Innovative thinking, a return to the roots and the much-touted public-private partnership catapulted the tourism sector in the State into the global hall of fame
Over 20 years ago, the tourism sector in Kerala was dormant, little known, and confined to locales like Kovalam.
But innovative thinking, a return to the roots, and the much-touted public-private partnership catapulted the sector into the global hall of fame. The right mix of entrepreneurship and a slew of investor, tourist-friendly policy decisions transformed the State’s image from one that bred labour militancy to being the perfect host to guests from far and wide.
Today, tourism is a prominent employer in the State. The last two decades have witnessed an unprecedented increase in foreign tourist footfall — from less than a lakh in the initial years to a whopping 7.50 lakh in 2012. According to official figures, about 94 lakh domestic tourists visited the State last year.
Home to a host of assorted tourist attractions, Ernakulam and districts in Central Kerala attract more tourists than any other tourist destination in the State.
From the famed beaches of Ernakulam and Alappuzha, to the scenic backwaters and hills of Munnar, visitors are spoilt for choice.
Turning the tide
Apart from the natural lure of the pristine destinations, a handful of entrepreneurs played a key role in the bringing a turnaround in the sector.
The launch of novel tourism products, turned out to be priceless value additions.
Among those who did the star turn was the late Babu Varghese. His concept of tree houses — the modern day version of ‘erumadom’— enticed tourists to explore many destinations in the State. He showed the way forward by demonstrating how simple barges used to transport rice could be metamorphosed into the aesthetically charming ‘kettuvallom’.
Today, the famed houseboats have evolved into mobile luxury hotels — replete with bedrooms and a kitchen. Swimming pools also adorn the upper deck of a few house boats. The vessels were further popularised by Tomy Pulikattil. Over the past decade, the boats have enhanced the charm of the backwaters. Consequently, a string of hotels, resorts and home stays dot the banks of water bodies in Alappuzha, Kottayam and Kollam.
However, the recent emphasis on luxury boats has not gone down well with advocates of ethnic tourism. There is increasing demand that Kerala Tourism and boat owners make sure house boats have bio-toilets to prevent large-scale pollution of water bodies.
The foray of Ayurveda into the tourism sector and the introduction of home stays also turned the tide in favour of many tourist destinations in Central Kerala. Popular locales such as the heritage zone in Fort Kochi saw many houses being converted into charming home stays that offer not just bed and breakfast, but also books to read and even classes in cooking ethnic dishes.
The ethnic touch
Jose Dominic, the MD of ‘cgh earth experience hotels’, and his siblings, who opened a range of hotels and resorts, carved a niche in the tourism sector. “Till a few decades ago, Kerala was not viewed as a holiday destination, thanks to unchecked trade unionism. But good governance, focus on land reforms, health, and education laid the foundation for a civil and inclusive society. This in turn became a key asset to tourism. Now, Kochi is the tourism gateway to Kerala,” Mr Dominic said.
The 1990’s saw backpackers make a beeline for Kerala. The decade also saw people invest in tourism ventures outside cities.
In the late 1980’s the cgh invested in a property in Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep and renovated it into a resort.
“For this, we relied heavily on renewable materials and on inhabitants of the island. In all our properties, we depend heavily on chefs who are locally trained and are well-versed in cooking ethnic food. These became an ecological model for many others in the sector. Our emphasis is on tourists leaving the least footprint at our properties,” Mr. Dominic said.
‘Local and small’ are slowly emerging as world class in Kerala. Destination hotels ensured that the State found a place on the world tourism map. Entrepreneurs who understood Kerala’s ethos are thriving. The fast emerging alert, independent traveller gives pride of place to environmental protection and inclusiveness and most tourism stakeholders in the State are able to cater to them.
On the perils posed by encroachments on government land and rivers, and resorts/hotels that pollute water bodies, Mr. Dominic said environmental norms had to be enforced strictly.
“There must be a level playing field and government departments must not be partial to any player. We need ‘conscious capitalism’ to cater to the discerning traveller. Kerala also needs high-quality public transport to reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads and thereby pollution levels.”
He warned that the ‘humble garbage’ that is unattended and untreated and is aplenty in Kerala will sound the death knell for tourism in the State unless steps are taken to remedy the state of affairs. He said proactive ministers who were at the helm of tourism like E. Chandrasekharan Nair and K.V. Thomas, and civil servants, framed futuristic policies that emphasised on quality rather than quantity.
While States like Goa still cater to mass tourism that brings along pitfalls like rampant prostitution, proliferation of narcotic drugs and mafia culture, Kerala has managed to largely steer clear of these aspects. Former secretaries of Kerala Tourism like T. Balakrishnan, V. Venu, Amitabh Kanth and E.K. Bharat Bhushan were among those who made policies that gave tourism the pride of place in Kerala. Stakeholders in the sector said that the gains made during the past few decades would be lost if Kerala Tourism became lethargic and entrepreneurs in turn became greedy and out of touch with reality.