The picture-perfect State

Print edition : July 18, 2003

Snake boats during a boat race. Kerala is today the new wonder-child of tourism in the country. -

Kerala's spectacular successes on the tourism front are the result of a strategy of optimising the impact of its natural endowments.

PAUL McCARTNEY, the millionaire rock star from Britain, visited India for the first time in 1968 with other members of the Beatles band and their girlfriends. They came then for a mystic vacation at an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Fabulous Four's three-month-long experience with transcendental meditation at Rishikesh inspired many of their songs. It was an event that was covered extensively by the world media, ever eager to feed the Beatles-mania sweeping the globe then.

Thirty-four years later, Sir Paul returned, virtually incognito, with a fiancee in his arms, to `another India' in the south, to what he described later as a most "magical'' trip to "truly, god's own country.''

Kerala's famously alert press, boasting of mass circulation figures, remained clueless about McCartney's tranquil fortnight in the State in January 2002 - until after he had left Thiruvananthapuram, the State's capital, by chartered flight, and his Indian tour agent was stopped on the tarmac of the international airport and asked to explain his presence there. The unenviable task of explaining the "secrecy clause" in a business agreement that promised McCartney a strictly private vacation then fell on his Kerala tour manager, who had signed the lucrative holiday deal with McCartney's international travel agents.

`Hush!' was the operative word for his local tour managers as McCartney led girlfriend and former model Heather Mills to a dream vacation, which he later described on a picture postcard thus: "Weather is divine, so is food, music, entertainment, sea, train-rides, accommodation. People are warm and friendly. Heather's birthday was on a flower-bedecked houseboat in the middle of a starlit lagoon."

During the idyllic holiday, McCartney relished his daily Ayurvedic massage and the feel of the beach sands, rode the day-train, second-class, with ordinary Malayalees, sauntered into toddy shops, drove around in a Mercedes-Benz (provided for the occasion by the Malayalam film actor Suresh Gopi) "for the real feel of Kerala", chanted "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" to his heart's content (for fellow Beatle George Harrison, a dedicated Krishna bhakt) along with hundreds of devotees at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, gulped beer at a `city bar hotel', savoured the Kerala cuisine in exotic resorts, had himself treated to a specially organised temple festival at Marari and relished performances of traditional art forms, especially Kathakali, which to him was a flamenco with costumes that were a "harmony in contrast".

It was a coup of sorts. Kerala's travel and tourism industry was proving that it could indeed deliver on the fantasies it had helped weave for the world's travellers by means of a ten-year long, professional advertising-promotional-marketing campaign.

The State offers a variety of attractions for the discerning international tourist.-

In retrospect, the still-a-secret effort that went into the making of the "Rs.100-lakh" McCartney holiday experience seems exceptional, unique, by the standards of Kerala's tourism industry. Wherever the McCartneys went, an entourage of professionals preceded them, booking whole suites in advance, scrubbing, cleaning, deodorising, just making sure. Water and food were flown in. In addition, chefs went into over-drive preparing a variety of exciting dishes for every meal, of which the couple eventually tasted two or three. After McCartney described the feel of the beach sands under his bare feet as an "exhilarating experience", it was the turn of the tour manager to wake up early every morning and, along with a clutch of his employees, remove any unwelcome material from the sands at the Marari resort, adjoining a fishermen's cove.

A few Mercedes-Benz cars drove along on the nearest parallel road as the train carried the pop icon on his first-ever second-class ride from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram, a distance of about 150 km. An adjacent first class compartment was fully booked for the star tourists, and rode empty, except occasionally when McCartney went in there for a glass of water. Over two dozen people worked for a day to decorate the `birthday-boat' anchored near the Coconut Lagoon resort at Kumarakom. Flowers worth Rs.3.4 lakhs were brought from all over Kerala and from Tamil Nadu. The remaining marigolds and carnations were strewn on the path leading to the backwaters to form a bed of colours. And to Heather's added delight, the birthday cake arrived by traditional row boat, the tour manager himself masquerading as boatman, with a huge moustache pasted on his otherwise scanty upper-lip. Ethereal music drifted from the flower-bedecked houseboat as the delivery was effected at the appointed hour. Only McCartney knew what was emerging out of the misty blue of the "starlit lagoon".

"Kerala has immense potential to provide such real-life encounters with a make-believe world to discerning visitors," the tour manager, K.C. Chandrahasan, told Frontline. "Standards are high, the tension of managing such events becomes unbearable at times, but money is no constraint. One such client would make a successful year for an agency like ours," he said. Ever since McCartney, Chandrahasan's tour company, which had modest beginnings, has been reaping the benefits. "It is a great reference to have: `McCartney's travel agent'. Business is booming," he declares. This coming season his company is arranging an exotic `Smells of Kerala' theme holiday for a group of 40 "high-end" tourists, perfume-makers from Europe. The details are under a veil. After heavy bidding, he has also secured a deal to play host to over 700 foreign delegates to an international conference that is to take place in Kochi, on the eve of a traditional boat race that will coincide with the celebration of the festival of Onam in a couple of months from now.

