Maravanthuruthu, a tiny panchayat, nearly 40 km from Kottayam, resembles a picturesque, pastoral scene from a Malayalam film. Flowing languidly along banks lush with tropical plants, coconut palms and flowering shrubs, the jade green Arival thodu (canal), connects two tributaries of Muvattupuzha river at Aaatuvelakkadavu and Panjipalam. Flower-laden paths lead to the stream, while a road parallel to the stream features paintings on compound walls and houses on both sides.
Recently, Maravanthuruthu panchayat was in the news on account of the first water street and art street in Kerala, thanks to an initiative led by Kerala Tourism, which is developing a new tourism model based on community involvement.
Maravanthuruthu is one of the destinations under the Sustainable, tangible, responsible, experiential, ethnic, tourism (STREET) project of the State Tourism Department. Manchira, also in Kottayam district, Kanthallur in Idukki, Chekadi in Wayanad, Thrithala and Pattithara in Palakkad, Kadalundi in Kozhikode, Pinarayi and Ancharakkandi in Kannur, and Valiyaparamba in Kasaragod are the other places included in the first phase of STREET, which was launched in November 2021.
The idea is to promote not-so-well-known destinations in Kerala by offering experiential trips that showcase the lifestyle, culture and food that could be specific to those places. For instance, Kanthallur, near Munnar, in the lap of the Western Ghats, is one of the places in Kerala where apples, oranges, strawberries and so on are cultivated. Clusters of residents are being formed at Kanthallur to involve the community in the project through resource mapping. Valiyaparamba is a beautiful isle, where resource mapping is on, under the leadership of the panchayat.
Minister for Tourism PA Mohammad Riyaz states: “We want to promote places with tourism potential with the help of the community to make the plan sustainable and economically viable for the residents of those places. The STREET project envisages such places to be developed thematically, by focussing on food, adventure, water sports, handicrafts etc, which will be of interest to domestic and international tourists.”
As an example of a thematic food street, PB Nooh, Kerala Tourism Director, cites the example of coastal Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram district, which, he says, has several advantages to be developed into a seafood hub. “Situated close to the beautiful shoreline are several eateries serving excellent fresh seafood. The department’s intervention could help give a facelift to make their facades look attractive. With some awareness sessions on waste disposal, maintenance of hygiene, customer relations etc, I see no reason why it cannot be one of the top go-to places in the district,” he says.
At such places, the Tourism Department will handhold stakeholders to help them add value to their businesses and enhance the community’s income. But the community is expected to lead from the front in all places. The project, hopes the Minister, will lead to the cleaning and conservation of waterbodies and the environment, as has been the case of Maravanthuruthu.
TK Suvarnan, an activist of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a popular movement for science awareness, in Marvanthuruthu, explains, “When K Rupesh Kumar, state coordinator of Responsible Tourism Mission Kerala, shared with the residents the details of STREET, we were convinced that this would give our panchayat a new direction and open up economic opportunities. Cleanliness is a must for any panchayat to even dream of becoming a tourist destination. We formed 35-member clusters of residents in all 15 wards in the panchayat and conducted awareness sessions. We began with wards 11 and 12, the area around Arival thodu, so called because it is shaped like a sickle ( arival),” explains Suvaranan.
In 2021, the clusters in wards 11 and 12 began clearing plastic waste and garbage from the area and the Arival thodu. Over the years, the thodu, once a lifeline for residents living on its banks had become a stagnant waterbody filled with waste. Through the community initiative, residents removed the invasive weeds, garbage and plastic waste clogging the river after covering the banks with geo-coir mats to protect it from erosion.
What is special about Maruvanthurthu is that its boundaries are defined by the Vembanad Lake and the Muvattupuzha river. Canals and streams crisscross the panchayat, explains KG Vijayan, a retired government employee and activist of the KSSP. He says the abundance of navigable waterbodies is the reason why the first waterway in Kerala was conceptualised in this panchayat.
Perhaps, it is the first time that such a project was sustained by the community with the expenses of cleaning and beautifying the panchayat borne by the residents themselves. “Since a model at Maravanthuruthu has been successful, we hope to replicate this model in other places as well and train tourism clubs too. Local community and Panchayati Raj taking the initiative to power tourism projects is a result of the Responsible Tourism model,” believes Roopesh.
In February 2022, Aymanam, which Arundhathi Roy put on the map with her booker prize winning novel The God of Small Things, was chosen by Conde Nast as one of the 30 best places in the world to travel to. The picturesque place bagged the honour in part to the Responsible Tourism Village project that was developed there.
Future projects in Kerala will all be led by the community, says Nooh. “There is no lack of opportunities. But we have to identify those, ensure quality, provide memorable experiences, and premium aesthetic products that have a stamp on the State’s culture and lifestyle. That will enhance the livelihood opportunities of the community and keep cultural traditions alive.”