Kerala, a small strip of land spread over 38,863 Sq.km, is located in the southern part of Indian peninsula. This nature blessed land is the abode of salubrious climate, evergreen scenery, forest, mountains, rivers, backwaters, fairs and festivals. All these coupled with vision and creativity turned the land into a tourist paradise, popularly known as God’s own Country. Planned efforts to promote tourism in Kerala were initiated in 1970’s by establishing Kovalam International Beach Resort. Realizing the proactive role that tourism can play in development, the Government declared tourism as an industry in 1986. The synergy between public and private sectors that evolved since then has been responsible for the development of tourism industry in Kerala. Today, Kerala offers diverse tourism products that have a strong bearing on environment and society. The unique products of Kerala like Ayurveda, House Boats, Backwaters and Village Life Experience have immensely helped to strengthen and popularize the tourism brand of Kerala globally. The latest addition to the basket of tourism products is village life experience packages. The package offers opportunity to experience and enjoy rural living which is built on the strong foundations of tradition, culture and environment. Kerala Tourism is witnessing continuous and steady growth in tourist arrivals. The state offered hospitality to 10 million tourists during 2012.
Realizing the role of tourism in deciding the growth momentum, efforts were taken in Kerala to enable the community to take an active role in tourism development. A public debate in this direction was mooted in 2007 involving elected representatives, NGOs, policy makers, industry practitioners, community leaders, social activists, environmentalist, media persons, academicians etc., which decided to promote Responsible Tourism (RT) Kerala giving due emphasis to triple bottom line approach – economic, social and environmental aspects. The Government of Kerala also decided to launch RT initiatives in the state on a pilot basis in May 2007 in four destinations that are known for their tourism attractions. The destinations selected were Kovalam (beach destination), Kumarakom (back water destination) Periyar (forest destination) and Wayanad (hill station).
Basically the RT initiative in Kerala adopted a trial and error mechanism where learning by doing was given prominence. To begin with, it was decided to take up economic aspect which was expected to bring home more tangible and visible results to stakeholders. As a prelude to this, an assessment of the daily requirements of hotels and resorts that can be met by the local community was made. Production groups were formed by organizing the poor and the marginalized. They were given financial and technical support. The RT initiatives in Kumarakom have reached 1350 direct beneficiaries through this project. Once production started, the issue of procurement and ensuring regular and timely supply along with quality standards emerged. To mitigate these issues, dialogues were initiated between industry players and community under the leadership of Destination Committees and Local Self Government. Quality Assurance Committee, Price Committee, procurement Groups and Supply Groups were formed on the basis of this.
Though the Government took a key role in promoting RT initiative, support was withdrawn in 2010 under the firm belief that this initiative will sustain itself under the leadership of Grama Panchayat. However, things did not work well and RT initiative at Kumarakom experienced a setback which was reflected in fall in production, irregular supply and withdrawal of hotels and resorts from the local market. In this contest it was decided to continue the support of Department of tourism to accomplish the socio economic and environmental objectives of RT. Baseline data on all the above three areas were collected and an action plan was prepared to achieve desired goals in a time bound manner. By giving equal importance to social, economic and environmental aspects, KITTS (Nodal Agency for Responsible Tourism) is moving ahead to equip Kumarakom to become a model RT destination. In this process, all stakeholders are expected to work in unison to minimize negative impacts and maximize benefits that are hidden in the industry. With a sound history of participatory mode of development in Kerala, it is believed that this goal can be realized in the immediate future.
Now there are eight declared destinations practicing Responsible Tourism. Kumarakom, Kovalam, Thekkady, Vythyry, Ambalavayal, Kumbalangi, Bekal and Miziris are the Responsible Tourism practicing destinations under Kerala responsible Tourism project. Kumarakom is the most successful destination among them. Kumarakom Responsible Tourism initiative has strong support by Kumarakom Panchayat (Local Self Government).Like Kumarakom, all destinations focused on Economic, Social and Environment Responsibilities under the initiative. Activities under economic responsibilities were designed in such a way that all stakeholders in tourism should be finally benefitted economically. So the priority of economic responsibility is emphasis on local production and procurement local products from the destination. In such a way Kumarakom earned 2, 78, 54,862 Rupees from the RT initiative. More than 45 local production units, 610 homestead farms, 450 farmers and 600 Kudumbashree workers are involved in the project. The products are local vegetables, local fruits, chips, soaps, candles, egg, milk and its value added products, handicrafts etc. As part of social responsibility, the project mainly focusing on the protection of traditional livelihood activities (traditional labor like weaving, pottery making, toddy tapping, fishing activities, coconut tree climbing, tribal livelihood activities ,farming activities, coconut leaf weaving, screw pine weaving etc.), art and culture through tourism. For this purpose RT initiative formed various Village life experience packages, art and culture groups like Thiruvathira, Kolkali etc. by village women (house wives), handicraft units of local artisans at Kumarakom .All other RT destinations are also moving through the same manner. Village life experience tour package developed a new model in Tourism sector, which converted the traditional livelihood activities are Community Based Tourism products (CBT Products). The guest can experience the unique livelihood activities in the traditional work field and 90% of the package cost directly dividing for the traditional labors.
The Environment responsibility part mainly focusing on environment protection activities like control in plastic usage (promotion of paper bag and cloth bags), mangrove protection and regeneration campaigns, promotion of value added products from waste ( paper pen, paper jewellery, coconut shell products etc.), promotion of bamboo products, carbon neutral programmes like promotion of cycle tour packages and electric scooter packages, save backwater campaign ( promotion of rowing canopies and country boats) etc. Tree sampling campaign and other routine environmental protection activities are also part of the project. Local community of Kumarakom, Thekkady, Kovalam and Wayanad (Vythyry and Ambalavayal) – these 4 destinations started the production supply mechanism (other destinations started its field level activities like unit identification, trainings, unit formation etc.) earned 7.8 crore Rupees (INR 7.8 Cr) as part of this initiative. The beneficiaries of this project had no earnings from tourism industry and they had no idea about the tourism potential of their activities before RT project. Now Kerala RT initiative started a product networking system of Producers named Kerala Responsible Tourism Networking which is an innovative movement in tourism sector.
Dept. of Tourism decided to extend the initiative to 114 Local self-Governments and a new project declared as God’s own country People’s own Tourism. The project won 11 awards including UNWTO Ulysses award, PATA Gold and Grand awards, and National Tourism Awards. The approach Paper to the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017) of the Planning Commission, Government of India lays down the overall strategy for enabling tourism to realize its potential. It emphasised the need to adopt a “pro-poor tourism” approach aimed at increasing the net benefits to the poor from tourism and ensure that tourism growth contributes to poverty reduction. The commission has made a comprehensive mention about the success story of the RT initiatives at Kumarakom. The commission highlighted the need for the pro-poor approach of the Government of Kerala to be emulated by other states of India so as to position India as a Responsible Tourism Destination. This is the biggest endorsement of Department of Tourism; Government of Kerala has done so far in implementing Responsible Tourism initiative in the State. Various countries like Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Srilanka and various NGOs from India and abroad visited these destinations to study about the project and they started their own models based on Kerala RT initiative. Various universities in India and abroad started studies about Kerala model Responsible Tourism. Eminent personalities including Dr: Harold Goodwin (ICRT London) and AllaPereslova (UN SILK Route Programme Head) etc. were visited RT Destinations and commented positively. UN declared Kumarakom Responsible Tourism project as one of the world model for sustainable tourism development. Once again Kerala made a model of Participatory tourism development through the practice of Kerala Responsible Tourism.