IT is a new-found confidence and optimism, unimaginable in Kerala's travel industry even a decade ago, when the State Tourism Department was still a den of bureaucrats. After all, it was originally established to play host to the government's own guests and manage the State-owned hotels and guest houses. The best on offer then for McCartney would have been the now-jaded Kovalam beach resort, already bursting at the seams then with backpackers and suffering the effects of ill-planned development. It was then virtually the only tourist attraction in the State that was known to the outside world.

Although Kerala has always been a land of breathtaking natural beauty, with its coconut lagoons, paddy fields, mountains and verdant forests all so close to the sea, it was not packaged as a tourism destination. Initial efforts to weave a charm with Kerala's untapped tourism potential did originate from the State government, but it often lacked focus and met with much scepticism. Even the branding of Kerala as "God's Own Country" failed initially to receive the admiration that it now gets from all over the world. When the then E.K. Nayanar government announced a clutch of private sector ventures in the tourism sector in the early 1990s just before it left office, a newspaper report that counted them as being impractical had created a commotion in the State Assembly. It began thus: "Travellers lured into the State by the Tourism Department's `Destination Kerala' campaign will have to tread with care. Or, they will trip on foundation stones." The refrain was that economically backward Kerala cannot aspire to be a successful tourism destination.

Kerala reinvented itself in a span of a mere 10 years. It shook off the incredulity that had seemed to meet every effort it made to proclaim itself as a "Paradise on Earth". It went much beyond being a place that interested the world's economists thanks to its unique development indicators. (The State has had impressive development achievements that are on a par with those of the developed nations, achievements made despite a low per capita annual income of less than $300.) Gradually, derision changed to scepticism. Scepticism gave way to respect. And respect turned into adoration. The State became the new wonder-child of tourism in India, winning rave reviews in the world's travel magazines as hordes of travel writers began to arrive to re-discover everyday scenes from the nooks and corners of Kerala. To the international traveller, the State became "another India entirely", "a green Venice", "a time travel into another century", "the most acclaimed destination of the millennium", one among the "50 places of a lifetime" - and, lo!, "one of the ten paradises of the world."

The land of shoestring geography and three international airports was perceived as a veritable cornucopia. An interesting assortment of Ayurvedic resorts, backwater cruises, beach holidays, herbal cures, spa tourism, tropical islands, dreamy lagoons, hill stations, wildlife sanctuaries, exotic resorts, adventure treks and a top-notch marketing machinery has, in the last 10 years, increased international tourist arrivals in Kerala by an average of 11.8 per cent a year. Domestic tourist arrivals grew by more than 18 per cent. (These growth rates are well above the world average figures.) In 2002, Kerala accounted for a record 9.8 per cent of the total international tourist arrivals in the country. Significantly, this was at a time when the world travel industry was facing a crisis and overall arrivals in India had declined by 6.6 per cent. It was the second consecutive year of decline.

Tea gardens in Munnar, Idukki district.-

Today, wonder-eyed global visitors are welcomed with a sense of amusement and relief by the local population, to whom the selling of their Shangri-la was a task that was long overdue. Says Tourism Secretary T. Balakrishnan, one among a group of committed, industry-savvy officials who have helped Kerala find a place among the fastest growing tourism regions in the world: "The tree did not sprout in a day. Unknown to the world outside, we were working silently, consistently for over a decade. The building of the `brand' started in the late-1980s. We prepared a master plan, conferred industry status on tourism and carefully identified the strengths and weaknesses of the State as a tourism destination. We have a Vision 2025 outline on how Kerala Tourism should be a quarter century from now. We have recognised the importance of government-private sector partnership in this industry. `God's Own Country' is certainly no accident."

Climbing on to the tourism bandwagon as late as it did, Kerala had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other destinations. Its brand equity was too diffused. It needed to create a niche for itself. It had to identify, swiftly, one or two products and tell the world that those were its unique selling propositions (USPs). It needed desperately to have its products displayed in tourism packages offered by international tour operators. It needed to make visiting tourists stay longer and spend more. The small State that it was, it had to be careful not to over-exploit its natural assets or damage its cultural heritage while developing its "products". Kerala learned that if it were to strike a balance among the business aspects of the industry, the protection of the environment and the cultural heritage and well-being of its people, it needed to develop itself as an "upmarket, high-quality tourist destination", never selling its `products' cheap.

