A success story

Print edition : January 13, 2006

Kerala has developed a series of innovative concepts and projects to reinvigorate the State's tourism sector without diluting its commitment to conserve nature.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

Early morning in Munnar, one of the major hill stations in the State.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

KERALA'S swaying green palms, golden sands and languid backwaters once said it all. The occasional heat- and dust-weary traveller needed neither advertisement nor invitation to bask in the coastal experience and embrace the rich natural and cultural diversity contained within its 38,863 square kilometres. Tourism promotion was an afterthought. Initial strategies to package the State as a tourism destination and develop the sector lacked focus and direction, met with scepticism and even derision, and were weighed down by the bureaucracy. Kovalam was Kerala's only claim to fame and it too was becoming jaded and a bit disappointing for its ill-planned, unsustainable growth and inadequate infrastructure.

The need to market and reposition itself and rope in the private sector to capitalise on the employment, revenue and foreign exchange generating potentials of tourism was too easy to recognise. Concessions and incentives were offered by the State government to woo private investment and promote tourism products after it was declared an industry in the late 1980s. But critics were sceptical of such aspirations, and decried efforts in this direction as being impractical in a State that remained economically sluggish despite impressive developmental indices. Teething troubles were aplenty, but Kerala Tourism as a brand was developed with persistent, focussed effort, within a span of 10 years. There was a deliberate reorientation away from mass tourism, and towards projecting the State as an up-market, high-quality destination, identifying its inadequacies - minimal infrastructure and poor air connectivity - while capitalising on its exclusivity such as centuries-old Ayurvedic expertise and meandering sun-dappled backwaters.

The problem that niggled the State's tourism sector until then was whether to concentrate first on the development of infrastructure or on tourism promotion. The decision that came with the recognition that they both should go hand in hand blazed the trail for the travel and tourism boom in Kerala, making it one of its most economically viable industries today. According to figures of the State Tourism Department, the sector generated Rs.6,828 crores in total revenue, including foreign exchange earnings of about Rs.1,300 crores in 2004. Being a service industry, it employs about eight lakh people, directly and indirectly. Highly visible and targeted promotional campaigns and aggressive marketing ploys - including participation in travel marts, international and national tourism fairs, road shows, an enticing award-winning Web site, CD-ROMs, a promotional film by ace cinematographer/director Santosh Sivan, colour-splashed succinct advertisements and the slogan that famously branded Kerala as "God's Own Country" have helped Kerala leapfrog the status of being the most acclaimed tourist destination in the country.

Kerala is today India's benchmark for success in tourism, with the prestigious "Partner State" status conferred on it in recognition of its potential and performance by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Commendations from the National Geographic Traveller as being one of the 50 "Must See" destinations of a lifetime and "one of the ten paradises of the world", other appreciative tributes from leading publications, including the coveted Super brand status, and numerous national and international awards have attracted both domestic and foreign pleasure-seekers in droves. Tourist inflow has increased exponentially over the years. The figures are impressive: Domestic tourist arrival in 2004 was estimated at over 59 lakhs (up from nine lakhs in 1990) and international tourist arrival at over three lakhs, more than 12 per cent of the total number of foreign tourists arriving in India.

WHAT has generated so much interest in such a tiny State? Apart from the famed 600-km coastline, enchanting backwaters, mist-laden hill stations, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, historical monuments, pilgrim centres and awe-inspiring art forms, the "Kerala experience" now encompasses a variety of innovative tourism products - Ayurvedic rejuvenation packages, traditional houseboat holidays, cultural and religious festivals and celebrations, package tours, trekking, and increasingly popular concepts such as home stays, "farm and village tourism", "eco-agro tourism", "wellness holidays", "culinary holidays", and "working vacations" or "corporate getaways".

Kerala today can create experiences tailored to appeal to specific whims - a wedding in an exotic or traditional locale, a unhurried ride in a tinkling bullock cart, a stay in a tree house, or a walk through paddy field slush. The new age tourist can luxuriate or revel in the simplest of pleasures in exotic resorts, bask in the sunshine or refresh himself in the invigorating monsoon rain, gaze at the spectacle of caparisoned elephants or scramble atop one. It is "multi-destination tourism" at its best, offering a multitude of variegated experiences and attractions within a relatively small area, luring tourists into staying longer and spending more. The tourist visiting the State for an average of two weeks gets to see and savour more of Kerala than the laidback Malayali does in a lifetime.

