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The genesis of `God's Own Country'

Kerala has shown the other States that it can market its own, unique attractions effectively. HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER on this year's Kerala Travel Mart.

Some of the 172 stalls at the mart ... the serious business of tourism.

KERALA, as "God's Own Country", is the tourism wonder-child of India. Goa and Rajasthan, traditionally popular tourist destinations, are still not sure how, and even when, Kerala overtook them. So were we. Now, after questioning a lot, and probing a little, we've managed to get the broad picture, and it's a fascinating one.

For many years, few people in the State took tourism seriously. When we predicted, back in the early 1980s, that Kerala would rival Kashmir as a tourist destination, we were met with scepticism. "You can't be serious," said our friends, "what has Kerala got to offer but labour unrest and coconuts?" But no other State had high mountains so close to the sea, or such a symbiotic relationship between many faiths and ethnic groups, or its unique back waters. Additionally, long years of Communism had created an eclectic mix of an enviable quality of life and a strong co-operative movement. When Malayalees compared their health, education and social services with their neighbours they realised, albeit grudgingly, that their government had been an active partner in the achievements of their State, even though they often voted their politicians out of power. In this socio-political climate, all Kerala needed was a catalyst to bring everything together.

That catalyst, we believe, was the return of the tired, but rich, Keralites from the Gulf. After years of labouring in Arabia, building glittering cities in the sand, they saw their green, and serene, land in a new light. And when they sought modern, self-actualising, avenues of employment, they embraced tourism.

Quick to assess the changing mindset of Keralites, the bureaucratic support system, that had made such a success of the co-operative movement, changed its focus to tourism. Here, Kerala has again been particularly fortunate. No other State has produced such a long succession of tourism-savvy officials who, unlike their colleagues in other State cadres, have built on their predecessors' achievements. And they are still doing so, supported by a political establishment that had seen the high employment-generation potential of the world's largest industry.

Out of this unique synergy between the land, its people, its politicians and bureaucrats was born Kerala's vision statement for tourism.

"To develop Kerala into a premier destination on the world tourism map for upscale tourists by positioning Kerala as the holiday destination of the rich and famous."

This concept was so radical that the more far-seeing tourism entrepreneurs and IAS officials decided to set up a permanent organisation that would protect this public-private sector partnership from Cassandras. The Kerala Travel Mart Society (KTMS) was born. One of the KTMS's many objectives was

"... to promote the interest of all persons engaged in activities connected with tourism."

In other words, the KTMS became a focus, and a forum, for the development of tourism as a self-sustaining commercial activity. It placed the interests of the industry squarely in the hands of its stake holders. This had never been done before.

It isn't enough, however, to express pious intentions, as politicians often do: visible results were essential to bind this hard-won synergy. This was achieved by implementing another of the KTMS's objectives.

"To undertake tourism promotion efforts ... by conducting ... . exhibitions ... ."

The colours of the Inaugral of the KTM, 2002.

The first exhibition was the Kerala Travel Mart 2000. It was held in the newly-built International Convention Centre in Kochi attached to the five-star Le Meridien Hotel. Significantly, both the centre and the hotel have been built by Dr. P. Mohamed Ali, an expatriate Malayalee builder in Oman.

From its inception, the KTMS emphasised private sector-state partnership, centered around administrator K. Jayakumar's assertion that Kerala was "God's Own Country". The prime movers in the private sector were hotelier Jose Dominic, travel agent E.M. Najeeb and tour operator and transporter P.D. Joseph. The Government of India chipped in by organising complimentary airline tickets. According to the central Ministry of Tourism's Joint Secretary, Amitabh Kant, and State Secretary of Tourism, T. Balakrishnan, they wanted to showcase Kerala as a global brand. Kant and Balakrishnan are widely acknowledged as the people who got the administrative wheels spinning to propel the trail-blazing KTM.

The success of the first mart exceeded everyone's expectations. A high-profile intensive promotional campaign had Jayakumar's "God's Own Country" branded into the consciousness of world travellers. Suddenly, international tourists discovered a green land with a vivid mosaic of cultures, traditions, faiths, lifestyles, handicrafts, arts and cuisines. Kerala became one of the favoured destinations of the Millennium.

Building on the success of KTM 2000, a more ambitious KTM 2002 was planned.

The colourful inaugural of the second mart put many of Kerala's dance forms on display, but, even more important than this sight and sound extravaganza were the speeches. Chief Minister A.K. Antony left no doubt of this Government's dedication to tourism. He said that his Cabinet had increased the allocation for this sector five fold in the 10th Five Year Plan. And Tourism Minister, Professor K.V. Thomas's talk was an inspiring exposition of the many geographical and social advantages of Kerala as a tourist destination.

On three successive days we walked around the bustling travel mart talking to some of the many buyers and sellers at the 172 stalls. The Director of PATA's Discovery Tours and President of Arizona-based Monarch International, Marianne Podoyak, was ecstatic about the ATM 2002. "Fantastic," she said. "The people here did not just hand out brochures... (they) sat down to tell us all about their product."

Ravi Shankar of Poovar Island Resort said, "The quality of buyers has been much better (than KTM 2000)."

Mini Chandran of Sundale Vacations, marketing home-stay and cookery classes in Ayesha Manzil, weaving and art and architecture holidays, was visited by serious buyers from Hungary, France, Malaysia and Singapore.

Sunil Nair, of Kerala's pioneering adventure tour operators, Kalypso Tours, was delighted. "We were not expecting this response. We've been visited by buyers from Belgium, Holland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Malaysia and Brunei. We'll definitely be here at the next KTM."

Senior travel agent, O.P. Ahuja summed it up in a few words. He said: "This is the best (travel mart) in India. Its potential is great."

The mart has shown that even small sellers, like those of the flower-bright Tranquil plantation resort, specialising in home stays, can meet buyers from 41 countries by having a stall in the KTM. At KTM 2000, there were buyers from only 32 countries. But the increasing popularity of the KTM could outgrow the space available and then the society will have to decide to either exclude sellers from neighbouring States to maintain the Kerala-centric character of the mart, or move to the larger premises.

Then there are the looming problems of over-development such as pollution and the construction of concrete eyesores like the complex of the Sports Authority of India marring the backwaters. We also encountered the first stirrings of fundamentalism and renewed social unrest of the Fabian kind.

Finally, will the KTM succumb to political and bureaucratic pressures and lose its dynamic synergy?

Kerala has shown the other States that it can market its own, unique, attractions very effectively. But, in doing so, it should remember that even in God's Own Country of Eden there were lurking dangers.

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