An unprecedented promotional blitz accompanied this process. Kerala identified its backwaters and Ayurveda as core sectors for development, with astounding success. Kerala Tourism soon became regular fare at international travel marts and tourism promotion exercises. The State's tourism professionals struck a one-to-one relationship with leading international and domestic tour operators. Perhaps for the first time, an Indian State created an attractive and utilitarian website. A brand-building exercise was launched, with print and film advertisements reaching a targeted, discerning, opinion-making audience. The world's leading travel magazines and newspapers were encouraged, for the first time, really to see Kerala and its largely unspoilt natural and cultural environment as a tourism `product'. Celebrities were invited to become brand ambassadors for Kerala. Among them was M.F. Husain, who was wooed into seeing Kerala through his creative brush. A collection of Husain's paintings on Kerala, with a poetic essay on his native moorings by the author and senior United Nations official Shashi Tharoor, is now a fascinating introduction to a must-see Kerala. It is titled, rather predictably, Kerala: God's Own Country.

Kerala eventually found a solution to the question that had been nagging its tourism sector: `Which should come first: infrastructure development or tourism promotion?' "We decided to stop arguing. One need not wait for the other. They had to go hand in hand," Balakrishnan said.

It was a decision, which spearheaded the travel and tourism boom, making it one of the largest industries today in industrially backward Kerala, contributing Rs.39.3 billion. This amount constitutes 3.7 per cent of the gross state product (GSP). It has provided employment to 7.8 lakh people in a State with over 39 lakh job-seekers registered in employment exchanges. The total investment in the tourism sector in 2002 alone was Rs.500 crores, according to State Tourism Minister K.V. Thomas.

Such impressive growth is largely driven and sustained by the private sector, which continues to unlock new, pristine holiday locations such as Poovaar, Marari, Vythiri, Mananthavaadi and Kalpetta. Certain virgin areas of north Kerala, a least-exposed green topping of exquisite natural beauty, have been identified by the government as well, to woo potential investors. The first of the independent tourism development authorities floated by the government, the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation, now has a `Bekal game plan' that involves the promotion of sites for 16 beach or backwater resorts and hotels in the north. The government has donned the role of facilitator: its expenditure is now a mere 1 per cent of the total spending on tourism in Kerala.

Kerala's tourism officials - who are in the enviable position of enjoying the best of holidays while at work - constitute a sought-after lot. A few of them have been poached by other States that are keen to recreate the Kerala magic. Strategies and marketing ploys are imitated. But Balakrishnan says: "Kerala has had a headstart. It is not going to rest on its laurels."

Caprisoned elephants at the Thrissur Pooram (festival).-

CURIOUSLY, the phenomenal growth of Kerala Tourism coincided with a serious crisis in the State's economy, with investors refusing to put their money into ventures within the State. Fortunately for Kerala, it was also a period when a large number of Malayalees returning from their jobs in the Gulf countries were seeking self-employment in their native State, after years of toil in the oil-rich countries of West Asia. The already-booming success of a few native entrepreneurs who appeared to have made it "merely by showing tourists around their beautiful courtyards" was inspiration enough for a number of them to enter the field of tourism.

But a rift is already growing, between those entrepreneurs who are thriving thanks to their "imaginative selling and niche marketing", and others who have merely invested their money, hard-earned as it is, on infrastructure, hoping that tourists would just pour in. A number of such new-wave "resort" owners, travel agents and houseboat operators are in the red already, within a year or two of getting started, and they are slashing rates and pruning their workforce. Quality and professionalism go downhill during off-season periods. Despite Kerala's upmarket orientation, a majority of tourists continue to be fairly "low-yield". The average spending per foreign tourist per trip is around $550. Says Baby Mathew, the owner of a flourishing `Ayurvedic resort': "The advertisement hype may have helped Kerala in the short term. But it may prove counterproductive if the expectation it creates fails to match the reality." That is the fate of one of the finest beaches in India, Kovalam, owing to unplanned construction activity, over-crowding, poor quality of services and an invading army of small entrepreneurs and backpack-tourists. It is a reminder of what should not be, in the long term.

The State's tourism planners are, however, confident that things are moving as per the road map. "Investors pop up every other day, some even with outlandish ideas like making the State a gambler's paradise a la Las Vegas, or filling the Kochi port area with miniature houseboats. We try to help them launch sustainable products that jell with the State's tourism policy. Some of them ignore our suggestions, fail to do their homework, and lose out eventually. A shake-up is bound to happen. Only the cream will survive," Balakrishnan said.

Tourism as an industry was a slow-starter, and moreover Kerala has its fair share of shortcomings: Infrastructure development is proceeding at a snail's pace; access is a problem, the State being far away from the major tourism markets; the tax rates are high; government spending on common tourism-related services is low; waste management systems are poorly developed; pollution is unmitigated; there is no regulatory mechanism for sustainable development and quality control; there is a general lack of awareness about tourism development. The list is long.

But Kerala's successful tourism entrepreneurs are those who have learned to overcome such glitches. Listen to McCartney's travel manager: "Tourists come for the Kerala experience, not for five-star sameness. A lunch on a plantain leaf, a drink from a tender-coconut, having a herbal steam-bath, seeing an elephant on the road, a ride in an auto-rickshaw, the smell of jasmine, a fanciful night in a misty lagoon... We are in the dream business. It is in the selling, sir!"

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