The question before the State's tourism planners is, having once refurbished the sector's image and redefined its goals to facilitate such phenomenal growth, how can it be sustained? The tourism sector in Kerala continues to scan the world for prospective clients even as the world increasingly eyes the State as a dream destination. Along with the existing lucrative European market, great potential is in Australia. Efforts are on to woo clients from the West and South Asian regions. New tourism concepts such as monsoon tourism, medical tourism, adventure tourism, heritage tourism, pilgrimage tourism, eco tourism, and farm tourism are being developed and popularised, with a few private players keen on providing "experiential" holidays to discerning customers.

The rapid growth of the sector raises concerns. In encouraging creativity and private enterprise in the quest for innovation, norms must not be flouted, standards and quality must be regulated at periodic intervals, and exclusivity maintained. A handful of kettuvalloms (houseboats) may be a novelty; too many can spoil the lake. The total capital investment needed in tourism is projected to increase from Rs.1,800 crores in 2003 to Rs.7,500 crores in 2013, the lion's share of it expected to come from the private sector. The travel and hospitality industry has seen the pro-active involvement of private players, with the state playing the role of a catalyst and a facilitator, investing in critical infrastructure and formulating appropriate guidelines. The Oberoi, Taj, Mahindra Resorts, Casino and other national and international hotel chains have provided getaways throughout the State, helping to keep the tourist population dispersed. Local enterprises and private tour operators have been pivotal in helping showcase the essence of Kerala.

In order to strike a balance between the need to encourage further private sector investment and to conserve nature, a number of Special Tourism Zones are to be identified and developed under the purview of the Kerala Tourism (Conservation and Preservation of Areas) Act, 2005, which envisages the conservation, preservation and integrated development of such areas. The Act prohibits developmental activity, including construction in the special zones, except in accordance with its guidelines. The comprehensive development of Kovalam, Kumarakom, Fort Kochi and Munnar is proposed in the first phase of the project. Tour operators say there is a crying need to invest in expanding hotel accommodation and facilities for travel. Suggestions have been made to set up a novel "Heritage Home Protection Scheme" that provides incentives to convert traditional houses (tharavads) into tourist accommodations.

A view of the fireworks that mark the conclusion of the Thrissur Pooram festival.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

More luxury cruises and houseboats would raise the revenue-generating potential per tourist, but the pollution of the backwaters is already a cause of concern. Common sanitation facilities have been proposed as a means to end such pollution. The preservation of the State's unique culture, art and heritage has been set as a priority. Work on heritage areas and structures has been undertaken by the State Tourism Department. Projects include the conservation of forts, restoration of mural paintings at temples and museums, and beautification of heritage buildings and premises. The Centre has allocated Rs.25 crores to the Tourism Department for schemes on heritage conservation in the State. Major projects for the conservation of forts in the Malabar region and the Thrippunithara heritage town are in the offing.

Hitherto unexplored or lesser-known areas, especially in the Malabar region, traditional skills, handicrafts, art forms, and new tourism products are to be developed and marketed to sustain tourist interest. Constant innovation is seen as the way to draw in the discerning tourist and prevent the frequent traveller from developing visitor-fatigue. The Tourism Department has drawn up a plan to develop pilgrim facilitation centres in association with the temple/church/mosque authorities concerned.

To solve the problem of lack of quality space in major town centres for tourists to congregate, town squares with public utility systems, information and facilitation centres and parking areas are proposed to be built in association with the local bodies. Wayside centres with minimum standardised facilities - restaurant, souvenir shop, public toilet, Internet/automatic teller machines (ATM), public telephone - are to be set up through private sector initiatives. The vazhiyoram units are to be strategically placed so that there is at least one such facility within 10 to 12 km on roads leading to tourist destinations and on State and national highways.

Alappuzha is set to regain its lost glory as the "Venice of the East" with various schemes launched for the cleaning and beautification of its canals and backwaters, and establishment of various tourist-oriented facilities. The Bekal project envisages the development of the Bekal fort in Kasaragode district.

Generating the human resources needed for the burgeoning tourism industry is a challenge. The recommendations include exploring the possibilities of establishing more institutes to cater to the needs of the hospitality industry and travel and tourism sector as well as raising the existing standards in institutes, absorbing the educated unemployed into the sector after imparting specialised skills in tourism management to them, and making the host population "tourism friendly" by creating awareness about the need to interact appropriately with tourists.T

In order to retain its competitive edge, Kerala needs to address its inadequacies in tourism infrastructure and ensure that its famed natural wealth and cultural heritage are not compromised by unbridled growth. The promotion of sustainable tourism through the rational use of resources is the aim of the industry, but efforts to diversify further the Kerala experience and use opportunities to cash in on the State's vast untapped potential carries with them the threat of ecological and cultural degradation. Paradoxically, the aggressive promoters of the land and its culture should also be its preservers. But it is a challenge boldly laid down in the slogan of Kerala Tourism Vision 2025: "Conserve Nature and Culture and Promote Tourism".

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