine that visitors, from India and abroad, come to experience its cleanliness.
Drive a couple of hours out of Shillong and you'll arrive in Mawlynnong, a tiny village near the Bangladesh-India border in the Khasi Hills. The village is surrounded by abundant greenery that stretches as far as the eye can see. Towering trees and rolling hills form a picturesque backdrop, creating a serene atmosphere that immediately soothes. The bamboo houses and cement village pathways are adorned with vibrant flowers, creating a riot of colours that contrast with the green surroundings. This floral beauty is a testament to the villagers' meticulous care and their commitment to creating an inviting ambiance.
At first glance there is nothing remarkable about Mawlynnong. But if you look closely you will spot the difference – such as the ubiquitous presence of khoh, cone-shaped bamboo woven baskets in every corner of the village used as bins. The handmade baskets are a constant reminder for people not to litter in the village.
In 2003, a travel writer from Discover India Magazine labelled Mawlynnong as “Asia’s cleanest village”, as have various other publications since then, including National Geographic and Lonely Planet.
It has been 20 years and the community living here has tried its best to retain the crown.
“We have introduced sustainable measures to keep our village clean and eco-friendly by banning plastic, smoking and adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards littering," village secretary Precious Khongdup, 31, tells The National.
On a rain-washed Saturday morning, Khongdup gives a tour of his village, where people from all age groups can be found out on the streets armed with brooms and bamboo baskets. They were sweeping the village roads and picking up tiny pieces of rubbish that missed the dustbin.
“Cleaning the village is a community effort and we have a rule where we clean our village every Saturday morning for two hours between 7am and 9am,” he says. There are 120 families who live in the village and every individual plays a part in keeping the village clean.
“Prior to the cleanest village title, the village was a nondescript place, almost unreachable by car due to bad roads, but the savvy locals recognised the title as an opportunity to change the social status of their village,” says Sabrina Lyngdoh, faculty member of the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management in Shillong. They made cleanliness their unique selling point and turned their village into a tourism model for the entire country, she adds.
The rural tourism model has created an ecosystem where most villagers play a part. People value the importance of cleanliness because this helps to bring in revenue.
Richard June Mawroh, a resident who runs a homestay, says 60 per cent of the villagers are involved in rural tourism. The remaining 40 per cent are farmers who grow betel nuts, bay trees, black pepper and seasonal vegetables. Mawroh's family has been running a homestay that gives tourists a local village experience for the past two decades.
As you enter the village there is a large field that is used as a car park, where visitors will find Khasi souvenir stalls and tea shops.
Mawlynnong inspires others to maintain cleanliness, says Vijaya Kumari, a traveller from New Delhi. “After visiting Mawlynnong we decided to visit the nearby Nowhet village, where I was surprised to see similar cleanliness practices being followed,” Kumari says.
The village has inspired many other smaller villages in the east Khasi hills to adopt the culture of cleanliness and build a tourism ecosystem around the idea of clean villages, Khongdup says. He provided examples of villages such as Nowhet, Nongeitniang and Riwai, all situated in close proximity to Mawlynnong.
Over-tourism is a concern in Mawlynnong, and something avid Guwahati traveller Sahidul Islam has voiced concern about. "I used to love the peaceful natural vibe of the village and have visited Mawlynnong more than once. But now you get to see more tourists than villagers," he tells The National.
Voicing a similar concern, Bah Ian, general secretary of Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum, describes over-tourism and heavy commercialisation as a "double-edged sword". "We need tourists because it is driving the economy, but too many of them can create problems in the long run," he says.
"The villagers of Mawlynnong and the tourism department should know where to draw the line to make it sustainable."